Catholic University in western Ukraine now housing war refugees


ROME – Father Andrii Shestak, director of the School of Journalism and Communications at Ukrainian Catholic University, said locals feel like David battling Goliath.

“We feel like this is a battle of David and Goliath,” he said. “And we are David. And we are witnessing many miracles every day. It’s been six days since the invasion. And we are still standing. Kyiv is still standing. Kyiv is still the capital of a free Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian Catholic University is located in the western city of Lviv, and it currently serves as home to some 150 students turned refugees, many of whom have their families now living with them.

Among those living with Shestak are his wife and their son. As is the case with several Eastern rite churches in communion with Rome, Greek Catholic Ukrainian priests can be married.

It is the only Catholic university in the former Soviet Union, and it’s unofficially known as the only Catholic university “between Poland and Japan.” Though officially established in 2002, it is the heir of the Lviv Theological Academy, created in 1928, suppressed by the Soviet Union in 1939, and revived in 1994.

The university is part of the revival of the Greek Catholic Church after the fall of the Soviet Union, when it was the largest illegal religious body in the world. The largest of the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, it has more than 3 million followers in Ukraine and around 5.5 million worldwide.

In a good mood despite the situation, Shestak said that in mid-February, “with the bishop” – he didn’t give the name – “we were joking, saying that it was possible the first bombs thrown by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would be directed at us, because this was once the heart of the ideological propaganda of the Soviet Union, and it has become the heart of the Catholic intellectuals in Ukraine.”

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union began building here “a huge building to spread its propaganda to all of the eastern part of the union.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, the Church bought the land to build the university.

Queried about his mood, Shestak said, “I have to be in good spirits: It is my responsibility to try and transmit hope to the people.” This applies not only to when he speaks with the students, but also when he delivers his homilies during a Mass that is broadcast via Facebook.

Of those currently finding refuge at the university, “everyone is trying to do at least something,” he said. Beyond daily morning prayer – “a great help” – the students have been collecting clothes and food being sent regularly to the capital Kyiv, currently under siege by Russian troops.

“I’m hearing the name of the Lord very often, more than ever before, even in the media,” he said. “Ukraine is in many ways a very secularized society, increasingly so in the last years, with faith decreasing. But in the last five days [since the Russian invasion], this has changed dramatically.”

According to the priest, who has female students married to Ukrainian troops, “those who are fighting, know what they are fighting for. This is a matter of surviving. But I have to say that this situation, something incredibly bad, is allowing us to witness many, many daily miracles.”

And what are they fighting for? “First of all, what we want is peace. Up until five days ago, peace was literally all those who were involved in the fighting wanted,” Shestak said.

“Ukrainians not only want peace, but they want their country to remain theirs. We have been independent for 30 years, but for the first time since the fall of the Wall, we as a people have become conscious of what it means to be an actual country, without Russia. Ukrainians want to have their own country, their own culture, and one that is democratic, not authoritarian,” he said.

“You see here people who truly love their motherland,” said the priest. “It is incredible to see this. We have many, many refugees, virtually every church has become a refuge, as many have underground shelters, and they are giving out food and clothes to people. And this includes Russian-speakers. They too want peace.”

Shestak said that from “an academic” point of view, he can say there are many reasons for Russia’s invasion. For instance, in 2014, Putin attacked Crimea and Donetsk following the Revolution of Dignity, a pro-democracy and pro-European Union protest that toppled the government of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, because these are regions with large gas reserves. “Ukrainian’s couldn’t do anything back then.”

“But today? No,” he said. “All of Ukraine is under attack, so it can’t be about the gas.” However, Shestak mentioned, almost in passing, that “our mentality has changed in these years” in favor of freedom and democracy, and is a threat for Putin and those in Russia who support the war, because the authoritarian regime “has not allowed them to develop a consciousness over issues such as freedom and human rights.”

He added that the idea that the war is motivated by “someone wanting a piece of land” in the 21st century is something that simply cannot be.

The priest also said that Ukrainians are particularly saddened by the fact that Russia has sent “very young boys, who are not even in their 20s, as cannon fodder. This is simply crazy, mindboggling.”

Regarding Pope Francis’s call for Ash Wednesday to be a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine, the priest said that before the war, “many were skeptical,” unsure as to why he was asking for prayers as it “seemed as something distant, insignificant.”

“But this attitude has changed here too,” Shestak said. “Seventy two countries have voiced their support to Ukraine. But the force of prayer? You can feel it in everyday situations. One of our military chaplains, who is a friend of mine, told me that the soldiers he is with are extremely brave, fearless, finding strength from ‘I don’t know where’ to do what they need to do, remain alert even without sleeping, finding courage every day to defend their country.”

Shestak also had a message for journalists, including those who were formed by the Ukrainian Catholic University: “I have to underline that journalistic work is a prophetic job, as they are translating the truth of what is happening to all the people.”

“We are very grateful for all the colleagues in the U.S., in South America, in Europe, who are telling the reality about the situation in Ukraine: We have a war,” he said.

“This human emotion of global solidarity that we are experiencing today can only be fueled with the support of the journalistic efforts. We hope this attitude of telling the truth about what is going on here will continue until the war ends.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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