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Fr. Petro Maika is a priest belonging to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He serves in Izium, which was under Russian occupation for six months. The area where the church was to be built before the war is now mined so he conducts all pastoral work in a basement. “We grit our teeth and pray for peace, because it is very difficult to live through another winter of war in Ukraine,” he says.
War changes not only people’s hearts, but also pastoral care. “The block of apartments where I live was damaged by the shock wave from a bomb. Instead of glass, we have boards in the windows, and a searing cold pushes in through the gaps. We celebrate liturgies at a tiny table in the basement,” says Fr. Maika.
But although conditions are difficult, the people are in great need of a priest, so he refuses to abandon them. “Although the hearts of the local people are badly scarred by communism, they are now becoming fertile ground for the seeds of faith,” he reflects. He doesn’t give big catecheses, he says, but is with the people: the poor among the poor.
Facing war as priests with a family
Fr. Oleh Panchyniak, also of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, recently returned from the front. As married men can be ordained to the priesthood in the Eastern Church, both he and Fr. Maika have families. One of Fr. Panchyniak’s sons is fighting in eastern Ukraine, while another is training recruits near Lviv. The eldest has just graduated from seminary and will follow in his father’s footsteps. His wife helps him organize support for the needy and manages the entire humanitarian aid machine.
“On the one hand, we have support; on the other hand, it’s harder for me to go into the realities of war when we fear for our families,” says Fr. Maika.
He adds, “Over the past two years, even for non-believers, the Church has become a symbol of concrete mercy. We try to use this humanitarian aspect to preach the Gospel.”
A line of people in need of help stands at his door every day. “Mothers ask for food and warm clothes for their children, elderly people for medicine and blankets, and everyone for wood stoves,” says the Ukrainian priest. It’s getting harder, he adds, because less aid is arriving.
“The world is getting used to war. Other needs are arising, such as now the war in Gaza, and we have to survive somehow,” he adds. In his fledgling parish, mutual assistance is flourishing and, he says, people have become more sensitive to the needs of neighbors and even of complete strangers in need.
After the start of the Russian aggression, Fr. Panchyniak didn’t leave his parish in Brovary, east of Kyiv, although most people left the town at that time. He stayed with a handful of those who didn’t know where to flee.
Forgiveness is yet to come
He says that this time allowed him to understand Jesus’ words in practice: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” Previously, he says, he was able to justify these words with beautiful theology, but now they’ve become a reality for him, as his entire nation is carrying the cross behind Jesus. For the people who are slowly returning to the town, he’s the embodiment of a helping hand and a big heart.
Both priests emphasize that a huge battle is being waged at this time — not only for freedom, but also to save the good in people’s hearts.
“A mass grave was recently discovered in Izium; 400 massacred bodies were pulled out of it. Looking at this immense barbarism, it’s hard not to think about revenge.”
But, Fr. Maika insists, “There is still time to talk about forgiveness.”
Fr. Maika confesses that the most difficult moment of the entire war for him was saying goodbye to his son who was fighting at the front: “I was leaving hell for home, and he was staying in hell. I wanted it to be the other way around: I wanted to put him in the car and stay there instead.”
Seeing the enormity of the evil taking place, he says he dreams of his son “returning from the front having remained a man, because having found himself on the front line, even though he didn’t want to, he had to open fire, shoot people. This forever leaves a stigma in the heart even when you know you did it defending your homeland.”
Gospel in times of darkness
Human misfortune and pain are moving many people to action. Ukrainian priests often hear from volunteers that they act for the sake of victory, that they act because they want to prove that there is still good in the world. “Our great sermon is how we are currently serving the poor. This outreach and service to society that the Church is doing is a living Gospel and embodies the teaching of Jesus,” says Fr. Panchyniak.
In this dark time, the Gospel is becoming more vital in Ukraine. He recalls the servicemen, whom he also helps, asking for prayer and assuring him, “We will return from the front and still pray together.”
He can’t even count how many of their graves he has prayed over since then. “We believe that peace will come, even though the price that Ukraine has to pay for it is really great,” says Fr. Maika. He asks the people of the world not to turn their eyes away from the suffering of his homeland, and to surround it with prayer.