Cardinal Michael Czerny in Berehove, Ukraine Cardinal Michael Czerny in Berehove, Ukraine 

Cardinal Czerny in Ukraine: We are all poor in the face of this war

As the mission of the Pope’s envoy in Hungary continues, Cardinal Michael Czerny meets with the Deputy Prime Minister and visits the border with Ukraine at Barabás, where hundreds of people are crowded into five reception points. Crossing into Ukraine, he visits the city of Berehove, in Transcarpathia, an area spared by the bombings but a gathering point for thousands of refugees. The Cardinal denounces the bombing of a children's hospital in Mariupol, saying, “It makes you shudder.”

By Salvatore Cernuzio – Berehove, Ukraine

“Welcome to Ukraine” reads a faded sign, covered by dry branches, at the Barabás crossing, the frontier between Ukraine and Hungary. It is almost a bitter joke, looking at the abyss that the eastern European country has become since 24 February, when this “cruel” war broke out.

At the border, there are at least fifty cars waiting to pass through the tight and very slow customs controls. At 5:20 pm, a white van with five people on board was halfway down the queue; just before 8 pm, it had advanced by only six places. In the opposite lane, the one marking the entrance, there were only police cars.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, acting prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, sent by Pope Francis to Hungary to comfort Ukrainian refugees, crossed the border in the late afternoon.

Accompanying him are two priests involved in the pastoral care of migrants, along with Bishop Ábel Szocska, the Greek Catholic eparch of Nyíregyháza, who made offered his car to go “to the other side,” to Berehove, a village in Transcarpathia spared by the bombs but which has become one of the main gathering points for refugees.

Bombing in Mariupol: “Terrible”

The eparch makes the sign of the cross before entering. More as a blessing for the mission than out of fear of any danger, given that in recent days he has often gone to visit “the brothers” who assist the fleeing people, bringing food and aid.

While waiting endlessly for his documents to be checked (some of the wording in his Italian passport, for example, was unknown and had to be translated with Google Translate), Cardinal Czerny received news of the bombing of a paediatric hospital in Mariupol.

“Bombing and hospital: these two words in the same sentence already make you shudder. If you then read pediatric... Cardinal Parolin is right; it’s unacceptable! We must stop these attacks on civilians,” he comments.

Cardinal Czerny crosses the Hungarian-Ukrainian border
Cardinal Czerny crosses the Hungarian-Ukrainian border

Berehove: a gathering point for thousands of refugees

The journey to Berehove – Beregszász to Hungarians – takes less than twenty minutes. The suburbs are almost deserted; in the distance, you can see a striking dacha, one of the typical Russian country houses.

“That’s where the rich refugees stay,” someone explains. Berehove is in fact the scene of a struggle between the poor: refugees against other refugees, rich against less rich, bullies who demand from the weakest a sort of tax or their own food rations.

Some Ukrainians seem to ask up to 2,000 forints to help their compatriots cross the border or to provide men with a certificate of poor health to get around the martial law that forces them to stay in the country. Many also offer to transport the refugees to Budapest at inflated prices. Many accept, wary of the Hungarian buses waiting outside the border, especially the women who fear being kidnapped and put on the street.

These fears are not entirely unfounded. “Trafficking is a real problem,” says Cardinal Czerny, “a tragedy within a tragedy that feeds on humanitarian crises.”

Fraternity helping those who suffer

A few metres from the city centre, where life seems to flow normally, the car with the Cardinal stops in front of a white boarding school that is still under construction. It was supposed to be a dormitory for students; now it has become a shelter. The name is long and complex, but it could just as well have been called “Fratelli tutti,” since it brings together the efforts of Greek and Latin Catholics, Protestants, and Reformed Christians.

“There is no distinction; we are all now the Good Samaritan called to help our neighbour. We have realised that if we do not cooperate, we cannot give real help to those who suffer,” explained Eparch Nil Lushchak, as he seated the representatives of the various confessions at the table.

Each person present told the Pope’s emissary about the experience of welcoming people on the run, then about encountering the tragedies of families broken by death or the separation of a family member, or the regret of some Russian soldiers who thought they were taking part in a quick “military operation” and found themselves in the middle of a war.

“It’s a genocide,” Latin-rite Bishop Mykola Petro Luchok says, almost in a whisper, in reference to the victims. “For our people it is a Via Crucis and many are ready to go to Golgotha. Ukrainians are not running away; they are not giving up; we want to defend the values of freedom, truth, human dignity.”

Berehove: Representatives of various Christian confessions tell the Cardinal about their joint efforts to assist refugees
Berehove: Representatives of various Christian confessions tell the Cardinal about their joint efforts to assist refugees

Double response of charity

“We are all poor in the face of this challenge of war,” begins Cardinal Czerny, after being asked by those present to thank the Pope for his visit and “for having made the bell of the small Ukraine ring in the Vatican.”

The Cardinal explains that two people have arrived in the besieged country: himself and Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who is currently in Lviv. “It is a double response, one of immediate charity and one of integral human development in the long term. A commitment that will last through the ages.”

He continues, “It would be sad to respond to the emergency and then go back to the poor, disjointed life that so many live and suffer in this world,” adding, “after this nightmare we do not want to go back to before, but to come out better as human beings.”

Cardinal Czerny also reiterated the Pope’s willingness “to do everything possible” for peace. “If you have any idea of what can be done, do not hesitate to make a suggestion.”

The head of the Dicastery was then introduced to some of the refugees being hosted at the boarding school. Among them was 14-year-old Hlib, who had fled Kyiv with his mother and sisters. “Where do you want to go?” the Cardinal asked. “I don’t know, I just want to go home.”

Stories of life in Barabás

The hundreds of refugees crammed into the Caritas centre in Barabás, which Cardinal Czerny visited before and after his stop in Ukraine, also speak of home. Some mourn for their homes in Kyiv, devastated by mortar fire, while others speak of home in reference to the accommodations awaiting them in Germany, Austria, or even the United States.

Like Irina, who, having fled Kyiv in the morning, says she is “angry” about the slow transport system that made her miss her plane. On the other hand, it is not easy to manage the pace of arrivals and transfers: eighty people are announced in the few hours the Cardinal took to tour the building, where beds and tables full of food, toys, and clothes have been set up. “We are working very little. Only 24 hours a day...” jokes the Caritas coordinator, rolling his eyes.

Cardinal Czerny greets Caritas aid workers at the Barabaś border crossing
Cardinal Czerny greets Caritas aid workers at the Barabaś border crossing

“Thank you for your work,” Cardinal Czerny says. He tells volunteers and refugees, “The Holy Father told me to bring you his blessing and this is what I am doing.”

A woman, who had been lying down until then, got up to show him on her mobile phone the infamous image of the woman killed in Irpil by a bomb while trying to escape with her children. “This is what war does. Innocent people killed, women raped.” Some nod, most continue with what they are doing: sleeping, packing, distracting the children by reading a fairy tale or playing building blocks.

Cardinal Czerny passes between the beds, hands out a few Rosaries, caresses the children. Numerous local journalists are waiting for him outside the building. To them, in the wake of the Pope’s last Angelus, he expresses his gratitude. “Continue your service and go with the Pope’s blessing. May the truth come out, may the truth be known.”

Commitment to the good

A song marked the departure of the Cardinal, who returned to the Centre late in the evening to share a sandwich and a hot drink with the refugees.

A group of women approaches him. “Spasibo,” exclaims a dark-haired girl, in Russian. “It took us six days to move from one region to another,” says another. A woman in a fur-trimmed hat explains that she fled Donetsk in 2014 and took refuge in bomb-ravaged Kharkiv. The war followed her and now she finds herself once again on the run.

Cardinal Czerny is about to bless her, but his hand is grasped by Inna, an elderly poetess from Kyiv. “I am Jewish,” she says, “I have Ukrainian citizenship, and I speak Russian. The Lord wants us not to contend against one another but to work for good.”

A woman from Kyiv shows the horrors of war on her phone
A woman from Kyiv shows the horrors of war on her phone

Meeting with the Hungarian deputy prime minister

The second day of the Cardinal’s mission opened with a meeting with the Hungarian deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjén, who reiterated the government’s support for the Church’s initiatives in response to the humanitarian crisis.

“Hungary has said that it will welcome refugees without any restrictions,” he said. Cardinal Czerny replies that he hoped this welcoming attitude would become permanent, and not limited simply to emergencies. “May these arms be increasingly open.”

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10 March 2022, 10:58