Church in Ukraine stands by suffering people in Kharkiv
By Svitlana Dukhovych
Every Thursday in front of the Greek Catholic Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Kharkiv, a long line of people begins to form in the early morning hours. Here, the local Caritas chapter distributes humanitarian aid to young people, adults, children, and the elderly, who, despite the constant bombing, have remained in their hometown. Among them are also those who had left for the western regions of Ukraine or abroad at the beginning of the war, but then returned after the Russian army was pushed back further east.
A small flock
In the courtyard of the cathedral, still under reconstruction, Bishop Vasyl Tuchapets, Archiepiscopal Exarch of Kharkiv for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, walks among the people. People stop him to thank him for the aid and to wish him a happy birthday as the bishop has just turned 55. He has also remained in Kharkiv since the beginning of the war, despite the fact that it is not his hometown. He comes from the opposite side of the country, from the Lviv region, but has remained with his flock, albeit a relatively small one: some 20 parishes scattered over the territory of the three regions - Kharkiv, Sumy, and Poltava - with 25 priests, three female religious communities (eight nuns in total) and one male religious community (three priests and one friar).
Together in difficult times
"At the beginning of the war," the Exarch says, "some of our parishes, such as those in Vilcha and Izum, were occupied by the Russians and we had to evacuate our priests from there. Now these places are liberated and we are trying to give both humanitarian and spiritual support to those who remained."
In the other parishes, all the priests have stayed with their communities even in difficult times. For example in Sumy, which was surrounded by the Russian military, the parish priest stayed there with the people and for a while also took care of the Latin Catholics while their parish priest was absent."
Bishop Vasyl explains that almost the entire territory of the Kharkiv region has been liberated by the military; however, the humanitarian situation remains critical: most factories and businesses are at a standstill, and stores are closed. Surviving in these conditions is very difficult, which is why so many residents have left, and those who have remained manage to get by only thanks to humanitarian aid.
More recently, a lot of people from the former Russian-occupied territories are moving to the capital, because those places are almost completely destroyed, and in the city, they hope to find some help to survive the winter.
"They too need warm clothes and blankets, some food, etc.," the bishop says. "There are also many families with children. So many people are asking for medicine. And we are trying to find all these things, which is not easy, because we get very little humanitarian aid lately. Therefore, I ask everyone who can help to send us food items, baby food, winter clothes, and blankets, and medicine." The Kharkiv Exarch also notes that representatives of the Diocese of Como (Italy) recently brought them aid that they collected in their parishes, and also personally helped distribute it to the people.
Starting anew to transmit the faith
The Greek Catholic Exarchate of Kharkiv is quite young. In 2014, following the division of the Donetsk-Kharkiv Exarchate, two separate exarchates were created: one in Donetsk and the other in Kharkiv. Bishop Tuchapets says church structures are still under development, and the construction of St. Nicholas Cathedral itself is not quite finished. The war has stopped these projects, but it has not stopped the desire of the young exarch and all the clergy to offer concrete help and spiritual support every day.
The east of Ukraine, in a sense, can be considered the territory of the first announcement. "So many years of atheist propaganda have left deep marks," explains the exarch. "The chain of the transmission of faith from one generation to the next has been broken, that is why so many people are far from the Church, from God, and have not yet found their way of faith or are embracing it now."
A profound experience as a young priest
In many villages of the Kharkiv region, there is not even a church. Often there is only one in the capital of a district that unites about 50 settlements. Father Andriy Nasinnyk, director from Caritas of the Kharkiv Exarchate, talks about this with some amazement, because in the west of Ukraine, where he comes from, every village has its own church, or even more. Six years ago, after finishing seminary, the young priest felt a calling to serve "there where there was a lack of priests."
Life has also given him the gift of seeing how valuable his presence is right there. "When we go to visit the small villages that have recently been liberated," he says, "it happens that I enter the homes of people who had never spoken to a priest before. And when I get there, I meet for example an elderly person and learn that it is I, a servant of God, who is the first priest she meets in her life. It makes an impression on me to think that I am worthy of this honor... These moments deepen my faith and give me the conviction that my priestly service has an important result: that I don't just come to a church where people are waiting for me, but I go to someone who was not expecting to meet me. And when we are able to establish a relationship and talk about different things and also about spiritual issues, it changes my perception of priesthood: it makes me realize that I can not only take care of the parish, but I can see my service in the broader perspective."
Still staying with the people
When asked if he has ever thought about leaving Kharkiv, Fr. Andrij replied, "No, because looking into the eyes of the people we help, I understand how important this help is for them. We have to provide people with the most basic things so that they are able to think of something higher, and more beautiful. And here in Kharkiv, new challenges arise every day, also because winter is approaching."
The Caritas organization of the Greek Catholic Exarchate, with its 55 workers and many volunteers, works to offer basic aid and lend a hand to people to prepare for winter: they help change broken windows (they have already taken measurements in 500 homes); they bring wood to villages, where people use wood stoves, while for city dwellers they buy electric stoves instead. Their main activity remains the distribution of parcels with food, medicine, hygiene kits; social workers bring aid to the disabled and elderly to their homes. The Caritas team also includes psychologists who work with children and adults, and lawyers who often help those who have lost their documents.
Coming to the church for the first time
For many Kharkiv residents, their first encounter with the Church has occurred during these eight months of the war. "So many are coming to the faith," says the director of Caritas, "because when one perceives that his life no longer depends on himself, he begins to think about who he can turn to for support. So many people for the first time turn to God, they come to the church for the first time because they are seeking relief. So, they come to us not only because we offer them help, but because here they are looking for something safe, lasting, eternal, what they cannot find in the world."
"Even people who are far from the Church," Bishop Tuchapets adds, "really appreciate the fact that the priests, bishops, and religious have stayed with them."
"Once," the prelate recalls, "with some priests I was standing in front of the building where we live, and we met three young men who live in our apartment building. They told us two things: 'Pray that this will end as soon as possible,' and 'thank you for staying with us.' The Church stands by the people in this difficult time of war, tries to help them with what it can, and this is the testimony of our living Christian faith."