Even if Western Europe may be looking toward autumn with a sigh of relief after a summer of constant heatwaves, Ukrainian towns are preparing for a harsh winter.
“It will be the hardest one since World War II,” said Jan Sobiło, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia.
John Paul II used to call the region “the far lands,” Sobiło recalled, since what historically has been the wild steppes is also now an area with very few trees.
“I already ordered wood from western Ukraine; it will be a very hard winter with many shortages of gas, electricity and water supplies,” the bishop told Crux.
“People are installing heating units for wood and coal; they don’t have a choice, winter is not a wonderland here and certainly it won’t be this year,” he said.
Zaporizhzhia is in the news due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The city is the location of a nuclear power plant that is currently occupied by the Russians.
Both the Russian forces and Ukrainian army accuse the other side of shelling the plant, which is the largest nuclear facility in Europe.
“That would be a disaster on many levels, including humanitarian, since we have so many IDPs [internally displaced people] from Mariupol and Melitopol here,” Sobiło said.
The bishop is a trusted religious leader for the local community, which is why he has been present at meetings with the authorities concerning the threat to the nuclear plant.
“We pray, of course, that it doesn’t happen, but we are also ready for potential evacuation, and for spending days in our basements to wait until the radioactivity goes down a bit and people are allowed to move,” he said.
It is not a common image to see a bishop in a bulletproof vest, but this is the reality of Sobiło’s current ministry. He is often visiting soldiers in hospitals and comforting people who lost their loved ones.
“Sometimes I’m a ‘taxi priest’ if someone needs a lift to the train station because they decide to leave,” he told Crux.
The bishop said during a war, a priest becomes as close as a family member to his people.
“Sometimes we are like a brother, sometimes like a father, and sometimes like a son to someone. Our ministry is now very individual, so any time there is a particular need to help spiritually or materially, we go wherever we’re needed,” he said.
Sobiło is on the ground, seeing people’s poverty, despair, and fear. It can be hard for outsiders to understand, including popes.
The bishop said he couldn’t understand the words of Pope Francis in last week’s general audience, when he said he thinks “of so much cruelty, so many innocents who are paying for the madness, the madness of all sides, because war is madness.”
The pope then mentioned as an “innocent victim” the public commentator Daria Dugina, daughter of Russian propagandist, Alexander Dugin. Dugina herself was a constant media presence, pushing for harsher measures in the war. She was killed by a car bomb in Moscow on Aug. 20. The Russians blamed the Ukrainians, although many analysts put the blame on the Russian security forces.
“People here were surprised and disappointed with the general audience statement,” Sobiło told Crux.
“My first thought was of two girls from Donetsk region: Their father told me that in 2014 when really this war started and Russians attacked, his girls were hiding in the basement. And when the shelling ended they came out to get some fresh air, and then the last rocket hit and killed one of them and the other one lost both her legs. I thought of those Ukrainian girls when I heard the Holy Father,” the bishop said.
“I couldn’t stop thinking of it at night and in the storm of thoughts I got this – ‘who informs the Holy Father?’ He is such a good, honest man. He is the man of a good heart and cares deeply about the people of Ukraine, I know it. So maybe one of his advisors told him about ‘poor Dugina’ and that’s how it started,” he continued.
“If the Western world is so influenced by the Russian rhetoric, why wouldn’t they manage to get to the Vatican? That’s not a surprise for me,” he told Crux.
The Vatican, faced with backlash from Ukrainian people and officials, released a statement this week saying, “the Holy Father’s words on this dramatic issue should be read as a voice raised in defense of human life and the values attached to it, not as political stances.” In the message, the Vatican also acknowledged the war was “initiated by Russian Federation.”
Sobiło said when people ask him, “What’s going on in the Vatican,” he says: “Don’t worry, the Holy Father is with us. He suffers with you and he will see it firsthand when he comes to Ukraine.”
The bishop said a papal visit is much needed for the suffering nation, and it is rumored Francis will visit before his Sept. 13-15 visit to Kazakhstan.
In his conversation with Crux, Sobiło said that one of the hardest stances during war is the radical Christian rule of “loving your enemy.”
“Many Ukrainians in my diocese say it’s very hard. For Christian soldiers it’s also dramatic to face the fact they may have to kill. But they look at it the Christian way – I am not killing because I hate Russians. I may need to do that because I love my country, I love my family, and I need to defend peace,” he said, adding, “and that it’s an act of mercy to stop evil from spreading.”
The bishop said one soldier asked him for his blessing, and told him: “Please tell my family I am sorry for all the evil of war I had to take part in.”
“At war, there is no people without faith,” Sobiło said.
Although he was born in Poland – becoming auxiliary bishop in 2010 – the bishop said he has no plans on leaving Ukraine for the safety of his homeland. Like all the Catholic bishops in the country, he is staying with his people.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he told Crux.
“If our people stay, we stay. When they’re forced to go, we’ll go. If God wants us here, God will provide.”
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