Ukrainian refugees prepare to board a train to Poland from Odessa Ukrainian refugees prepare to board a train to Poland from Odessa 

Cardinal Czerny: 'Angels Unawares' helping Ukrainians in need

Cardinal Michael Czerny, interim prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, penned the following article for the “Aggiornamenti sociali” newspaper to reflect on his recent visit to Slovakia, where the EU nation is welcoming Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s war in their homeland.

By Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ

From 16-18 March, Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, Interim Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, travelled to Slovakia to take part in the 3rd European Catholic Social Days (Bratislava, 17-20 March 2022), and met with the President of the Slovak Republic, Zuzana Čaputová, as well as Prime Minister, Eduard Heger. Cardinal Czerny also travelled to the eastern regions of Slovakia, where refugees from Ukraine are arriving, and crossed the border to visit the Ukrainian town of Užhorod. A few days later, the Cardinal reflected on what struck him most about this trip, following on the heels of his visit to Hungary a week before.

In the western part of Ukraine, most Catholics belong to the Eastern rite, so many of the priests that I met are married and have children. Instead of fleeing to the West, they stay with their families to continue caring for the people and refugees on the move. Chapels and rectories become safe havens on the path to salvation, where the whole family of the parish priest works around the clock to welcome those in need.

Oftentimes, we call those who do their best to help strangers in difficulty “angels” in disguise. They often remain anonymous, like these families, as well as women and men religious, unmarried priests, bishops, and so many lay people. They truly are angels. But they are not the only ones: Sacred Scripture invites us to widen our gaze, and to realise that those in need are also angels. The Letter to the Hebrews warns us: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).

I witnessed these angels on my journey: you could see it in how they change those who welcome them. In Berehove, I visited a student residence that had been converted into a reception centre. I thought I would be meeting the bishop and some local priests. They were certainly there, but there were also the heads of other Christian communities, the Jewish community, and the highest civil servant. The same thing happened in Užhorod: the leaders of the Jewish community and of the other Christian denominations were present at the dinner with seminarians that followed the Lenten liturgy in the Greek-Catholic cathedral.

This really impressed me, because in those regions relations between the different religious groups are often problematic, burdened by a history of conflict and prejudice. All of a sudden, the need to welcome refugees enables, and even demands, the concrete ecumenism of solidarity: encountering one another and working together to respond to those in need. Being close to the poor and the vulnerable brings those who welcome them closer to each other. When we come together as brothers and sisters in order to help others, we inevitably discover that we are brothers and sisters of everybody! This seems self-evident: my brother’s brothers are my brothers! But in practice we often forget this.

Ukrainian refugees announce good news – as angels without knowing it – to those who welcome them: not with words, nor even with actions, but by simply being who they are and their need for help, bringing everyone back to the essential. This puts us in touch with the profound truth of Pope Francis’ words in regards to the poor: “The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 198).

This not only happens within western Ukraine, but also across the border, in the countries that refugees finally reach. For these nations, the arrival of newcomers is a call to open up, to come out of a closedness that is a lasting legacy of the Soviet era. It is a profound, sudden change: these societies are forced by the current events of history to learn something that they did not know and did not practice, but whose value they sense. They must be respected as they take their first steps, rather than being judged for the positions they took in the past, so that the experience of welcome can be strengthened and shape a different future. “Help us to be helpful” is the request that seems to emerge in meetings with local solidarity organisations and also with public authorities at different levels.

After returning from Slovakia, I immediately left for Dakar to attend the 9th World Water Forum, to which I transmitted the Message sent by Pope Francis. Approximately 7,000 kilometres from Ukraine, the title of the Forum, “Water Security for Peace and Development,” brought the issue of peace to centre stage. Ecological degradation and climate change threaten access to water for many populations, who are experiencing increasingly disastrous droughts.

In the coming decades, water is destined to become an extremely strategic resource and a potential source of wars and conflicts, particularly in those regions where large rivers cross borders between states, as is the case in Africa. “In all these situations,” writes the Pope, “water must become a symbol of welcome and blessing, a reason for meeting and collaboration that will increase mutual trust and fraternity.” Managing water as a common good and as a fundamental and universal human right is a commitment that combines the construction of fraternity and the care of our common home.

While we pray and do everything in our power to stop this horrendous war in Ukraine, we must also continue to look ahead to prevent possible conflicts in the future.

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29 March 2022, 10:27