ICMC grateful for Pope's appeals and prayers for peace in Ukraine
By Thaddeus Jones
Reacting to the Pope's latest appeal for a ceasefire in Ukraine and dialogue for finding peace, Msgr. Robert Vitillo, secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) has expressed his gratitude for the Pope's words saying he hopes that it gives impetus to find ways to halt the conflict and work for a peaceful solution. ICMC serves as the convenor of a Working Group called the Catholic Response for Ukraine, which includes major Catholic humanitarian organizations involved in assisting Ukrainian refugees and displaced peoples.
ICMC just finished a two day strategic planning session of the Working Group looking at the needs of those affected by war. Catholic Response for Ukraine meets regularly to review the situation in the country, share key information about their respective efforts, identify gaps, avoid duplication of efforts, and promote advocacy to strengthen the Catholic Church's extensive and wide-ranging outreach to those affected by the war.
Among the working group members are the International Catholic Migration Commission or ICMC, which serves as the convenor of the group, Caritas Internationalis, Caritas Europe, Jesuit Refugee Services Europe, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe and the Sovereign Order of Malta, Depaul International, the Knights of Columbus, Stella Maris, and the Catholic Health Association of the United States. The working group collaborates closely with the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
Msgr. Vitillo gave the following interview to Vatican Radio/Vatican News about the Pope's appeals and the conclusion of the Catholic Response to Ukraine's meetings in recent days.
Msgr. Vitillo: I am very grateful to have this appeal made by Pope Francis. As the convenor of the Catholic Response for Ukraine, which is a working group of major Catholic global organisations working in Ukraine through the locals as well as some working directly as international organisations. We just completed a two day strategic planning session looking at the needs coming into the winter and toward the future and the needs are tremendous and they're not going away. So I think this is very, very important also for the Pope to refocus us as well as the international community on the need to work for peace. And while we continue to help the people who are being so terribly affected in Ukraine and those refugees and the neighboring countries and throughout the world even, we really need to see that war is not going to solve these problems. We're seeing the impact not simply in the tragic loss of life, which can never be compensated, but also in the impact of the on the people in terms of their psychological health, in terms of their family relationships, and in terms of the suffering and the loss of hope. So I think that this message of the Holy Father brings them hope, reminding the world that we have to be working for peace while we're also responding to their deep needs right now.
Would you say also his previous appeals have helped give people hope?
I think the Pope's consistent message about needing dialogue for peace is very much appreciated. And I can tell you from my own visit to Ukraine this past July, many people thanked me for bringing the concern of the Church to them, for letting them know that the world does care about them, and also especially about the Holy Father's constant concern for them and his appeals for peace.
Do you think these direct appeals can have some bearing and influence on world leaders?
To me, this is the special role of the Church for us to be able to be constantly bringing the deeper situations, encouraging world leaders to look beyond their immediate political decisions at that time and to see the larger impact over time. And so I do believe that the Holy Father's voice is a strong voice. You can see the many heads of state who want to come to speak to him. And I think that that we need to continue this kind of involvement. I'm not a diplomat, but I do very much appreciate the work of the Holy See in the diplomatic sphere, and especially that the Holy See…brings the word of God to people and to help focus entirely on the value of life from conception to natural death.
Tell me about this latest meeting you had on Ukraine, bringing together all the Catholic realities out there, helping the people, helping refugees and those needing assistance.
My organization, ICMC, was asked to convene the Catholic Response for Ukraine Working Group, which is made up of all of the major Catholic humanitarian organizations at the global level. So, the Caritas International Confederation, Jesuit Refugee Services, ICMC - our organization, also the Sovereign Order of Malta, and a number of other organizations like the Knights of Columbus, the Vincentians – known as DePaul International, and also Stella Maris the organization for seafarers. And we also have the Catholic Health Association of the United States involved in in this working group.
We gathered here in Rome and remotely as well, it was a hybrid meeting, to assess the work that we've done since very early March, only a couple of weeks after the invasion of Ukraine. Art that time, we were called together here in Rome to see how we could collaborate with each other, share information, learn from each other, track the data on the situation of the humanitarian situation in Ukraine and in the surrounding countries, and then identify the gaps and the needs that we saw on the ground through our members on the ground and try to find the ways to fill those gaps. And we've been doing that together for the last several months now. We gathered for two days this week to look toward the winter and knowing that certainly the winter will be a very, very difficult situation, not only in Ukraine itself, but also in the surrounding countries, because many of them were depending on the fuel that was coming, both gas and oil coming from Russia, also then to look into the longer term future and see what do we anticipate we will need to do when peace does arrive and when we'll be able to work on rehabilitation in Ukraine and on longer term development.
What are the biggest challenges at this time?
Well, first of all, we put together our data on what we've been doing, and it's just amazing the kinds of work that we're doing, both in terms of humanitarian assistance from basic needs to shelter to health care and to education, both within Ukraine and of Ukrainian children who are in surrounding countries but may not be able to access the schooling in those host countries or who want to stay within the education system of Ukraine and therefore are following in a virtual manner, in a remote manner. Also, the spiritual needs and looking at the tremendous mental health and psychosocial support needs that are necessary, especially because of the trauma, the violence, the separation of families. Most of the people who have become refugees in host countries are the mothers and children, because younger men and even middle- aged men are not allowed to leave Ukraine because they may be called up in the military. So, all those factors contribute to tremendous psychological burden. And our organizations are responding to those needs. The amount of care and support that's being given through the Catholic network is really impressive. And it's not only from the organizations themselves, but it's back to the parishes, the dioceses, the religious orders all reaching out to help people. Also, many of the people themselves, Catholic people and others who are inspired to open up their homes, to accompany people to doctors, to make sure that they have enough food to eat and again, to tutor and to follow the children who are refugees or displaced in Ukraine itself.
About the kinds of needs that we see, first of all, we see that there still is a need for basic assistance, even in terms of accessing food from outside. Sometimes people would say, why are you doing that since it probably isn't necessary anymore. Well, in the testimonies we heard from both the director of Caritas Ukraine, which is the Greek Catholic Organization and Caritas Spes, which is the Latin Catholic organization in Ukraine, they made it very clear that there still is a need for some of these items. But then again, we as working group members try to prioritize to buy what we can in Ukraine so that it helps the people in Ukraine and also the prices are much less. But there still is a lot of trucking in of basic assistance and hygiene items and they're needed. Also, the housing situation is still one that's very uncertain. Many of the displaced people in Ukraine have been placed in convents and monasteries and seminaries in schools. And now, as Ukrainian children are trying to go back to school, then there's a need to house these people. For the winter, we anticipate that this is going to be an even bigger problem because it won't only be in the fact that there will be heating problems, but also so many of the buildings in Ukraine, especially in the eastern part of Ukraine, which have been bombarded constantly, have no windows. And so, you know, you have these structures without any windows. And it's not only going to be that there's no heat, but the deep cold is going to be coming in as well. So that's a big issue that's been troubling us quite a bit.
Also, health needs. The UN estimates that about 660 health facilities have been partially or totally destroyed during the war. Also, we heard from our colleagues in Ukraine that ten percent of all the schools have been damaged. And so, you could see that there are many, many infrastructure problems that that we're trying to find the ways to best support.
And then there are the pastoral needs, the spiritual needs. And we have within our working group, the Council of European Bishops Conferences and also the Council of European Bishops Conferences in the EU. And in both cases, we're trying to track the spiritual needs, especially of those who are refugees and even those who are displaced within Ukraine and work with the local hierarchies there so that we could get the priests and the chaplains who are able to support people both inside Ukraine and outside of Ukraine. So, these are many of the needs that we're seeing.
We also talked a lot about communications and what kind of communications we should be involved in and trying to focus not only on our own individual organization’s responses, but to focus on the wider area and how the working group through its sharing of information on needs and then identify how we could solve those needs, how we're able to make lives better for the people who are directly affected and to hear their voices themselves. So, to share what they have to say about all of this. And certainly when I visited Ukraine last July, I tried to be able to listen very, very carefully and learn from the displaced people in Ukraine and the refugees in Poland on their perspectives, and also try to hear their hopelessness that comes and yet try to help them see that through our working group, the whole Catholic Church is trying to respond and to accompany them as much as we can.
If you were to give suggestions for how people can help in any way directly or indirectly around the world, what would you say?
First of all, to pray, we have to pray for peace. And Pope Francis reminds us of this all the time. Also, we have to advocate so that the countries we're all living in will make it a political priority in those countries to push for peace, to push for dialogue. As bad as the situation seems to be, there has to be a way that people could sit down and find the ways to build peace there. The people want peace. So, we have to pray for this and do all we can to advocate with our governments. And then certainly to support through our help. Sometimes it might be technical expertise that we could offer even remotely or right in these countries that are so deeply affected right now. And then, of course, to support financially those organizations that are part of the Working Group that I've mentioned already. And to know that the Catholic Church provides so much practical support, as well as trying to walk with the refugees. And so, we need the financial support for that. During our assessment, during this week, each of our organizations talked about what they had raised already, but also the big gaps that we still see in the future for the kinds of responses we can give.
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