Ever since I was five, when turned away in tears from riding the Blue Streak in Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, I have had an obsession with “woodies,” the classic roller coasters of lore. Growing up in the Mon Valley just east of Pittsburgh, that fixation was satisfied by my parents — who understood and shared in my love for the thrills, architectural beauty and engineering might of these amusements — and the classic coasters of the nearby Kennywood and West View parks.
Even now, as a middle-aged man whose enthusiasm for coasters has not waned, nothing prepared me for the one I rode through Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine earlier this spring. A word of caution, however. This was no thrill ride. Rather it was a grueling journey, one that paled in comparison to the journey millions of Ukrainians have had to make since the Russian military invaded their country on 24 February, forcing them to abandon their homes — and usually their spouses — for safety under foreign skies.
From 29 April through 3 May, I accompanied a North American delegation on a pastoral visit to meet displaced Ukrainians, hear their stories, stand in solidarity with them, and give witness to the tremendous support of the local Polish and Slovak communities — particularly through their respective churches and organizations — in providing support for the body, mind and spirit of the Ukrainian people.
The chair of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, led the delegation that included CNEWA President Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, Bishop John Bonnici of Aid to the Church in Need and Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York.
The team wasted no time. No sooner had Cardinal Dolan landed in Krakow than we were off to the village of Bibice, a bucolic community nestled in the rolling countryside just outside the ancient Polish capital. There, along the steps of the parish church dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a throng of parishioners, displaced Ukrainian families cared for by the parish, and a mass of press from Poland, Rome and the United States rushed to greet the cardinal. No stranger to the press, who clearly appreciate the “good copy” and the high energy of the gregarious American prelate, the cardinal immediately took the opportunity to spell out why we were there.
With his arm wrapped around the neck of the parish priest, he outlined the objectives:
• Demonstrate solidarity with the Ukrainian people displaced by a military onslaught that has targeted not only military infrastructure, but civilians and their villages, homes, churches, places of refuge — even hospitals.
• Show gratitude to and solidarity with the caregivers, the faithful, priests and religious who have opened their homes and churches, giving refuge to those in flight.
• Express support for the leadership of the local churches, Greek and Roman Catholic, who have spearheaded these initiatives, and join together in prayer, asking God for mercy, forgiveness and peace.
• Assert the Christian commitment to support all those devastated by the evils of war and raise awareness of the human cost of this unprovoked aggression.
And then, as fast as the impromptu press conference began, it ended, with the leaders of the community, Polish and Ukrainian, welcoming the cardinal and his delegation with the customary bread and salt.
Somehow in the whirl of the moment, hymns to Our Lady were sung, messages of welcome and gratitude were exchanged, and the people told their stories. They communicated their stories not with words — a huge spread of Ukrainian delights was pressed upon us to eat instead — but through their eyes. And their eyes revealed grief, exhaustion, sadness, gratitude and — when embraced by a man whose own instincts are to hold close in the crook of his arm those who have lost so much — healing and even glimmers of hope.
Like the plates piled with stuffed mushrooms and pierogi, the visit to Bibice was an appetizer for what would soon unfold.
Driving south, the beauty of southern Poland’s countryside soon gave way to the stunning vistas of the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, carpeted with pine and birch. Dotting the views were roadside shrines, simple stucco Roman Catholic churches and, more rarely, the wooden churches of the Greek Catholics, who were for centuries the woodlanders and shepherds of the area. The picturesque landscape, however, belied the violent tragedy on the other side of the mountains in Ukraine.
We reached the toylike town of Kosice, for centuries a German- and Hungarian-populated stronghold in southeastern Slovakia, just miles from the border with Ukraine. Reaching the Greek Catholic cathedral, a simple neo-classical structure in white and gold, we were received by the curia of the eparchy, led by Archbishop Cyril Vasil, S.J., a good friend of CNEWA who formerly served the Holy See’s Congregation for Eastern Churches as secretary.
Entering the church, we were greeted with the sounds of bells on a swinging thurible and plainsong chants. Incense honeyed the air as Father Emanuel — a Ukrainian Studite monk who had served Iraqi Christian refugees in Athens — intoned the prayers for peace: “For peace in the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
As the liturgy concluded, the monk invited a few women to gather near the gilded screen of icons that enshrined the sanctuary. Gently, he encouraged them to tell us how they reached Kosice. As each woman narrated her story, her children would gather around her offering support, their faces devoid of emotion.
“The skies lit up at night with explosions.” “Bombs fell around us.” “I had to leave my husband and parents behind.” “We brought only our toothbrushes, coats and cell phones.” “I have no news from home.”
As the women spoke of places once unfamiliar to those of us from North America — Bucha, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Mariupol — the congregation fell still, as the horrors of the military onslaught devastating their homes near Kyiv and farther east and south became more immediate. We heard how they found solace in their churches, how they prayed for help and how in these sacred spaces they decided to find sanctuary beyond the Carpathians.
Cardinal Dolan, with the children now gathered around him as if he were St. Nick, thanked them all for sharing their anguished accounts, for their courage, determination and love for their families. He thanked them for their faith and for sharing that faith with us. He told them he loved them, as Jesus loves his sheep. And he asked about their husbands, their fathers and brothers — about 90 percent of Ukrainians seeking refuge outside their homeland are women and children.
“He is fighting,” said one woman. “He is caring for our parents,” said another. One woman said nothing, her silence deafening.
The gathering ended with the community, for that is what the gathering had become, singing a hymn, as large icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Nicholas and the angels kept watch.
We arrived in the historic city of Przemysl in the southeastern corner of Poland on May Day, a national holiday. Families strolled through its lovely streets, enjoying the fair spring weather. We arrived at the city’s train station, joined by the Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishops, who offered to host us for a quick luncheon at a café operated by Caritas before a scheduled prayer service at the Greek Catholic cathedral. The leading clerics of the city had pooled their funds, including donations from CNEWA, and empowered Caritas to lead their humanitarian efforts on behalf of the refugees.
No sooner had our soup been served than word reached us that the train from Kyiv was pulling in — Przemysl is the first stop in Poland for trains arriving from Ukraine. Utensils were dropped and the archbishops led us immediately to the arrivals platform. There, as the full train emptied its war-wearied passengers, we watched the church spring into action. The archbishops invited the cardinal, Msgr. Vaccari and the rest of the team to join Caritas as their social workers and volunteers managed the refugees with dignity, warmth and care, offering referrals for housing assistance, food, clothing, personal kits and travel to other destinations in Poland. Telephone company personnel offered free SIM cards and phone charging opportunities. All were present with the women and children who had just crossed a Rubicon of sorts.
Later, after participating in a Moleben During Time of War at the packed 17th-century cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist, Cardinal Dolan spoke movingly about the unexpected:
“What gets me though … is the sense of normalcy here. It’s like the people haven’t panicked. They’re not frantic. They’re kinda just coming together in serenity and trust in helping one another. It’s so well oiled. So many volunteers — especially young people — everything seems to be coordinated, all to help these refugees.
“I’ve just been amazed, and inspired.”
That night, after sharing a meal with the leadership, staff and students of the Roman Catholic archdiocesan seminary, we traveled under the cover of darkness across the border into Ukraine. Our destination: the city of Lviv, lovingly described by Ukrainians as the “soul of Ukraine.” We arrived to find the nation’s soul shrouded in darkness and sandbags. Storefronts were boarded up and a strict curfew was in force.
I had last seen Lviv in late January 2020 for the feast of Theophany, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the globe. The city was alive. Churches were packed with worshipers. Christmas markets lined the squares and plaza near the opera house. The mood — even well after midnight — was ebullient, even as war against Russian-allied separatists persisted in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Long a center of Ukrainian national consciousness and identity, Lviv exemplified the promise of a new Ukraine — young, modern, open to the West yet proudly anchored in ancient Rus and its Eastern Christian roots.
It is clear this idea of a modern Ukraine is what Russia’s leaders fear, and has now waged war against, as much as it is their coveting of Ukraine’s ports, land and resources.
After an eerily quiet night, the delegation visited displaced families seeking refuge in the facilities of the Roman Catholic Church in Lviv, led by Polish-born Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki. While Cardinal Dolan and Msgr. Vaccari visited families emotionally scarred by the violence (one adult male had not uttered a word since the Russian invasion on 24 February, said his elderly mother), I found myself trapped in a crayon world. Brightly colored pictures of missiles and rainbows, fire and sunflowers were taped to the doors of a cafeteria, conflicting images of a world of war and peace, drawn by children forced to flee their homes and precociously aware of the horrors of a world gone mad.
Bright colors notwithstanding, these were painful pictures to behold and remain troubling still.
When will this madness end? Only God knows. As the psalmist writes, “Hasten to answer me, Lord; for my spirit fails me” (Ps 143:7).
Yet until love valiantly extinguishes hate, looking at the determination and resolve of the Ukrainian people helps counter the danger of despair.
“I thought I would come to Ukraine and see a great oppression, depression,” said Cardinal Dolan during our visit to Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
“Yes, I see sadness and pain because of the war, and I am oppressed by it, but I am captivated by the vitality, hope and solidarity of the Ukrainians.”
I could not have said it better.
Michael J.L. La Civita is CNEWA’s director of communications.
The CNEWA Connection
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. To date, the UNHCR has estimated more than 7 million people have been displaced within Ukraine and more than 6 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Of these 13 million who have fled their homes, 90 percent are women and children, representing more than a quarter of the country’s population. In the midst of this crisis, CNEWA is there, rushing support to the faithful, religious, priests and bishops as they tend to people in their needs.
To contribute to CNEWA’s emergency appeal for Ukraine, go to: https://cnewa.org/campaigns/ukraine/