Until the Russian military escalated its buildup along the Ukrainian frontier earlier this year, the relationship between the Polish and Ukrainian states since the collapse of the Soviet Union had been marked by periods of cooperation punctuated with occasional disputes. These disparities seemed to be gathering steam as of late as both countries have struggled to come to terms with their own histories and national identities.
Similarly, the relationship between the Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches in Poland and Ukraine through much of the 20th century could be described as rocky as well, although relations have improved considerably since a low point that immediately followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But for Poles and Ukrainians, the Russian onslaught that began on 24 February has demonstrated the futility of such disputes when confronted with annihilation from a common enemy.
Overnight, as shell-shocked women and children fled the initial shock and awe of the Russian invasion and flooded Ukraine’s neighbors — especially Poland — ordinary people opened their hearts and homes and received the weary, offering refugees food, clothing and shelter.
“At first it was all confusion, a mess,” was the common refrain I heard from local church leaders when in Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine from 29 April to 3 May as a member of a delegation led by the chair of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York.
Individual and local church efforts to care for the refugees preceded anything organized by secular authorities, local or national, noted Archbishop Cyril Vasil, S.J., a former official of the Holy See’s Congregation for Eastern Churches who now leads the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Kosice in southeastern Slovakia, just miles from the Ukrainian border.
Various branches of Caritas, the charitable network of the Catholic Church, on the parish, diocesan and national levels, sprung into action, setting up welcome centers to distribute aid collected by parishioners and people of good will.
Long prepared for such a disaster, Caritas receiving centers in Ukraine and in neighboring countries, such as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, provided hot meals, recharging stations for cell phones, food supplies, personal hygiene kits, emergency shelter, blankets and clothes, especially coats. Caritas social workers, priests and religious provided counsel and referrals, as parishes and parishioners offered hospitality.
In the lovely Polish city of Przemysl, which is the first stop on the rail line to Poland that originates in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the archbishops of the city’s Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic communities pooled their funds and directed all their aid efforts through Caritas, encouraging their priests and religious to coordinate their activities to minimize redundancies and inefficiencies.
“For us,” said CNEWA’s president, Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, “this immediate and coordinated response by the local churches provided us with the secure mechanisms to deliver aid quickly and safely, ensuring that it would be used specifically to support Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion.”
CNEWA is an agency of the Holy See founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926 to support the works of the Eastern churches. CNEWA has deep roots with Ukrainians, helping Ukrainian refugees in Europe and Turkey in the 1920s and supporting the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in exile when the Soviets drove it underground in 1946. The agency returned to Ukraine when it declared independence in 1991.
“We are in constant contact with our partners throughout Ukraine,” said Kyiv-born Anna Dombrovska, CNEWA’s program officer. “We are very aware of what they have the capacity to do and the pressing circumstances in which they are working.”
“These relationships,” added Msgr. Vaccari, “have enabled us to expand our network beyond Ukraine, and to identify new partners in areas such as Poland and Moldova where we have not worked traditionally.”
Two such groups are the Knights of Columbus, a U.S.-based lay organization with councils throughout Poland and Ukraine, and Malteser International, the humanitarian aid agency of the Order of Malta.
While on our pastoral visit, we witnessed Malteser at work, treating patients at their impromptu clinics set up in train stations and other areas where refugees gather.
More than 14 million of Ukraine’s 43 million people have been uprooted by the war — nearly half of these displaced have sought refuge outside the country. Most Ukrainians who have fled the violence are women and children. Men of fighting age are bound to remain behind, while many elderly have refused to leave their homeland.
Leaving behind their homes, husbands and fathers begrudgingly, these young families bring only that which they can carry: a change of clothes, toothbrushes, a stuffed animal perhaps, a blanket. In their haste, some have forgotten their medicines. Malteser clinics, equipped with supplies donated by Catholics worldwide, receive these families and treat the common, chronic ailments, referring more serious cases to better-equipped health care facilities nearby.
At major border crossings, the Knights of Columbus have established Mercy Centers, large tents that function as temporary shelter, offering medicines, food and clothes, as well as sacred spaces to reflect, pray and seek counsel and advice from the lay volunteer parishioners and religious who staff them. Supported by Knights’ councils worldwide, and with funds from CNEWA’s donors, these Mercy Centers have become important safe links for parishes seeking to “take in the stranger,” many of whom have no idea where to turn.
The heightened vulnerability exposes refugees to nefarious actors and has the many Catholic groups, working on the behalf of refugees, deeply concerned, reinforcing their on-the-ground coordinated activities.
We have all heard stories of people who have fallen through the cracks, who have become victims of domestic violence, noted a Catholic Relief Services representative working at the Caritas hub center in Warsaw to address human trafficking.
A tight network minimizes their exposure, said another.
Meeting with Msgr. Vaccari and me just weeks into the fighting, Archbishop Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Philadelphia, noted the presence of God in all of this, despite the shelling, the atrocities, the death and the displacement.
“People are coming together. People are beginning to believe in something.
“Ukraine has united the world. Ukraine has united a fractured European Union. Ukraine has strengthened the unity and resolve of NATO. Ukraine has even united Democrats and Republicans.
“We have before us a clear objective, a moral reckoning,” he said, “as the story of David standing against Goliath unfolds before all the world to see.”
Reproduced with permission from the Catholic Herald. Read the original article.
Michael J.L. La Civita, K.G.C.H.S., is the director of communications for CNEWA.