LVIV, Ukraine — For Msgr. Kieran Harrington, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, the timing of his visit to Ukraine — Holy Week according to the Julian calendar — was intentional.
“I thought that it is important at this moment of war to come to a place we support to be with those who are in the midst of suffering, to be with Christ where he is suffering now, to stand at the foot of the cross here in Ukraine,” he said.
“You cannot stop the suffering, but you can be with them, so that they know they are not suffering by themselves, so they know that they are not alone,” he said. “It matters that someone comes and cares about your suffering.”
Harrington admitted a bit of fear traveling to Ukraine. “And then I meet mothers concerned about their children, who’ve heard the pounding of bombs and the scaring effect of that. I speak to a young girl who had gone through that experience and is looking at her sister and not wanting her sister to experience that.
“And others feel hatred for what is being done and are so upset that they are hating, because they know we are made for love. This is the takeaway for me. That God made us to love. And war makes us hate.”
Bringing humanitarian aid and other assistance for the outreach by the church in Ukraine and in Poland, Harrington noted that “spiritual accompaniment” was critical as well: “to be here in Holy Week, to pray with the people, to journey with them through our Lord’s passion and crucifixion, to remind them of the hope of the resurrection.”
The Pontifical Mission Societies are intended to help the church grow, including with programs for children.
“But now we are in war,” Harrington said, “and many of those who have supported our work want to help with the immediate need. And so that is why I am here, to bring that immediate help for food, for medicine. Our brothers and sisters are suffering, so we give what we can.”
Traveling with Harrington throughout Ukraine were Father Sebastian Sardo, an Argentine priest who is ecclesiastical assistant at the U.S. office of the Pontifical Mission Societies, and Father Israel Perez, a priest of the Brooklyn Diocese, who is originally from Cuba.
St. Joseph Monastery of the Basilian Fathers near Lviv opened its doors to 170 refugees. This is where the U.S. group started its journey in Ukraine April 20.
Basilian Father Panteleimon Trofimov, the monastery’s superior, told Msgr. Harrington he had no hesitation in welcoming the refugees, mostly mothers and children.
“We are Christians. How could we not welcome them into our home? Our place is to be with people,” he said.
One refugee, Halina, made a 12-hour journey from Kyiv to the Lviv monastery. She said she asks God to keep as many people alive as possible. When asked about where God is in all this, a widow, Taisia, 85, also staying at the monastery, said: “God is here! Here’s an example for you: How else did we get here?”
Many Eastern-rite Catholics, as well as Orthodox, celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar, often a week after Latin-rite Catholics celebrate Easter.
On Holy Thursday, April 21, Msgr. Harrington visited Ternopil. In addition to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, he met with Ukrainian Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Teodor Martynyuk and discussed church efforts to assist refugees from eastern Ukraine.
The U.S. delegation traveled to Kyiv on Good Friday, April 22, and visited an area with cars destroyed by bullets and bombs — cars where children and families were killed. The priests also prayed at a mass grave.
“Horrifying,” Harrington said. “You see the physical destruction, but in speaking to the people, you also learn the emotional destruction.
“God is suffering with us in these moments, but it’s not the last word; we know that from Good Friday,” he said. “It may be ferocious, but at the end of the day, evil is conquered by grace.”
Returning to Lviv for Easter April 24, Harrington reflected on his journey in light of Holy Week.
“It’s the grace of Christ’s death and resurrection that give us life,” he said, “and we believe that there will be an Easter moment.”
He encouraged prayer — “we help by our prayers” — and support — “that is what charity is, it is love, giving of ourselves.”
“This was a privileged time,” Harrington said, “a blessing to walk with them in their suffering, to walk with them in solidarity.”
By the end of the week, $200,000 had been sent by the Pontifical Mission Societies to support the efforts of the Catholic Church in Ukraine and Poland to assist refugees and those in immediate need.