The Easter vigil with Visvaldas Kulbokas in Zaporizhzhia The Easter vigil with Visvaldas Kulbokas in Zaporizhzhia   (

Ukraine: Easter amid bombardment in Zaporizhzhia

The Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, describes how Ukrainians spent Easter under heavy Russian bombardment.

By Svitlana Dukhovych

Excellency, you spent Christmas with the Catholic community in Kharkiv, one of the cities most affected by Russian attacks. Now, for Easter, you've traveled to Zaporizhzhia, another city that is bombed almost daily. Is this a coincidence, or have you chosen to celebrate the most significant holidays with those who are under constant threat?

Yes, it's a choice, an important one for me personally because to pray during these important holidays like Christmas and Easter, I truly desire to pray especially with people who approach prayer with yearning, with an absolute spiritual fervor, because they have no other option, no one will save them, such is the terror of war. And I know that for the Catholics in these areas close to the military front, it's significant to be together with them. Also, because in Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Kharkiv, less humanitarian aid arrives. For example, Catholic organizations here are very active and receive support from the Holy Father himself through his Almoner, Cardinal Krajewski. So, for me, it's also a way to see firsthand how this aid arrives, how it's distributed. I could also see the number of people who need help even in a city like Zaporizhzhia, and I saw the gratitude in their eyes when they receive a piece of bread and something to accompany it; they are truly grateful because they have nothing. And since many of them have lost their jobs because factories are not working due to the war, the number of people in need of this aid is growing. So it's important for me, and I think even more important for the Catholics living here.

How were the Easter celebrations? Whom did you meet, and what is the atmosphere like in Zaporizhzhia and, particularly, among the Catholics?

I also met with the Greek-Catholic community, but only briefly because Easter for them will come later, in May. So I dedicated more prayer moments to the Roman Catholics, and the celebrations were very heartfelt, very intimate because there is no other support that can serve. And so, for them, Easter becomes even more important than in peaceful lands because in times of war, there is a great risk of falling into human, even psychological, despair because of the brutality, the difficulties. There are even misunderstandings because, for example, I also met volunteers from various territories, and they say that sometimes people in those areas do not understand the news properly; what they hear is driven by propaganda. And they come here and find a different reality, much more touching, much more lived, and then they want to return to Ukraine because they see that political propaganda sometimes forgets these needs, focuses on trivial things that are not seen, and they do not see the most important things. And I was very satisfied with the way we could pray together: in a way that we truly desire the Lord to be our light, that He be our Resurrection in everything, that He be our peace.

I wanted to ask if there was any passage in the Easter celebrations that seemed most appropriate to the current situation experienced by the people there?

For me personally, the initial moment of the Easter Vigil was very touching, since the rite begins with the lights off. This darkness truly evokes the war, and so only one light remains on – the Easter candle, Jesus shining in the darkness. For me, this was the truly touching moment because it makes it clear that the war was invented by men, citing various reasons to attack others, without asking the Lord who is the Creator. But still, the light of Christ remains lit among us.

Not a day goes by without attacks on Ukrainian cities and villages, causing both the death of people and the destruction of infrastructure. Not to mention the loss of lives at the front. Death weighs heavily on the country. In this situation, what sense do the words "Christ is risen" have?

These words about the resurrection of Jesus have a very important meaning, I would say much more important than in peaceful lands because life will end sooner or later due to war or not war, and even in the midst of war, this light remains that no one can extinguish, that no one can take away from us. So it's really Jesus who is our certainty, the foundation, even our hope because practically there are no other hopes. So it's the fundamental sense, and it's understood very clearly in war-torn lands like this. For example, very close to the Roman Catholic cathedral of Zaporizhzhia, a gentleman I knew is buried: lawyer Denys Tarasov who was even part of the technical committee of the initiative of the Holy Father "The Pope for Ukraine". So before the [large-scale] Russian attack, he dealt with humanitarian issues, then the war forced him to defend his country, and he lost his life. So I knew him while he was alive, now I know his grave and other people like that... But even when life is lost unjustly, so aggressively, the resurrection remains, so it's an even more touching foundation in the time of war.

Nuncio Kulbokas in the Latin Cathedral in Kharkiv
Nuncio Kulbokas in the Latin Cathedral in Kharkiv

Pope Francis during his Urbi et Orbi message made an appeal for a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine. You personally are very committed to the cause of prisoner exchange. In your opinion, what significance does this appeal from the Holy Father have?

We listened to this appeal from the Holy Father with great, I can't say satisfaction, because satisfaction will come if there is an effect, but with great attention and truly in spiritual union, because even here for me, being in the land of Zaporizhzhia also means being in the land where we are closest to the lives of so many prisoners. For me, it would be an even greater Easter if I could visit the prisoners. And when the Pope makes the appeal for there to be a total exchange of all prisoners, this is not a simple appeal, but it's an appeal that concerns many lives, several thousand people who not only do not have the chance to celebrate Easter, including the two Greek-Catholic priests who were taken from Berdiansk, which is not far from Zaporizhzhia, because it's the same region. So my thought here is even more intensely with them and for them: for these priests, there isn't even a possibility to celebrate Easter. So it's a truly humanitarian appeal with which the Pope addresses all believers and non-believers; it's also an appeal to pray so that the Lord opens the hearts of those who are political leaders to truly facilitate these prisoner exchanges. Here, I would also add the words that the Holy Father said during the Via Crucis of Good Friday; he said that being in lands far from war, sometimes there is a risk of not crying together with Jesus and thinking about war from afar. And precisely this appeal, expressed by the Holy Father today, on Easter, is a way to be close, truly to be concretely concerned about those who suffer most, and those who suffer most are they: the prisoners, the wounded, and those who lose their lives in this terrible war.

Excellency, you said that for you, it would be an even greater Easter if you could visit the prisoners personally. What did you mean?

Of course, my greatest wish is to be able to personally visit the prisoners, the ones I cannot visit. Here in Ukraine I am able to visit them, I have in fact been able to visit Russian prisoners here. On the other hand, I know that my colleague in Russia is unable to visit Ukrainian prisoners, and none of the Church's representatives are able to visit them, not even the Greek Catholic priests. This for me is a very heavy burden: to know that people are in such difficult conditions and even the commandment of Jesus - go and visit your brother who is in prison - cannot be fulfilled. And then in what conditions are they being kept? So many former prisoners who have been freed, exchanged have told me that this is the greatest hardship: losing trust, losing hope, losing faith. So I know that for them faith is almost the only thing that remains, but one would also like to touch this faith, to encourage them, because otherwise their suffering remains immense.

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02 April 2024, 22:25