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Finding God in Times of War

Ukrainians on the front line turn to faith

“It’s easy to trust in God when you are sure of your tomorrow. But when you’re not sure of your today, it’s a great lesson to believe … to trust in God,” says Sister Lucia Murashko, a member of the Order of St. Basil the Great, from her home in Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine.

“The war has shown us — everyone — even unbelievers, that God is alive and he protects us.”

With the devastating war on Ukraine entering its second year, and no talks of peace in sight, many Ukrainians are reevaluating their priorities. For many, this process includes discovering or rediscovering their belief in a higher power. For those who already believe in some form of providence, it means reassessing the role of faith and religion in their lives.

Historically, the lands and communities that make up Ukraine are diverse. Although Eastern Slavs rooted in the Eastern Christian tradition — Greek Catholic and Orthodox — dominate Ukraine’s populace and culture, evangelical Protestants, Jews and Muslims also have deep roots in the nation and its culture. Once profoundly connected with their traditions and faith, modern Ukrainians of all stripes were severed from their roots by a ruthless Communist government that, in destroying the former order of Imperial Russia, suppressed organized religion in all its forms, Christian and non-Christian.

For more than 70 years, most Ukrainians — except for those in the western portions of the country, which were absorbed into Soviet Ukraine in the World War II era — received an education that praised the ideals of the Soviet state and advocated the development of a new form of man, one who repudiated religious belief as backward and unpatriotic.

Even after more than 30 years of Ukraine’s independence, the Zaporizhzhia Oblast remains among the more secular regions of Ukraine. Most people declare themselves atheists; some are baptized Orthodox, but do not practice their faith, Sister Lucia says. However, during this past year of war, numerous people have turned to the sisters, asking for help and confiding in them their burdens: the destruction of their homes, the deaths of their friends, the departure of their children.

“There is no way to escape. It is only that God will protect you, and you pray and you continue to work.”

“We listen to them and then they say, ‘I talk to you and feel more peaceful.’ ”

Sister Lucia says while most Ukrainians go underground when air raid sirens sound, the people in Zaporizhzhia have no way to anticipate a Russian missile attack. While the city, located only 30 miles from the front, remains in Ukrainian hands, it is surrounded by the Russian military to the south, and missiles arrive before the sirens sound.

“We learn to trust God, because there is no safe place, because you never know whether it will be your house … or one of the factories.

“There is no way to escape. It is only that God will protect you, and you pray and you continue to work.”

During the first six months of the war, many people fled Zaporizhzhia, although some returned when the front did not advance toward the city. People from surrounding villages also sought refuge there.

The Basilian Sisters live in a monastery dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul. They assist at the local Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, where Divine Liturgy and other prayers are celebrated daily. They provide relief supplies, but also “try to celebrate any signs of life” to encourage the people — even adult parishioners received presents on the feast of St. Nicholas last year.

She calls it a “privilege” that God has allowed her and her sisters to serve the people at this time, recalling how they recently facilitated the wedding of a couple, ages 72 and 69, who had lived together for 52 years. The parish gave the woman a new dress and the man a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt; they received their first confession and Communion, and then were married.

Sister Lucia says it was a grace to see their joy: “For us, it is also a source of stronger faith.”

The war has forced Ukrainian churches to identify their priorities, says the Reverend Yuriy Shchurko, dean of the theology and philosophy faculty at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

“You are with displaced people, wounded people, with mothers and kids; you just surround them with love, solidarity,” he says.

“We understand that we are called to serve society, to bring them love, to heal their wounds, and every denomination does their best.”

Children bid their father farewell at a train station in Lviv in January.
Children bid their father farewell at a train station in Lviv in January. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

The war has also led to a “very strong” cooperation among different churches in providing humanitarian aid, adds the Reverend Roman Fihas, acting director of the university’s Institute of Ecumenical Studies. Churches are helping all those in need who come their way, regardless of religious affiliation.

The same collaboration is true within the military chaplaincy, says Jesuit Father Andriy Zelinskyy, chief military chaplain for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. However, the government does not permit priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to serve in the military, despite the church declaring its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate last May, he explains. Priests of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, however, do participate in the chaplaincy.

In the current climate, when a soldier needs a chaplain — whether they are on the battlefield or off — jurisdiction or denomination matters little, says Father Zelinskyy. For the most part, Ukrainians on the front line are not professional soldiers, he underlines, but ordinary citizens — university professors, business leaders and ballet dancers — largely unprepared for the demands of battle. What is important for a soldier is that he can speak with a minister who will listen, he says.

The responsibilities of a military chaplain include “being present to the soldiers, listening to them, praying for them, attending to their hearts, administering sacraments, maintaining their memories,” he says. They also accompany soldiers’ families and minister to those recovering from battle wounds in the hospital.

When someone asks Father Zelinskyy where God is amid the war, he tells them: “God is love, so wherever and whenever you love, you find God. … When you fight for your loved ones … take care of the wounds of a fellow soldier, that’s where we find him.”

CNEWA and Caritas Ukraine distribute food, hygiene kits, clothing and bedding to people in Chernihiv Oblast. (photo: courtesy Caritas Chernihiv)

Roman Dudko was living with his family in Kherson, located on the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine, when it fell under Russian occupation within the first week of the invasion. A month later, Mr. Dudko and his family fled the city.

One week after he settled his children safely in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine, he and his brother enlisted and joined other civilians-turned-soldiers on the front.

On his last day of a three-month rotation in Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast — which Russian troops were encircling at the time of publication in an attempt to capture the city — Mr. Dudko’s unit endured heavy shelling.

“I only remember my friend in the car. He put tourniquets on me because I couldn’t do it myself due to my blood loss,” he says sitting up in his hospital bed in Kyiv, his right arm in bandages and pinned with metal rods.

Mr. Dudko was transported from Bakhmut to a hospital in Dnipro, then transferred to a second hospital in Zhytomyr and finally to Kyiv, where he continues to recover after multiple surgeries.

The doctors have encouraged him and told him he will be able to walk again, but he struggles with the realization that “in my 30s, I’m an invalid.”

“Every day you face challenges [on the front] that make you reevaluate what is important and what is not,” he says.

“Before the war, I was convinced that a person forges their own destiny,” he says. Today, due to what he considers miraculous occurrences, Mr. Dudko believes “God does exist and he helps.”

He believes his life was spared on his last day in Bakhmut: Only one piece of shrapnel cut into him despite his protective vest getting shredded to pieces by the wave of explosives. Even in the midst of shelling, he says, he experienced a sense of inner peace and trust, which he continues to experience in his convalescence.

“I would stop panicking and start thinking clearly about what I needed to do next,” he says. During one instance of shelling, his clarity of thought compelled him to run from his unit to save a soldier he knew was stuck in a car a short distance from the unit. They both escaped to safety.

“I had this intent to save a person and I believe God saved me, too.”

These days, Mr. Dudko says, he has entrusted his entire life to God: “When you let go of the situation and ask God for his help, everything turns out well.” 

“One of the most difficult things for me as a priest is to find words of hope for our people.”

For many who have endured Russian occupation, simple acts of charity are powerful examples of courageous witness in the face of real danger.

Nadia Makhnyk lived in Beryslav, a district on the right bank of the Dnipro River located across from the Russian-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka. The front was just behind her house; in some places, the river is just four yards wide. The Russians took Beryslav in April 2022, but lost it in November.

Initial fighting damaged local infrastructure and, last May, Ms. Makhnyk lost electricity. Cut off, she decided to buy a Russian SIM card for her cell phone to access the internet. During that time, she volunteered at a soup kitchen, run out of a local Greek Catholic parish, Maccabee Martyrs.

The pastor, the Reverend Oleksandr Bilskyy, was outside Beryslav when the invasion began and could not return immediately to the parish. However, he organized the delivery of donations of basic necessities to the area, as well as supplies for his parishioners to run the soup kitchen.

Ms. Makhnyk volunteered at the soup kitchen with a woman named Viktoriya. On 9 May, which Russians observe as Victory Day, Russian soldiers brought Ukrainian prisoners of war to Beryslav to help clean the area. Viktoriya and others took food to the prisoners and memorized the phone numbers of the prisoners’ relatives, then called the relatives to let them know the men were alive.

“It was very dangerous,” says Ms. Makhnyk.

Basilian Sister Yelysaveta Varnitskasister fits a girl for a new sweater in Preobrazhenka.
Basilian Sister Yelysaveta Varnitskasister fits a girl for a new sweater in Preobrazhenka, a village on the front line in southern Ukraine. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

In July, she and others evacuated Beryslav, joining the millions of other Ukrainians displaced from their homes. They waited five days to leave because of a 500-car line-up; the Russian forces were allowing only about 10 cars through every three hours. On their 186-mile journey westward, they passed 27 Russian roadblocks. Some people slept in their cars, waiting to get through, she says.

Ms. Makhnyk was touched by the people of one Russian-occupied village who welcomed evacuees and helped them without charge. She was also moved by the charitable acts of local Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests. She currently lives at a shelter in Lviv operated by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

She says Father Bilskyy has since returned to his parish in Beryslav and has been involved in transporting aid to people near the front.

Even in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv — considered the soul of the country and largely spared the destruction of the invasion — “the life of our parishes,” says the Reverend Oleksiy Zavada, “has changed because of the war.”

Father Zavada pastors Ascension of Our Lord Greek Catholic Church. His church, along with many others across the country, holds constant prayer vigil, with parishioners signing up to pray in half-hour periods 24 hours a day.

“It seems to me, what is important [is that] … the church needs to be with people.

“I think one of the most difficult things for me as a priest is to find words of hope for our people,” he continues, adding that one priest told him late last year that he had no words left for funeral homilies.

Father Yevhen Cherniuk visits with wounded soldiers at the military hospital in Kyiv.
Father Yevhen Cherniuk, a military chaplain of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, visits with wounded soldiers at the military hospital in Kyiv, taking time to speak with them, anoint them and administer the sacraments. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

“It’s difficult to explain the words of the Gospel, when Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ ”

Despite the challenges, churches must persevere in providing insight and wisdom with the language of the Gospel, says Elizabeth H. Prodromou, a visiting scholar at Boston College and expert on the intersection of geopolitics, religion and human rights, especially as it relates to the dominant narratives that she says misrepresent the war.

At an event in Chicago on 23 February to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Orthodox scholar spoke of the two opposing narratives of the war — presented by Russia on the one hand, and the United States and Western nations on the other — which she said objectify Ukraine, take away its agency and suppress its voice.

Churches “need not be captured by those narratives,” she said. Rather, it is their responsibility to acknowledge these narratives, reflect on them and critique them with Gospel language, such as “love, peace, justice, judgment, mercy, forgiveness, repentance,” and to “redirect … secular narratives that are based on … win/lose” ways of thinking, she continued.

“Churches need to speak as church, centered … in love, centered in Christ.”

Metropolitan Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, who founded Ukrainian Catholic University and has traveled to Ukraine repeatedly during the first year of the war, believes the experience of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the underground during the Soviet era serves as a powerful witness to faithfulness to the Gospel.

The church did not capitulate to the Soviet regime, he said at another event in Chicago marking the anniversary. Instead, it carried into the underground and emerged from it with the tradition of Catholic social teaching: “God-given dignity, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good.” These principles have penetrated Ukrainian society since the church emerged in 1989, and have served as the guiding principles for Ukrainians during this war and the source of their resilience, he added.

“The light and life of Christ could not be contained [during communism] … and it cannot be contained today.”

The witness of the underground church, which stood up to power, is relevant in the current context: “You can address catastrophe if you do so in the light of Christ,” he said. “It is there that I see hope for peace and a joy that fills the heart of men and women.”

Father Yevhen Cherniuk, a military chaplain of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, speaks with Ukrainian soldier Maksym Chernitsyn, recovering at a hospital in Kyiv from wounds suffered in battle. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)


Barb Fraze is a freelance journalist specializing in international affairs and religion. For more than 35 years, she served as the international editor of Catholic News Service. Konstantin Chernichkin in Lviv and Laura Ieraci and Mariya Kokor in Chicago contributed to this report.

The CNEWA Connection

Over the past year, CNEWA has rushed more than $6 million in emergency funds to church-led relief efforts in Ukraine and in neighboring countries receiving those fleeing the missiles. This aid includes emergency food packages to areas under siege, care for displaced pensioners, shelter for people with special needs, spiritual and psychological counseling for those displaced, temporary housing and the supply of medicines and other supplies to medical facilities. Other support has included helping local churches to form the next generation of church leaders — a mission that is all the more important in times of war.

To support this crucial work, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or visit cnewa.org/work/ukraine.

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