ROME — Far from his seminary near Kyiv, Ukraine, seminarian Bohdan Mandziuk is still in regular contact with his classmates and, like them, is trying to find ways to help.
While a group of seminarians temporarily staying in Ternopil, in Western Ukraine, “spent all morning digging up potatoes and loading them in trucks” for delivery to people in need Feb. 28, Mandziuk was in London giving interviews, speaking at parishes, welcoming people to the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral and preparing a Bible reflection to share on social media.
That same day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office posted a video on the 10 Downing Street YouTube channel featuring Johnson’s visit to the cathedral Feb. 27 — with commentary from Mandziuk.
The 20-year-old English-Ukrainian seminarian went home to England for a one-week break in late January and was unable to return to the Three Holy Hierarchs Seminary in the village of Kniazhychi just outside Kyiv.
Just over a month ago, he told Catholic News Service Feb. 28, he was in Ukraine with the other seminarians, studying, praying and visiting families. “Now they’re in a war zone and I just can’t get that in my head. I can’t imagine what it looks like, what it feels like.”
“I don’t think I’ve been in touch with one person who hasn’t either seen something burning or heard an explosion,” and that includes people in Western Ukraine, hundreds of miles from the fiercest attacks on Kyiv and other major cities.
Even when he and Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski of the Ukrainian Eparchy of the Holy Family in London decided to heed British government warnings to U.K. citizens not to travel to Ukraine, Mandziuk said he figured he would continue studying online with his classmates like he had done in 2020-21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“And for two weeks it was pretty normal,” he said. “Nobody thought it would come to what we’ve got now.”
But a few days before the invasion began, Mandziuk said, the seminarians in Ukraine started asking, “What if there is an invasion? Alarm bells did not start to ring, but they were on alert.”
When the seminarians were awakened Feb. 24 by the sound of rocket fire, they celebrated Divine Liturgy and then got to work filling sandbags and hauling water to the large basement in the unfinished new wing of the seminary.
Mandziuk said he spent about 20 minutes on a video call with his classmates that day and heard four explosions. “There was a statue of the Virgin Mary moving around behind them” with each blast, “and I thought, this isn’t good.” A military base nearby was being shelled.
His classmates finished putting sandbags around the basement walls, brought in a lot of water and made a run to the grocery store, bringing “a mountain of stuff” back, he said. Villagers, including families with small children, are now benefiting from the preparations as they shelter in the seminary basement with a couple of seminarians and priests.
Most of his classmates, he said, were sent to other seminaries or monasteries or to their families in Western Ukraine; they are all helping with humanitarian efforts like collecting and delivering food.
Mandziuk said the rector reminded the seminarians Feb. 28 that they must remain “spiritual people — that’s the term he used.”
“He said, ‘Do not pick up weapons,'” at least for the time being, the seminarian said.
The rector knows the students are patriotic and concerned for their country, Mandziuk said, and he even told them he knew some would be tempted to enlist, but the country also needs people who are committed to prayer, civil service and humanitarian aid work.
Mandziuk said that watching the news from London, checking the Facebook posts of his friends in Ukraine and talking to his fellow seminarians who are still there convinces him that “what we saw on the Maidan in 2014 has come to fruition now.”
He was referring to the monthslong demonstrations on the central square in Kyiv, a protest now referred to as the “Revolution of Dignity” and one which saw Russia-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ousted from power.
“Now you are seeing it,” Mandziuk said. “People may have been frightened in 2014 and didn’t come out. Now the whole country’s mobilized; everyone’s on their feet,” standing for democracy and freedom and self-determination.