Soldiers stand before a white birch cross, the only object not destroyed when the village of Pobyeda in Luhansk was attacked in September 2014.
mid-February 2016, Fr. Lubomyr Yavorskyy, Deputy Head of Chaplaincy
Services of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for the Ukrainian Armed
Forces, visited numerous parishes and venues in Toronto and parts of
southern Ontario at the invitation of Bishop Stephen Chmilar, Eparch of
Toronto, and of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC). Bishop Chmilar
and the UCC had jointly organized a fundraising campaign called “Save
Lives” in order to assist Ukrainian soldiers with their extensive
humanitarian aid needs. Fr. Lubomyr gave a report on the use of the
funds and the status of the Byzantine-rite Catholic chaplains serving in
Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
Initially, priests went into the ATO
war zone [Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone, in eastern Ukraine] spontaneously, seeking to serve the soldiers’ spiritual needs.
Now, the military chaplaincy is well structured and organized, and
military units themselves often request that a chaplain of a specific
church (that is, Catholic or Orthodox) be assigned to them. The
chaplains are stationed right at the battlefront, sometimes less than
one kilometer away from enemy forces.
To date 130 chaplains from
the Ukrainian Greek (Byzantine-rite) Catholic Church (UGCC) have served
at least one rotation, if not several such terms, within the past two
years of war. Each rotation lasts either 30 days or 45 days, and on
occasion, can be doubled. Collectively, the chaplains have served 300
rotations in the ATO zone.
Fr. Lubomyr, either in his supervisory
role for the UGCC or serving as military chaplain, has been in the ATO
zone 24 times. The 33-year old has a decade’s worth of experience as
priest and military chaplain. He observes that when a chaplain is
present in a certain unit, the emotional well-being of its soldiers is
much better; they feel safer, their stress is reduced; they are at peace
even when faced with horrors and death. The moral life of the warriors
improves; the presence of a priest affects them very positively.
the past half of a year, the most numerous group of chaplains has come
from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Ukrainian
Catholics form a fairly large contingent, though only 11% of Ukraine is
Ukrainian Greek Catholic. Ninety-seven percent of Ukraine is Christian,
with Orthodoxy predominating. There are several Protestant and Roman
Catholic chaplains as well. Many soldiers do not mind which church a
chaplain represents, as they hunger and thirst for spiritual assistance.
The Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the largest of all
churches in Ukraine, does not have a single chaplain assisting the
Every candidate for chaplaincy in the UGCC must
obtain permission from his bishop (or his superior in a religious
order). Potential chaplains are screened for emotional readiness to
serve during warfare. Married clergy must first obtain the permission of
their wives (in writing) to go and serve as chaplain, before they are
allowed to seek their bishops’ approval. Of the 130 chaplains who have
made the life-risking commitment of serving Ukraine’s military,
approximately 100 are married priests.
As a co-ordinator of
chaplains, Fr. Lubomyr oversees their work and examines their needs out
in the camps. He also assesses the spiritual and humanitarian needs of
the soldiers and works out solutions.
While the Ukrainian army is
defending its nation from an aggressor, it is the people of Ukraine and
Ukrainians living abroad who have had to mobilize their efforts in order
to defend the army. Especially in the first months (late 2014 and early
2015), the soldiers had dire needs, and lacked proper military attire,
regular or winter boots, bulletproof vests, weapons, training, defense
technology, first aid kits and other supplies. Numerous groups of
volunteers sprung up throughout Ukraine and assistance (in the form of
food, uniforms, footwear, medication, doctors, psychologists,
rehabilitation) had been brought to the soldiers through the collective
efforts of Ukraine’s people and many other peoples and governments from
outside of Ukraine.
Initially, some Ukrainian fighters were
barefoot and many bled to death, for lack of bulletproof vests. At that
time, most of them were unprepared for the war and died in large
numbers. Today, the Ukrainian army is faring much better, though
continual aid is necessary. The soldiers are very thankful for the
material, medical, and moral assistance that has been provided; they ask
the Ukrainian communities and international supporters not to lose hope
in them, so that they may continue the battle for Ukraine’s freedom.
has been very supportive of Ukraine’s battle for its eastern provinces
and had rightfully condemned the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s
autonomous republic of Crimea. Canada’s firm position and support under
the previous government of P.M. Stephen Harper included political
measures such as economic sanctions and practical aid in the form of
non-lethal goods such as winter boots.
Much of the material and
humanitarian aid (weapons excluded) which is brought out to the soldiers
is distributed by chaplains; as such, it is guaranteed to get there.
The Catholic Church is very well respected and trusted in Ukraine. The
motto of the chaplains is “To always be near,” as the Church must be
with her people, wherever they may be, ready to serve their needs.
chaplains have been wounded to date in the dangerous ATO zone; one
suffered a severe head injury and has lost his hearing. After serving in
the war zone, the chaplains are exhausted and may require
rehabilitation or must be sent to a sanatorium for recovery. The priests
are now being taught how to avoid being captured; they wear helmets and
bulletproof vests for self-protection.
Fr. Lubomyr recounted his
visit to the ATO zone last year at Easter time. Although his wife and
their young son had wanted him to be home for the feast days, Fr.
Lubomyr noted that at home there would be just the three of them,
whereas several thousands of soldiers would have no way to celebrate
Easter if he didn’t come to them. Having received the blessing of his
wife and bishop, Fr. Lubomyr visited eleven encampments and distributed paskas
(Easter breads) and holy cards to some 5,000 soldiers. The long
line-ups and piety of the soldiers who were venerating the Holy Shroud
of our Lord on Great Friday was very moving, as was celebrating the
victory of life over death on Resurrection Day. “It was the greatest
Easter I’ve ever experienced. It’s really worth being there for the
Paschal celebrations,” said Fr. Lubomyr.
Not only chaplains but
also the soldiers are much in need of rehabilitation after serving their
rotation. To date, 115,000 Ukrainian military have the official status
of having served in the ATO zone. It is difficult to accommodate the
needs of all the soldiers requiring aid. Last year, Fr. Lubomyr had
organized a pilgrimage to Lourdes so that several Ukrainian soldiers
could experience spiritual healing at the holy shrine. The idea of
sending soldiers on pilgrimage to Lourdes was inspired by an
international military tradition. Following World War II,
representatives of sixteen countries involved in the war went on a
pilgrimage to Lourdes to pray for reconciliation, healing, and peace.
The aftermath of the war in eastern Ukraine is a growing number of young
men aged in their early twenties who have become handicapped for life:
some without legs or arms, or suffering other traumas. In this Jubilee
Year of God’s Mercy Fr. Lubomyr hopes to bring some fifty wounded
soldiers to Lourdes.
Fr. Lubomyr also mentioned the village of
Pobyeda in Luhansk. Several chaplains had served their mission at the
encampment there. When the enemy’s aviation and “hail” (or BM-21 Grad)
had struck much of the village and the Ukrainian position in September
2014, it is noteworthy that some twenty people were killed, although it
could have been thousands. The military base was entirely destroyed; all
the buildings burned down, including the chapel. Amidst the ashes, only
a white birch cross was left; the many splinters from the “hail” had
not managed to touch the cross. The wooden cross was eventually brought
to Lviv in western Ukraine, since it was the Lviv battalion which had
been defending Ukraine out in Pobyeda.
The village is being
rebuilt; a beautiful chapel of St. Michael is standing there once more.
Fr. Lubomyr noted that this part of Ukraine has much fewer churches than
the country’s western provinces; however, chapels are now springing up
(through the efforts of the Ukrainian military and their chaplains) and
with time, they will be replaced by churches. Orthodoxy predominates in
these eastern regions. Many older people who lived through decades of
communism during the Soviet era are unbaptized and have never been to
church at all. The war, the presence of chaplains, and the many fervent
prayers being said in and for the region, are gradually bringing about a
revival. The mission is just beginning.
The wooden cross, which
survived the “hail” totally unharmed, shows that the Faith shall not be
destroyed; it is a symbol of the rebirth of the Faith in eastern
Ukraine, and of the victory which is yet to come, in which the Truth