Kyiv bishop opens up about the spiritual impact of the war in Ukraine

Bishop Vitalii Kryvytskyi of the Diocese of Kyiv-Zhytomyr in Ukraine is seen outside the Cathedral Church of St. Alexander in Kyiv, June 27, 2023. (OSV News photo/Gina Christian)

KYIV, Ukraine (OSV News) – With Russia's war on Ukraine now approaching its 10th year – and the full-scale invasion surpassing the 500-day mark – OSV News traveled to Kyiv to meet with Bishop Vitalii Kryvytskyi of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kyiv-Zhytomyr, who shared his reflections on the war's spiritual impact.

Bishop Kryvytskyi spoke with OSV News in his native Ukrainian through an interpreter. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OSV News:
After 10 years of Russia's war and a year and a half of the full-scale invasion, how are you and your flock?

Bishop Kryvytskyi:
The Ukrainian people, as we see now, are ready for challenges like this. Sometimes we lose hope, but we do not need much time to renew it. This war showed who we are.

There are many people who, throughout all of these months, have worked without weekends or days off. We are tired, that's true. … But a person learns how to live (amid the war) and learns what steps to take. For example, during air raid sirens, kids in schools already know what to do; no one has to tell them. They take the toy closest to them, and without a sound, they just go to the shelter or to the corridor. No panic, no noise – just something everyday and routine.

Another problem that has become routine for us is burying our heroes. In addition, many of our friends and parishioners coming back from the front are incapable of working because of their injuries. There are people who help both the soldiers on the front and those who come back injured, and assist them in getting back to life. Of course, right now we are not doing enough for the returning soldiers, because the war is still going on.

We are tired, but unbowed and undefeated.

OSV News:
Approximately how many Roman Catholics are in your diocese?

Bishop Kryvytskyi: It is very difficult to speak about the numbers, because we have not had a national census for many years; the last one was in 2001. This is a political issue.

At the same time, we have lived through a wave of immigration (throughout Russia's war on Ukraine). Many people came to us from the east (where Russia launched its initial attacks in 2014, and which is still the war's front line), and many people left for the west (of Ukraine). … And there are many people who went abroad and never came back.

But given all that, there are more or less 200,000 Roman Catholics in this diocese, which spans four regions: Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Cherkasy and Chernihiv.

OSV News:
Historically, Ukrainian Catholics have suffered under Russian rule, particularly when Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union. Now, Russian forces are again attacking houses of worship in Ukraine, including Catholic churches, and some priests have been detained and tortured by Russian troops. How do you respond to such persecution?

Bishop Kryvytskyi:
When the church is persecuted, it doesn't lose the spirit of the Gospel. Christ said that this world will hate us always.

It's good if church and civil authorities know how to live together and know how to collaborate. We always look for this kind of cooperation. But we know that the prince of this world will do everything to make this not happen. In times of persecution, the church crystallizes its faith, and its faithfulness to the Gospel. Our lecturer of history in our seminary would always tell us that for the church, the worst time is the time without persecution.

If the church doesn't proclaim clear, evangelical truth, it's equal to the world. It stops being sensible to the sin that exists in any period of history. When the church agrees with sin, it stops being Christ's church. Persecution always makes the church purer, and sifts out the church.

Our church knows how to be persecuted. We always remember the martyrs whose blood is on our soil. For us, it's not a general history. It's a history of our church.

OSV News:
Any war – especially one marked by almost 97, 907 documented atrocities to date, according to Ukraine's government – can erode the faith of the most ardent believers. How do you minister pastorally to those devastated by this violence?

Bishop Kryvytskyi:
The war takes off all the masks. It tries us and asks us what our true beliefs are. What we believed yesterday about love of neighbor and family, patriotism – is it true, or not? Our faith is tried.

We meet people, including young people, who ask themselves really tough and difficult questions. "We prayed so much for the war never to come, but it's still here. Why?" Some families say, "Oh, we are praying for our father never to be drafted to the military. … And then he was drafted, and we prayed for him to be safe and sound, but he died."

Young people ask, "Does God exist? Why didn't he hear our prayer? Was it in vain?" I have many opportunities to meet the families of the fallen soldiers. These are people whose faith is profound; practicing Christians. They say, "I understand everything, but why?"

We see even people really close to God who are broken. … And therefore, they ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us, and help us with what they can in this struggle, in this fight.

One parish I visited was supposed to hold a parish feast one month after the de-occupation of Kyiv. We decided not to cancel the festivities. I was told that the woman who was supposed to welcome me with flowers couldn't come, because her husband had been killed at the front the day before.

So after the Mass, the pastor and I went to her house. The woman and her kids were in tears, in really bad shape. Driving there, I was thinking, "What can I say? What sentences, what words should I choose to comfort her?" But at the moment when I saw her and she was in tears and she just ran into my embrace, I just forgot all the words.

People sometimes expect priests to have answers to all the questions. And now we understand that our greater task is to be with our flock, even if we do not have answers for the questions, even in our hearts.

We need to gather people, just be with them, just pray with them, drink tea with them. And we ourselves, as priests, need to be healed of this suffering and pain we touch every day.

We understand that we fight this injustice and this aggressor not only for ourselves, but for the values of the global community. And at the same time, as the church – the living church in Ukraine – we are facing our most difficult test.


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