Pontifical Mission Societies shows solidarity in Ukraine visit
By Sr. Bernadette Reis and Vatican News staff writer
Video and photos courtesy of Pontifical Mission Society, USA
Expressing a solidarity of presence with the people of Ukraine, the National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the US, Msgr. Kieran Harrington, traveled to the war-torn nation for Holy Week and Easter (according to the Julian calendar). He met with the people and local Church leaders to offer personally the Church's solidarity through humanitarian support, visits to families and participation together in the Holy Week and Easter liturgies in Lviv and Kyiv.
The role of the Pontifical Mission Societies is to support the proclamation of the Gospel, the building of the Church and the work and witness of mission priests, religious and lay pastoral leaders. These missionaries also provide food, education and medical care to the most vulnerable communities and, through their work, witness to the compassionate heart of Jesus.
Solidarity of presence
Msgr. Harrington's visit during the summit of the Eastern Church's liturgical calendar recalled in a poignant way the suffering of Jesus manifested in the faces of the local people trying to recover from lost loved ones killed in the fighting, the ongoing conflict and precarious humanitarian conditions. In an interview with Vatican News, he described the visit as responding to the call Pope Francis expressed in his Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti which speaks about being near to others, "to touch and heal the wounds of others." He said he wanted to be there to offer "a sense of real solidarity," that went beyond providing material assistance, accompanying "the people in the midst of their suffering."
During his visits, he went to meet the people in particular around Kyiv and Bucha, where mass graves had been discovered. Meeting the people there, he felt as if he were touching the wounds of Christ, There, he met people who had lost loved ones, adding how some elderly people who had lost their homes but had nowhere to go were, "just wandering the streets aimlessly." He described the visits he made and hearing their stories as "very, very moving," and how the terrible violence is leaving a "deep impression upon them." But despite the unspeakable evil inflicted on people's lives, he said evil will not have "the last word."
Msgr. Harrington described how in listening to the people and their stories, it helped them deal with their profound grief and worries. "There's so much suffering," he said, they "just want to get it out and to express what is almost inexpressible." The people appreciated his presence and felt as if they were not alone or abandoned, but that other people care about their plight. He said the visit helped keep the flame of hope alive, the Gospel message of new life despite it all, and the wish to be brothers and sisters, not enemies, with everyone.
Hope despite all
The celebration together of the Holy Week and Easter liturgies offered liturgical experiences that were transformative, Msgr. Harrington addded. The joy of the Risen Lord and the hope that brings "was just palpable," he said, despite "a war going around you." At the same time, it has been difficult to keep hate at bay, given the intensity of the evil being experienced and no clear end in sight to the conflict. The challenge of reconciliation will be monumental, he notes, but that is ultimately necessary to achieve peace and respond to our "human vocation to fraternity."
Full interview of Sr. Bernadette Reis with Msgr. Kieran Harrington, National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States
Q: Tell us about your visit to Ukraine and where you went....
We actually arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday, and we were going really to the Ukraine to be there for Holy Week. We were going for a number for purposes, but most essentially, you know, Pope Francis when he spoke in Fratelli Tutti speaks about touching the wound and seeing the eyes and we thought that in terms of a sense of real solidarity we really needed to not simply transfer funds, but to accompany the people in the midst of their suffering. And so, we went there for particularly for Holy Week. We thought that would be very appropriate for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. So, Holy Thursday, we were in Lviv. And then on, Good Friday, we were in Kyiv, and then we were back in Lviv on Holy Saturday for Easter, for their Easter liturgy. It was a very, very, very, very moving experience. So, we went to Ternopil for the Holy Thursday celebration, and then went to visit the people in that area who were caring for refugees -- actually we say displaced persons -- from other parts of Eastern Ukraine. We stayed with the Basilian Fathers who were at their Monastery, Seminary Monastery. It was really quite impressive that these monks opened up their home to take in people from all over Ukraine, many of whom were really not believers, or nominally believers to care for them. There's a real witness when on Holy Thursday you see the washing the feet, you saw how that was being manifest in the lives of these monks, these Brazilian monks and in the way they cared for the people. Then, just incidentally there was actually an incident at the Cathedral in Ternopil. The next day someone drove their car through the front door of the cathedral. So, after our celebrations, we saw that on the news clips there. In Kyiv it was entirely different, and of course a much more somber experience. Driving into Kyiv it was obvious -- the intensity of the checkpoints, we were repeatedly being asked for documents and were able to see the real destruction on the road to Kyiv. The suffering that people had undergone.
We celebrated the morning liturgy, early morning liturgy with the Major Archbishop of Kyiv, of the Greek Ukrainian, Greek Church. And he was very insistent that we get out and see the suffering of the people, in the surrounding area, and particularly Bucha where there was, of course as you know, real violations of anything, you could, you really just could not imagine it. And speaking to the priest and to the people there, we really came to touch that wound. It was the wound of a woman whose home was destroyed. The old people who lived in a particular area, their apartment buildings had been attacked, but people still live there. And so, people were really just wandering the street name aimlessly.
It was very, very moving. When we went to Bucha and saw the mass graves, one of the priests who was a chaplain showed me the images on his phone of body parts, people how they had been dismembered. And this priest of course, he -- most of the priests are married priests -- and you know, so they stay, sometimes their families stayed in the midst of this circumstance as well. But it's having a deep impression upon them. And so, I think it was very good for us to be there. One of the journalists who was with this from Kyiv, was a Jewish woman and she had not left her surrounding area in the city of Kyiv and went with us to these visits and how she was moved, and her other colleagues had been moved and listening to the stories of suffering. It was almost as though were ministering even to the journalists from the Ukraine who were there because they had been so brutalized by this experience. It really was a very privileged moment to see this real evil and the effects of evil in people's lives. And yet to realize that it was not the last word.
You mentioned several times this aspect about looking at the people in the face and as a priest during Holy Week, it seems that the Gospel of John is unfolding. In other words, there's another sacrament of love where we are manifesting, the suffering people are manifesting the face of Christ and to touch that. For you, what were you feeling? How did you feel called to enter into that Sacrament?
Well, you know, when you first experience it, it's almost like an out-of-body encounter because you just can't, you don't have the capacity to take in everything that has happened. But then as you speak to people, as you enter into the circumstances, sort of the surrounding destruction recedes and you encounter the person, and you encounter their pain. And it takes a moment for that person because initially people, they just want to, they want to get it all out -- there's so much suffering that you just want to get it out, and to express what is almost inexpressible. And then ultimately, they just hug you, because they know that they are not alone. And I was with two other priests, and you could see that encounter enfold them in the lives not just of the people who we were speaking to, but as I say, the people were accompanying us as they were reliving this drama. They knew they were not alone, and I think they appreciate the fact that we came to Kyiv because it is still an area where there is war. And they know that people are afraid, many people have not returned to Kyiv yet, many people in the surrounding area -- Ternopil -- who have not come back to Kyiv because they are scared. Some of these folks could not leave. And so, it was for them a moment that they knew they were being accompanied that they were not alone. They were not abandoned.
I think that that was meaningful. By the way. I also think that that was the case for the Major Archbishop. When we celebrated the Good Friday liturgy with him, and he heard that we were Americans and were with him at the cathedral, which was basically empty, there were very few people celebrating with him, because most people had left. He was very, I know, well he said, he was gratified by that, he was encouraged by our presence there. And so, to me when I was thinking about that, you know, Pope Benedict when he spoke in Deus Caritas Est, he speaks about Koinonia, when he speaks about Kerygma, Liturgia, and Diakonia, this is what we were actually seeing because in some sense, our presence there was a proclamation of the Gospel to those who have been suffering and even a reminder because you have to imagine that they are experiencing the devastation of war and that devastation of war -- it's so destructive to the human person because God calls us to love not to hate but it is very hard not to hate when you see such terrible evil unfolding and the lives of people whom you love and whom you are brothers with around you.
And it is the experience of the Liturgy and sharing in that liturgical experience that is transformative. When we were in Lviv at St George Cathedral, and the Metropolitan Archbishop was celebrating, he had such great joy in the Easter celebration. It was just palpable. You almost did not imagine that there was a war going around you with this Easter joy. And yet there was something present that was hard to understand. And you felt it afterwards when we had a supper with him and the intensity of his anguish. And this is really because of the intensity of the evil that they are experiencing. I mean, the war crimes, that are being committed here or are hard to forgive. I think about, and I said this to him, you know I think about reading as a seminarian Viktor Frankl's, Man's Search for Meaning and the experience of being in a concentration camp and being a prisoner. But also knowing that you are free and the freedom to love your enemy is something which is very hard for us to embrace. But ultimately is what is going to be required if we are going to live out what Pope Francis says is that good innate human vocation to fraternity.