Ukrainian parish in Rome becomes center of support for homeland


ROME – Santa Sophia basilica, the national church for Ukrainians in Rome, has become a gathering point for those wanting to donate items for the victims of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Since the invasion began on Feb. 24, over 1,200 tons of aid has been sent from the church to Ukraine.

“We are extremely thankful for all that which has been donated,” said Father Marco Semehen, rector of the church. “Over 37 days in the war, there is a bit of donor fatigue, so we don’t have as many things arriving. But to tell the truth, the needs have somewhat shifted.”

The doors of the basilica are always open, and people continue to arrive every day, along with several grocery store trucks delivering items bought by individuals online.

The priest said the church will continue to serve as a conduit for those wanting to donate to Ukraine, but added, “now there is another window of activity.” 

“The welcoming of refugees, trying to give them a first welcome, providing them with much needed information, explaining to them what they have to do to take their first steps in Italy, and to do so properly,” Semehen told Crux.

A Marian icon is seen amid boxes of humanitarian assistance to be sent to Ukraine at the Basilica of St. Sophia, the church of the Ukrainians in Rome, March 7, 2022. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

They have launched a free intensive Italian course with over 250 refugees signing up in the first week. The parish is also providing the refugees with material aid, “because many arrived here with nothing, or with a small bag, as it was all most of them could flee with.”

Children have joined the church’s Sunday school, and every Saturday, Rome’s health care system sets up a pop-up office within the basilica’s compound to help the refugees acquire the card which gives them access to Italy’s health care system. In addition, they are helping people fill in the paperwork to get their temporary residence permits.

The latest UN figures show that at least 4 million people have fled Ukraine because of the war. In Italy alone, 71,940 people have entered the country, of whom 37,082 are women, 6,661 men, and 28,197 children. At the beginning of the conflict, over 3,000 people came to Italy from Ukraine every day, but the numbers have slowed.

Thus far, Poland has taken in the largest number of refugees from Ukraine, with close to 2.5 million people crossing the border, and 2 million of them remaining, according to President Andrzej Duda, who met with Pope Francis on Friday.

Santa Sophia has also secured an agreement with Rome’s hospital Fate Bene Fratelli to provide doctors every Saturday, so that the refugees can have a medical consultation even as they wait for their health care card.

“We aren’t doing anything extraordinary … Just trying to do our very best to help people fulfill their basic necessities while also providing them with spiritual accompaniment, with a ministry tailored to this new reality, particularly taking into consideration that this is the season of Lent,” said the priest.

Pope Francis and Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, release doves at the end of the pope’s meeting with the Ukrainian Catholic community at the Basilica of Santa Sophia in Rome Jan. 28, 2018. (Credit: Remo Casilli/Reuters via CNS.)

Ukraine is among Europe’s most church-going countries. Though Catholics are a minority, and one divided between Latin Rite Catholics and Ukrainian Greek Catholics, an estimated 30 percent of the population attends a religious service every weekend, and the number goes up to 50 percent during major holidays such as Easter and Christmas.

“It is difficult to say how many people passed through the basilica, but at least 1,900 people were helped or assisted in some way,” Semehen said. “It is important for them to receive the permit for temporary protection, but the reality is that they want to return home; the vast majority of them are waiting for the invasion to end so that they can go back. Of this I am sure.”

In recent weeks, the basilica has received the visit of several high-ranking Vatican officials, including Cardinal Michael Czerny, interim head of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, who has been sent to Ukraine twice by Francis since the war began as a special delegate. 

Asked about a possible visit by Francis to the parish as a gesture of solidarity, Semehen said that it would be nice and welcome, but noted the pontiff has already made many gestures for the local Ukrainian community, including sending several containers of aid. 

“We feel the pope’s closeness to the suffering Ukrainian people,” the priest said. 

However, the priest said, it would be more significant if the pope traveled as a “messenger of peace” to Kyiv.

“Such a pilgrimage could play a very important role in ending the war,” he said, echoing the voices of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko, and Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

RELATED: Ukraine’s man in the Vatican says papal trip to Kyiv would be ‘message to end the war’

Semehen also asked for the world to come together and pray for Ukraine, “so that the good God, with his providence, will help us to put an end to this war, because the pictures show us so many civilians killed, women raped, families shot to death.”

“We are in 2022, living a catastrophe that will impact the world for years to come,” he said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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