The refectory in Beryslav The refectory in Beryslav 

Ukrainian priest: Fear of not helping, is greater than of missiles

Father Oleksandr Bilskyi, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, shares firsthand experience of the difficulty of living in the areas most affected by the war and closest to the front line. His wife Iryna recounts the joy of the 'precious' meeting, together with a group of young people, with Pope Francis in Lisbon.

By Svitlana Dukhovych

"It was a meeting in a simple and welcoming atmosphere, at the same time it was very touching."

This is how Iryna Bilska describes to Vatican Radio - Vatican News the conversation the Pope had with a group of young Ukrainians attending the WYD, which took place at the Apostolic Nunciature in Lisbon on 3 August. Bilska, who was present, recounts how "while our young Ukrainians told their stories without being able to hold back their tears, Pope Francis listened to everyone very attentively, offering words of comfort and support. He assured us of his prayers for our Ukrainian people."

Iryna, wife of Father Oleksandr Bilskyi, a Greek Catholic priest, is one of the four adults who accompanied the young people from different parts of Ukraine, which has been devastated by the Russian invasion for a year and a half. "We brought the Holy Father symbolic gifts," Iryna recounts, "ears of wheat, water and bread, to say that the war that is continuing in Ukraine not only brings death and destruction, but there is the risk that it may also bring hunger.

For the Ukrainians, offering a loaf of bread to guests is a traditional gesture of welcome and friendship, and for this reason, as Iryna explains, the young people greatly appreciated that the Pope wanted to share it with them: "Together with him, we ate this bread and drank this water. By sharing the bread with us, he shared our pain, and it was very precious for all of us."

Pope Francis' encounter with group of young Ukrainians who traveled to Lisbon for the WYD
Pope Francis' encounter with group of young Ukrainians who traveled to Lisbon for the WYD

Beryslav's story told to the Pope

All those present at the meeting were scarred by the war, some more, some less. Among them were young people from regions and cities such as Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, places among the hardest hit.

Iryna, accompanied by her two daughters, told Pope Francis the story of Beryslav, a small town in the Kherson region in the south of the country. Although the young woman was not born there, Beryslav has become very dear to her because her husband, Fr Oleksandr, carries out his priestly service in a small local Greek Catholic community, which has become like a family to them.

Beryslav is located on the right bank of the Dnipro river and was occupied by the Russians during the early stages of the invasion of Ukraine. It was liberated by the Ukrainian army the following November. During the nine months of Russian occupation, this small local Greek Catholic community offered daily hot meals for the needy in their canteen, set up inside the newly built church.

When the war began, Fr Oleksandr was not in town, which prevented him from reaching his community throughout the occupation. Nevertheless, although from a distance, he managed to run the canteen. He returned there after the liberation and now continues his ministry, despite the fact that Beryslav is continually bombed.

Father Oleksandr Bilskyi at Vatican Radio
Father Oleksandr Bilskyi at Vatican Radio

The humanitarian situation increasingly critical

"Now in Beryslav and the surrounding villages along the Dnipro river," Don Oleksandr tells Vatican Radio-Vatican News, "the situation is very difficult because on the other side of the river, very close, there are enemy troops. Only four kilometres separate Beryslav from the Russian military, with other villages the distance drops to two or three kilometres.

"This means that everything they have in their arsenal is flying towards us. The destruction is considerable: about 50 percent of the houses in Beryslav have already been damaged. Recently, the area near our parish was hit, a fragment of the missile pierced the stained glass window, bounced off the wall and landed on the bishop's throne, behind the altar. Inside the church were our volunteers, the women, who were preparing lunch for the needy and thank God no one was injured. Another piece of shrapnel entered the wall of the prefabricated house we use as a kitchen, our volunteers were working there too, and they were unharmed." In the streets of Beryslav and also in the courtyard of the parish there are many fragments and shrapnel from the missiles or mortars, tangible signs of the intention to take lives. Iryna took some of them to Lisbon, so that people can touch the real suffering of the people with their own hands. She also gave some to Pope Francis. 

"For a year and a half," Fr Oleksandr continues his account, "Beryslav and the surrounding villages along the Dnipro have been without gas. In many villages there is no electricity and therefore no water. In some villages, water is pumped from wells once or twice a week and people try to stock up. There is therefore a great need for hygiene kits and drinking water. In Beryslav there is some, but not always, because if there is bombing, the electricity goes out and so there is no water. Living in these conditions is very difficult. Of the 12,500 inhabitants who lived in Beryslav before the Russian invasion, there are now about 3,000 left, 120 of whom are children.

"We ask the parents to take their children away, we encourage them to do this, but they have their own convictions and they stay," says Fr Oleksandr with regret, "and we try to help them as much as possible. Now we are starting a campaign to buy these children school kits, because they are still studying, although in that area teaching is online, when there is internet, they need things for school."

The greatest fear is to see people go hungry  

After the priest's account of the missile fragments that arrived in the church, which every day 'transforms' into a large canteen for the needy, the question arises whether people are not afraid to go and eat. "People are afraid, but they are hungry,' answers the parish priest.

"When the situation in the city is calm, more people come, when there is bombing, fewer come, but they still come," he said. "Fear is a concept that is not talked about much in Ukraine. It is natural that people have it, because everyone wants to live. The point is that people manage to overcome it so that they can help their neighbour."

Fr Oleksandr's family lives in Ternopil, in the west of the country, but he goes to Beryslav every week for three or four days and then leaves to look for funds and aid to take to the population. Sometimes he stays in his parish for one or two weeks, depending on the situation and the needs of the inhabitants.

Part of the road he travels to Beryslav passes along the Dnipro river, and it is very risky to travel there.

"Am I afraid? Of course I am afraid," he explains, "but I am more afraid of not being able to bring food to the people in the villages; it is much more frightening to look into their eyes and see disappointed hope. I am not afraid for me so much as for our volunteers who are there every day." 

Fr Oleksandr, with his parishioners and canteen volunteers, firmly believes in the power of prayer. "Only the Lord sustains us," he emphasises, "in prayer gives us the strength to go forward and do good works, so that the people we meet can feel the presence of God and the presence of the Church in their lives in this dark time.

The appeal not to remain indifferent

While Fr Oleksandr was in Rome, visited in passing during a short trip to Europe, his wife Iryna, with their two daughters, was returning from Lisbon, where that unforgettable meeting with Francis had taken place in the context of WYD. "For me it was a great surprise," he says, "because we were informed of the meeting with the Pope the day before it took place. I see this as a great grace from God, which perhaps the Lord wanted to give us to repay us for our small efforts, for becoming instruments in His hands in helping those in need."

Addressing Catholics around the world, Fr Oleksandr thanks all those who have prayed, are praying and will continue to pray for Ukraine. "I would also like to say that we are still suffering," he emphasises, "we have great wounds in our souls and bodies and that the entire Ukrainian people are suffering, from the largest to the smallest.

"The war does not stop and we continue to suffer. And that is why we ask you to speak of our wounds, our pain, so that everyone, the entire world community, will do everything possible to stop the aggressor who has entered our land and who wants to destroy the Ukrainian people. We ask all Catholics not to remain indifferent and we ask, first of all, for prayer. We are all one Church and we are one body. And if something hurts us, then the whole body suffers. So the whole world should not push away our pain, but help us heal our wounds through prayer and by making every effort to stop the aggressor who has come to destroy us."

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12 August 2023, 10:14