Australian Bishops visit Ukraine to show concrete solidarity
By Deborah Castellano Lubov
A delegation of Australian Bishops has travelled to war-torn Ukraine, to bring their closeness to the nation's suffering people.
According to the Bishops' Conference website's media blog, the delegation from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) made the pastoral visit to several Ukrainian cities on 8-11 August in an expression of solidarity with the country’s people.
The delegation consisted of Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli of Melbourne; Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart; Bishop Karol Kulczycki SDS of Port Pirie; Father Simon Cjuk, vicar general of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Australia; Annie Carrett, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Melbourne; and was guided and accompanied by Father Adam Ziółkowski SDS.
The delegation visited Lviv, Kyiv, Bucha and Irpin, the last two having been sites of horrendous destruction and atrocities against human life, and met with Church leaders, families, civil leaders, and soldiers.
Understanding first-hand where support most needed
"This was an important opportunity to witness first-hand the human experience of this ongoing war, and to hear from Church leaders and civilians where future humanitarian support might be best directed," according to an ACBC statement.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Australia's Bishops have strongly encouraged Catholic dioceses, eparchies, parishes, schools and other ministries, to focus support towards the most vulnerable in Ukraine.
Last year, an Advent appeal raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the country.
Archbishop Comensoli observed the difference between watching from a distance, and seeing with your own eyes.
"Watching this tragedy from afar, and offering financial support is one thing," he said, "but it is important that we hear and share the voices of those directly affected. This visit was about caring for our neighbour; and personally offering a strength in friendship and prayer to the Ukrainian people."
“It was key for us to bring dimensions of faith, friendship and solidarity to this trip. Wherever we went, we heard how important it was for the people to know of our own prayers from afar. But, significantly," he recalled, "we repeatedly heard of their acknowledgment of the ‘courage’ to physically travel to the country and show that Ukrainians are not alone."
Closeness of the Ukrainian priests, Bishops to the people
Archbishop Porteous also was moved by the closeness of the country's pastors to their flock.
“Of the many experiences that we had, one that particularly touched me was the closeness of the priests and Bishops to their people. Not only were they active in providing physical assistance but they were pastorally and spiritually present to the people. Again and again I noted their personal concern and witnessed the warmth of the people’s gratitude to their pastors.”
In Lviv, the Australian Bishops met with Mayor Andrij Sadovyi, and visited the Unbroken rehabilitation centre where they talked with doctors, wounded soldiers and their families.
Bishop Kulczycki shared his emotion to meet these young wounded.
“Centres, such as the Unbroken, are critical in rebuilding lives," he said. "They take wounded of every age through a whole cycle of care from surgery, prosthesis, rehabilitation and, most importantly, psychological and social care,” he said. “So much has been lost and damaged. These young lives and young families need to re-learn how to live an everyday life full of meaning and purpose."
The Bishops also accepted the invitation to join in the funeral liturgy for a fallen soldier at the Garrison Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a funeral that represented one, of what can be, a dozen or more funerals, a day, at that church alone.
The protection of Kyiv's Cathedral of the Resurrection
In Kyiv, the delegation met with Bishop Andriy Khimyak, Auxiliary Bishop of the Kyiv Archeparchy Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) at the Cathedral of the Resurrection, which despite still being under construction, has become an important centre for both sacramental and pastoral life.
In the first hours and days of the war, the Bishops recalled, more than 300 people gathered in its underground areas for protection. Today it remains a shelter, a place for prayer and divine liturgy, and a place to organise support and care.
Each day, its kitchens provide up to 800 meals to those in need in outlying villages and communities.
Terror-afflicted Bucha and Irpin
Just outside of the main centre of Kyiv, is where the towns of the terror-stricken Irpin and Bucha are found, where indiscriminate destruction plagued civilian people and families.
Irpin reclaimed its hold from Russian forces in early 2022. It lost up to 70 percent of its houses and buildings. The Bishops met with Greek Catholic priest Fr Vitali Kolesnyk, who leads a small community in Irpin.
Bucha, nearby, suffered horrific loss and injury to its people. The delegation visited a cemetery for fallen local soldiers and the site of a mass grave for civilians. In each place, prayer was offered for those lost and those left behind.
The report of the travel offered on the ACBC media blog, concludes by saying that the visit to Ukraine, though brief, has confirmed the fraternal commitment of the Church in Australia to supporting the people of Ukraine.
The Bishops, upon their return, it notes "plan to build on the connections made and urge the faithful in Australia to continue to hold those suffering the close in prayer."