In 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.
Within 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 Ukrainian forces.
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.
Canada 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.
Three 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 shall conquer.