By Svitlana Dukhovych - Vatican City
Since February last, the light of Candlemas has continued to burn in the homes of Ukrainians. Thanks to the "Candles of Stritennya" the hearts of many poor people, whose conditions have worsened due to the hardships caused by the pandemic, have been lifted. In Ukraine, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord is amongst the most important observances of the liturgical year, for both Orthodox and Greek Catholics who celebrate it on 15 February, according to the Julian calendar."
In Ukrainian, this feast is called "Stritennya", which means "meeting" because it recalls the Gospel event in which Simeon meets Jesus in the Temple and recognizes him as the light of the world, a "light for revelation to the people". The symbol of this solemnity is a candle that the faithful bring to church to be blessed during the Divine Liturgy: the "Stritennya candle" is then kept at home almost throughout the year.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Office for Ecology launched the initiative entitled: "Warm the poor with the light of the Stritennya candle" which saw the organization of several candle-making workshops using only natural wax. The candles were then taken to various parishes where the faithful were able to buy them and have them blessed on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The money raised from the sales was given to the Caritas Ivano-Frankivsk soup kitchen in Western Ukraine.
In the beginning, it was mostly people who worked at the Ecology Office or at the local Caritas who attended the workshops. Then several local Caritas offices in other cities such as Ternopil, Chernivtsi and Khmelnytskyi decided to participate in the initiative.
Reaching out to the poor
Volodymyr Sheremeta, Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) Bureau for Environmental Issues, explains that “This initiative was inspired by Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato si' and by the letter released in October 2020 by the Synod of Greek Catholic Bishops entitled “You will be left with one thing: what you gave to the poor!”. Thanks to this letter, another initiative was also launched at the national level: “Feed the poor”. Our purpose is to see the other and extend our hands in solidarity with the poor, and at the same time promote a culture of responsibility towards creation". "Some candles, Professor Sheremeta says, “have been decorated with flowers made of cotton threads, each of which is an original design and will remain as a beautiful reminder of our love for our neighbour. Others are decorated using hibiscus seeds which can be planted, thus contributing to the restoration of the beauty and harmony of our world."
"Warm the poor with the flame of the Stritennya candle" is one of the many initiatives launched by the Office for Ecology, through which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church raises awareness of the importance of caring for creation. This awareness has its roots in the 1930s-40s when the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the time, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, established protected natural areas that later became the first national park in the Eastern European nation. Even then, the need for a responsible attitude toward nature was part of the pastoral ministry of the Church. After the period during which the Church had to go underground, Ukrainian Greek Catholics were able to put into practice concretely and publicly the Church’s teaching regarding care for Creation, in the footsteps of their predecessors. Through the Office for Ecology, founded in 2007, the UGCC seeks to promote the believers' responsible attitude towards creation and to cultivate ecological awareness in society through information, educational activities and practical projects. This very office has edited the translation of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato si' and organizes several events to make it known to the faithful.
A concrete sign of solidarity
"'The cry of the earth and the cry of the poor can wait no longer," the Pontiff had stressed in his video message for the Laudato si' Week initiative in 2020, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the encyclical from which the Special Year sprang. His words also reached Ukraine. The initiative "Warm the poor with the light of the candle of Stritennya" becomes a concrete sign of solidarity with the needy, remembering also the gifts of creation.
"Thanks to this candle we have been able to restore hope to people in difficult conditions, to show them everything that the candle symbolizes: light, hope, affection, warmth," says Fr Volodymyr Chorniy, director of Caritas Ivano-Frankivsk. "Thanks to this initiative we managed to raise funds for the Caritas Ivano-Frankivsk soup kitchen. With this money we will be able to cover the cost of 2,300 meals, that’s eight days of activity in our canteen providing food for some 300 to 350 people daily".