Forming Leaders: Seminarians on the Front Lines

Hear from seminarians undergoing formation on the front lines of Ukraine in this excerpt from “Closer to the People,” which was first published in the September 2022 edition of ONE magazine.

Sandbagging is not part of the usual program of formation for the priesthood, but it was priority for seminarians just outside Kyiv hours after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

That morning, Divine Liturgy was celebrated in a lecture hall in the basement of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic seminary as a precautionary measure after rocket fire in a nearby village awakened the seminary community at around 5 a.m.

Seminarians spent most of the day preparing a makeshift bomb shelter on the campus of the seminary, located in Kniazhychi, a town in the eastern suburbs of the Ukrainian capital. Air raid sirens interrupted their work, sending them to the basement for cover. The rector canceled class for the rest of the week and by the end of the day, unsure about how the fighting could escalate, ordered an evacuation, sending seminarians home to their families.

However, by 3 March, the seminarians were directed to pick up their studies online, starting first with one class only. As of 14 March, they were back to a full course load.

They returned to the seminary campus — dedicated to Sts. Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian — by mid-May and completed the academic year on time. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych attended the graduation ceremony on the scheduled date, 13 June, and as planned five men were ordained subdeacons the next day, advancing toward priestly ordination. …

“Some seminarians would ask me whether it was their duty to join the army and defend Ukraine. I tried to keep a sense of calm among them,” Father Ostrovskyy recalls.

“When regular classes resumed, it was as if the seminarians got a new lease on life,” he continues. “Amid the insanity of war, they needed something stable, useful, simple that could give them a sense of meaning in life.”

Father Ostrovskyy says the decision to bring the seminarians back to Kyiv was “very difficult, wrought with many questions, above all about the seminarians’ safety,” but Archbishop Shevchuk’s guidance was instrumental in this decision.

“And we managed to return and resume ‘normal life’ in the seminary,” he says. “Unfortunately, ‘normal life’ during a war doesn’t really exist.

“After the bombardment of cities and civilians, everyone understands they could die any day. Safety does not exist in any part of Ukraine,” he says. “And yet not one seminarian has left the country.” …

Serving on the front lines is not what seminarian Vitality Oliynyk had in mind when he dreamed of becoming a priest. But he admits he has pondered the question in recent months on more than one occasion.

“A priest on the field of battle is indispensable,” he says. “Since not everyone can evacuate from these territories, the priest is to be their pillar. He is to be the spiritual support for those who … stare every day into the eyes of death.”

As part of its formation program, the Kyiv seminary offers seminarians opportunities to gain experience about military chaplaincy and pastoral care in times of war.

Interested in sponsoring the formation of a religious sister or priest? Click here.

Anna Nekrasova-Wilson is a Kyiv-based journalist and producer from Ukraine, working with international media such as USA TODAY, Die Zeit, and The Wall Street Journal.

Laura Ieraci is editor of ONE.

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