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Voices From the Pandemic: In Ukraine, a Priest Cares for his Flock as They Care for Each Other

The Rev. Volodymyr Chorniy, a Greek Catholic priest from Ivano-Frankivsk, works as the director of Caritas Ivano-Frankivsk.

The world around us has changed significantly during the pandemic. Social distance, gloves, masks and antiseptics have suddenly become our daily reality.

There were precious few people outdoors in the spring, and it was very obvious. Of course, as a priest, it was also very painful for me to see empty churches. Depending on how the quarantine requirements changed, we celebrated liturgies either in the presence of several people, or in almost empty churches, or with a slightly larger number of people. But above the masks, I always noticed the frightened eyes of the faithful. People are afraid. I note that many people still find it difficult to understand and recognize what is happening. This is how I see the world today: scared, behind masks, with uncertainty in their eyes.

The most difficult part was the first funeral service for a person who died from the effects of coronavirus. It was a woman, the wife of a priest. It was difficult to explain to her children that they could not see her, put on her last earthly clothes, be with her one last time. Although they were grown children, they were shocked, especially their daughter. The victims of coronavirus are buried in opaque plastic bags; relatives, because of pain and shock, even refuse to believe that this is a person dear to them. At this funeral there could be no relatives or friends who could support the family. To me, the priest, it was also a hard experience: it was difficult to explain what was happening. It’s even harder to calm people down.

The community also heard about the funeral. This, of course, only deepened the fear and anxiety. Funeral rites in the Byzantine tradition are quite long, which also allows relatives to comprehend the loss.

And here it was necessary to act quickly, to go immediately from the hospital to the cemetery, bypassing the church. We had to pray almost in a hurry. It was a difficult and shocking experience for both me and the faithful. It was necessary to explain all this so that people would accept it and understand that it is not important how it all happens. The main thing is love for a person, which is stronger than death and is manifested during the prayer for his or her immortal soul, even in such tragic and incomprehensible circumstances.

Quarantine consolidates people. The pandemic united us. By maintaining quarantine regulations and following safety rules, people still try to help each other, to support those who are in a harder situation. There are more and more anxious calls with a simple “How are you?” People are more careful about caring for each other.

My old parishioners, for example, could not go to the store. Other members of the community looked after them and told me their needs. From the beginning, I paid special attention to those who were already infected and were in the hospital. In general, the time of the pandemic paradoxically brought joy; I was reminded again and again what merciful people my parishioners are, witnessing how the village authorities and local communities can join in helping one another.

One of my parishioners became infected with COVID-19. It so happened that the family doctor could only consult by phone, so our parish volunteer came to her for help. She is a courageous and strong woman who works in a military hospital and belongs to the parish medical service group. Medicines were bought by other parishioners, neighbors of the patient. They tossed drugs over the fence (because otherwise, it was impossible to avoid contact). When the woman recovered, all five of the neighboring families who helped her rejoiced with her and me.

At the same time, it is noticeable that the number of poor people has increased. There are some who lost their jobs and have no savings. The Caritas charity canteen and our dining room both welcome many more people in need than before the pandemic. Among them are parents who sadly admit that now they sometimes do not even have the means to feed their children.

“The time of the pandemic paradoxically brought joy; I was reminded again and again what merciful people my parishioners are, witnessing how the village authorities and local communities can join in helping one another.”

Father Volodymyr Chorniy

The financial situation of older people has deteriorated. The pensions they receive are not enough even for utilities in winter. They are forced to live in a state of loneliness and fear. It is difficult to say how long this situation will last, but the number of people in need is growing day by day.

The local churches and Caritas focus on both individuals and institutions that serve those in need, such as hospitals. There is assistance with food, hygiene products, medical supplies, personal protective equipment. Parish social ministries have become more active, making it possible to consolidate local communities around those who are most in need.

We promote volunteer assistance from person to person and encourage others to visit lonely people and help them meet the most basic needs. Volunteer psychologists and chaplain priests in hospitals rush to help the poor and others in need. Doctors who are at the forefront in the fight against coronavirus also need support.

Priests try to help keep people’s faith strong; it becomes a daily reality through prayer and good deeds. During the pandemic, no church was closed to priests. The constant prayer for people continues day after day — for the sick, for the doctors, for everyone. And they know it.  

By preaching, we proclaim the love of Christ, despite the trials we are enduring.  This is not a punishment, but something that is also happening for our improvement. We have a choice: to accept the trial with dignity and mercy or to become angry, unjust, and cruel. Of course, there will be many challenges for us as a church community: to return to “normal” church services, to take care of the safety of the faithful, to provide the spiritual needs of people, especially the elderly and lonely. But we accept all this, and with God’s help we try to understand the signs of the time and respond to them.

To those who are sick, who are in trouble, I want to say: try to be reconciled with God and your neighbors. Trust God’s will in prayer, also for doctors. God loves us, He will help us endure everything. It gives inner peace, strength, inspiration. It helps us to recover. Anxiety and remorse destroy healing, because hopelessness and despair can close a person to God’s grace.

I will note that faith works miracles at this time. For example, we have significantly intensified cooperation with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which also joined in supporting our charity dining room. Members of the Seventh Day Adventist religious community joined with help, as well. Private donations were received from citizens. This is the first time we have united so strongly. Previously, the development of the charity dining room depended only on the help of Greek Catholic communities and Caritas. However, the poor come to us freely. No one asks about their religious affiliation.

When recently the bishop of the Evangelical Christian community asked me (as a brother in Christ!) to pray for his brother who had a stroke, I felt that this was a big step forward. There was a joint prayer among members of different Christian denominations for a person who is suffering. Perhaps in the past, we were mostly focused on our problems, our internal needs; now we are learning to meet and to present to each other our experiences, our pain.  

Today, I often hear that we are threatened by a major economic crisis. Older people are even afraid of famine. I can say only one thing: never before have we had our gardens and farms so carefully cultivated as now. People work to provide for themselves and others during difficult times.

There is the awareness that when nothing works, you can buy almost nothing. Therefore, work is in full swing wherever possible. Taking care of children, people work on their farms. Of course, this is difficult, and the weather is not always conducive. But even in the uncertainty, there is at least some hope.

It has been difficult to celebrate the liturgy without the physical presence of the faithful. This is a trial for the priest. For the first time, I had to ask my parishioners not to come to church − and I had no idea how difficult it would be for me after that.

For the first time, I saw shortened services at Easter. This too it was difficult — just in a human way, and as a priest. But I had the awareness that I had a primary responsibility to pray for people so that the Lord would bless, preserve, and protect them. I have seen and still see anxiety in the eyes of people — both those who are afraid of getting sick and those who are sick, even in a mild form. They especially need God’s blessing, asking for it in all available ways. Calming their anxiety is also the mission and part of the responsibility of the priest.

I pray a lot, realizing that the second wave of infection continues and anxiety is growing again. Previously, I could appeal directly to all my parishioners, reassure and support them. But not now. It is difficult not to look into the eyes, it is so hard to help, to establish in faith without it. But I continue to pray and look for ways to reach people, to meet their needs, even when a person cannot come to the church. I communicate with people in all ways. It is reassuring. I know the phone number of each patient, call him, keep in touch.

Supporting them helps to support me. It affirms that my ministry is needed by the people, it strengthens my understanding of the power of prayer — which is now especially needed by me, my parishioners, and all of us. I pray for God’s blessing and healing. I am only a witness to the faith of the people, and that sustains me, as a priest and as a believer. I feel that I do not live in vain, and that I serve the people.

The need to help the faithful leaves no time for sorrow. In particular, in our church community, about 10 parishioners fell ill. And all of them need support. I buried two COVID victims. Their families also need support now. Therefore, with God’s help, I continue to do what I am called to do: to pray for people and help them.  

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