Bishop Jan Sobiło in Ukraine Bishop Jan Sobiło in Ukraine 

Ukrainian bishop offering aid at frontlines: 'We wait for Christmas in the cold'

The auxiliary bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia, Jan Sobiło, recounts the situation in the diocese and the preparations for the birth of Jesus amid terror from bombings and the nuclear threat, saying that over 1,500 people line up daily outside his window for a piece of bread.

By Salvatore Cernuzio – Rzeszóv, Poland

Speaking via video link from Ukraine, Bishop Jan Sobiło says that under the window of his apartment there are 1,500 people standing in line for some food.

"I would show them to you; they are standing in line for a piece of bread, a quarter of a loaf of bread that the Albertini friars are distributing."

The Auxiliary Bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia spoke for about an hour with a group of journalists from various newspapers and nationalities traveling to Poland and Ukraine on a mission organized by the two Embassies to the Holy See.

The bishop apologizes for not being able to be physically present and for missing a few questions from journalists, explaining that "you hear gunfire all the time, and this also changes your way of thinking."

He says he is not afraid and looks forward "with hope" to Christmas. Bishop Sobiło has visited the nuclear power plant in his region twice, and once a week he goes to the front to bring aid to the people. It was in those very areas of risk that he stood alongside Cardinal Konrad Krajewski when the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity came under fire during a visit in September.

Q: Your Excellency, what is the situation today in Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia?

Thousands of people are without electricity, even the pumps that are used to pump water are not working. There is a lack of generators for electricity. If this continues, houses and skyscrapers will become refrigerators. It's getting more and more tragic... Despite the disconnected electricity and the missiles that keep falling, however, people keep coming to church hoping that the Lord will be able to stop the war before the world feels its consequences.


Q: Pope Francis recently sent a Letter to the Ukrainian people and has not failed to make continuous appeals for the tormented country. How do you and your people experience this closeness of the Pope?

It helps a lot... Through Cardinal Krajewski, in the past months the Pope had already sent us material aid and moral support to encourage us bishops and priests. More than two weeks ago I was in the Vatican and had the opportunity to speak with the Holy Father who remarked his support, especially for the people in eastern Ukraine, in the bombed cities. He assured us of his thoughts, his prayers, his love.

Q: Speaking about Krajewski, you went with the Cardinal to the front to bring aid, right?

Yes, during a visit we found ourselves under missile fire. We were forced to flee and hide in the basement. Many colleagues criticized me because we exposed ourselves to this risk and exposed the Cardinal as well. Instead, I believe that it was somewhat helpful because the Cardinal was able to see the situation and the atmosphere of war from a closer perspective.

Q: Are you still bringing aid to the war line?

I try to go to the front once a week, but these visits must be very short. Last Friday, as soon as we got there, artillery fire started. There are spies and informers warning of our arrival, we had to flee immediately.

We stop at most 5 minutes, leave what we brought and run. However, we manage to bring the local people first of all food items, then water to drink that these people have not had access to for over 6 months.


Q: Bishop Sobiło, Christmas is approaching. How do you spiritually live this moment?

While I was waiting for the meeting with the Holy Father at the Vatican, I looked at St. Peter's Square from the window, they were decorating the Christmas tree. I thought, I wonder if we in Zaporizhzhia will also be able to have a tree in the square. I don't think so, however, we in the Church and in homes will prepare for the arrival of Jesus.

Our preparations are first of all spiritual. Christ was born in a dark, cold cave with the light of a candle, and we will also welcome the newborn Jesus in the warmth of our hearts, despite the cold around. We are absolutely aware that Christmas this year will be different so we are also preparing homilies and sermons to help people experience it peacefully.

Q: What can people be told to keep hope?

I think it is important to talk about the meaning of life in Heaven. On earth, our life has a few years, a few dozen.... However, we always have the possibility to choose eternity, next to God in the fullness of life in Heaven.

Here the situation is unstable, some people lose their legs, some lose family members, everything is uncertain, but our soul is immortal before God. Jesus Christ was born, He gave us the meaning of life, the meaning of the cross, the true freedom that is after death, He created a place for us in Heaven. It is this hope that allows us not to be afraid.

Q: As a pastor, you’ve also had the opportunity to talk to people who have seen their relatives die or end up victims of violence. Do they have this hope? Can you comfort them?

I can talk about two situations I witnessed: when I was at the front, I met a woman who was desperate because a missile had fallen on their house, and her 23-year-old daughter died decapitated. The mother could not bury her in the cemetery. This woman's despair was enormous. I told her that her daughter came back to the Lord and she will not suffer anymore, she is happy because she went where we all have to go. We are exposed to suffering, but she is now spared. I think I have touched her heart, she was relieved.

The same thing happened with a grandfather whose granddaughter was raped and killed. He was desperate as well and said, 'Why did God allow these atrocities?' The Lord does not want war; He loves the people and prepares everyone for Heaven. I am sure, as Father Maximilian Kolbe taught us, that love wins, that love for others is the real victory. That will be the case in this situation as well. After the war, the world will be different, reborn, even spiritually.

Q: Besides spiritual preparation, what are you planning to better experience Christmas?

We want to live it as one family, the war paradoxically united us all. Concretely we will try not to leave anyone with an empty table, those who have something will share it with others.

We will prepare parcels, we will visit people, I am thinking of older parishioners or refugees. We will all be together, we want to share the bread. No one should be left without Eucharist and without agape (the Greek word for unconditional love, ed.).

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07 December 2022, 14:54