Cardinal Czerny during his visit to Hungary Cardinal Czerny during his visit to Hungary 

Ukraine: Cardinal Czerny 'saw the war in the eyes of refugees'

Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ, interim prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, visited Hungary from 8 to 11 March to bring the Pope's closeness to Ukrainian refugees and to those who welcome them. He offers here a reflection upon his return, as he departs for a similar mission in Slovakia on 16 March.

By Cardinal Michael Czerny

I saw the war, but not directly, because the region I've been in so far has been spared by the conflict: I saw it in the eyes of the women and men I've met: uprooted, lost people, who carry everything they have left in a backpack or a shopping bag. They breathe and walk, but one can say that they have "lost their lives", or rather that the war has taken them away, and they have not yet begun to build a new one. This is why foreign immigrants seem to fare better: there were many in Ukraine, about 75,000 students, from Africa, Asia and Latin America. They too are fleeing together with the Ukrainian population, they too have only a backpack or a suitcase, but they have not "lost their lives", even if some have had to deal with episodes of racism during their journey.

The majority of refugees are women and children, and for them, there is the added threat of trafficking. They come from a history - that of the Soviet world - in which they have learned to distrust anything public or state-run; so they stay away from government-organized buses and this plays into the hands of traffickers, who approach and offer a ride in a private car.

But I didn't see only this, on the contrary, I saw something else more: many people engaged in the peacemaking, approaching the refugees, even while the soldiers are engaged in the war, often from a distance, looking at a computer screen, because a technological war is being fought. It is a true army of peace that has mobilized for the initiatives of reception and solidarity, at many different levels. There is the solidarity of the States, which in a few days have set up infrastructures and streamlined the procedures that allow legal entry to refugees, providing buses or allowing free travel on trains; there is also that of the civil servants who carry out the operations. Then there is the solidarity organized by the NGOs, the Churches and the religious communities: all of these were present in the territory I visited - Catholics of Latin and Eastern rite, Orthodox, Protestants and Jews - capable of collaborating in a spirit of practical ecumenism.


What struck me most was the spontaneous solidarity of ordinary people. Of the Hungarians, of course, but also of the many people I met, who had come from Italy, Belgium, Spain...: they left what they were doing and set off, driving thousands of kilometres, at their own expense, to reach the Ukrainian border, to unload the aid they had brought and load up the people they would be hosting at home.

I have seen a Europe capable of putting aside closures and fears, capable of opening doors and borders, instead of building walls and fences. I have seen Europeans capable of behaving again like the Good Samaritan, loading into cars and buses - no longer on a horse or a donkey - strangers found "half-dead" along the roads leading to the border. I pray that once this crisis is over, Europe and Europeans will not turn back, but will remain open and welcoming!

In a nutshell, I saw Fratelli tutti in action, in people's hands and faces, in their actions and words. I think that as a Church we have a great task here: while the Holy See and its diplomacy continue to look for ways to end the conflict, offering themselves also as mediators, at another level, we must commit ourselves to support and reinforce this effort of solidarity. 

It will be needed because the crisis could be prolonged, but above all because once peace returns, the same solidarity, perhaps even greater, will be needed to accompany people as they return home, so that they can resume the life they now seem to have lost, overcome the grief, wounds and suffering that the war will leave on the territory of Ukraine, and build a peaceful future for their country.

The commitment of the men and women of Ukraine has already begun. Upon my return to Rome, they told me about something that happened in Medyka, a Polish border town. Some traffickers were trying to convince the fleeing women to get on two buses that would take them to Denmark, in order to get them into prostitution. Other Ukrainian women, already living in Poland, asked for the identity of these traffickers to be checked, and they quickly disappeared. Now Ukrainian women are organizing to prevent such events from happening again. We can only imagine what they will achieve once they can return home, with the same spirit and determination. In order to give Ukraine a future, it is indispensable that the weapons be silenced, but it is not enough: the refugees must be able to return home, get back to work, go back to school... A country cannot live without its citizens!

Last week I left for "a journey of prayer, prophecy and denunciation". So, it was. But on my return, I can say that it was also a journey of witness, love and hope. With this spirit, I am now leaving for Slovakia.

(Translated from the original Italian)

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16 March 2022, 10:18