KRAKÒW, Poland – While Russian war on Ukraine escalates, the Catholic Church is extending help to anyone in need, including internally displaced persons (IDPs) seeking shelter and food, locals seeking help and blessing.
Polish religious and clergy working in the country have refused to leave Ukraine. Ukrainians serving in Polish religious provinces have decided to do the same.
“Over the last hours I heard declarations that they will stay, even for the price of martyrdom,” said Father Leszek Kryża, head of the Bureau for Helping Church in the East of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, in comments to Crux.
There are an estimated 300 religious and diocesan clergy from Poland in Ukraine. In addition, many of the members of Polish provinces serving in Ukraine are Ukrainian.
“We have a brother from Ukraine that will be ordained in three months and was supposed to leave then for Ukraine, but he asked me to go now,” Father Łukasz Wiśniewski, the Dominican provincial in Poland, told Crux. “He wants to be with his people.”
“Yesterday I was on the phone with our brothers in Ukraine the entire morning – they all declared they’re staying,” said Wiśniewski. There are 25 brothers in the Vicariate of Ukraine, which is part of the Polish Dominican province.
Kryża said the situation is “tragic.”
“Not long ago, the front line was drawn in the east, now it’s everywhere in Ukraine,” the priest said.
He added that thousands of Ukrainian civilians are driving towards the western border of the country, seeking shelter in Poland.
“People are desperate – there is no gas. Yesterday the limit was 20 liters (less than 4½ gallons) per car, now it’s hard to get any,” Kryża said, pointing out there are many vulnerable people traveling on dangerous roads.
“I just got a phone call from a bus full of mothers and children that is trying to reach the Polish border,” he said.
Religious orders and churches are already becoming places of shelter for Ukrainians.
“The country is vast. In terrible traffic that they experience now, it takes at least two days to drive from the eastern to the western border; it’s 1500 kilometers (930 miles) – they need stops on the way,” Kryża continued, explaining that religious houses and churches are becoming places of shelter for Ukrainians.
Father Bartłomiej Przepeluk, a Jesuit from Khmelnytskyi, a Ukrainian city 215 miles west of the capital, Kiev, is organizing shelter for those on the move.
“We want people to be able to stop here, eat, drink tea or coffee, before hitting the road again,” he told jezuici.pl, the website of the Polish Jesuits. On Friday, 15-20 people were sheltering at the retreat house in Khmelnytskyi.
“We’re fighting according to the rule: Fight evil with good,” he added.
Father Jerzy Limanówka, spokesman of the Polish Pallotines said on Twitter that people are already gathering to shelter in their religious houses in L’viv, Zhytomyr and Kiev.
“Our Capuchin brothers are staying too,” Brother Tomasz Żak of the Franciscan Capuchins in Poland told Crux.
“People are sheltering in our church facilities’ basements and lower churches. So far they have food. But it is only day two of an open war,” he added.
“We have 36 brothers in Ukraine, most are Polish and Ukrainian, but there are also a few Russians. One of them, our Russian brother, just left with the Ukrainian army as their chaplain,” the brother said.
“We are asked to bless people that go to war, and praying with those who stay,” Father Michał Wocial, a Salesian working in Zhytomyr, told Polish television.
“Franciscans are staying with the people of Ukraine,” Conventual Franciscan Stanisław Kawa, custodian and head of the Conference of Religious Superiors in Ukraine, said in a statement. Seventeen Franciscan brothers live and work in five different locations in Ukraine, including L’viv and Boryspil, near Kiev.
“Let’s remember that there are many, many people who won’t go anywhere: The elderly, homeless, the poor. Polish clergy and religious is bravely taking care of them and not abandoning their people,” Kryża told Crux.
The Bureau for Helping Church in the East dedicates nearly $300,000 annually to aid the church in Ukraine: “Since [Thursday], I feel like I’m working in the military headquarters, so many different organizations want to send help to Ukraine through our channels.”
Kryża noted the lay organization, the Knights of St. John Paul II, left Friday with a car full of basic food necessities toward the Ukrainian border.
But even more important than getting food and material to those in need, Kryża said, people need to pray.
“There is an amazing prayer chain between Poland and Ukraine. When I talk to the locals they always say – you pray for us, but we also pray for you with gratitude for all you do,” the priest said.
Follow Paulina Guzik on Twitter: @Guzik_Paulina