Listen to this story:
ROME – In their annual Christmas message, European bishops lamented the fact that many Ukrainians will not experience a joyful holiday with family, but rather will celebrate far from home or under the threat of bombs.
Members of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC) noted that Christians across the globe are busily preparing for Christmas, “a feast of expectation, love, hope and peace.”
Given the special message of love, hope and peace associated with the season, Christmastime is important for many whether they adhere to the Christian faith or not, they said, lamenting that for some, “these are particularly trying times” when the seasonal spark of joy is harder to find.
“We think especially of the immense suffering of the people in Ukraine, and those who have been forced to flee from their homes to seek refuge from the brutal military invasion initiated now more than nine months ago,” they said.
Ongoing violence and bloodshed in Ukraine, they said, is “an open wound of humanity over which dark shadows of war have continued to spread, risking to widen even further.”
The war in Ukraine, which just reached its 300th day, broke out nearly 10 months ago with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and has so far claimed thousands of lives, many of whom are civilians, and has forced millions from their homes.
Russian strikes have recently targeted Ukraine’s energy critical infrastructure as the winter months get colder and temperatures continue to drop.
In response to lengthy power outages leaving millions without heat or light in the frigid temperatures, the Vatican has launched a crowdfunding campaign to send thermal jackets, sweaters, and underwear to Ukraine to help remaining residents survive the winter.
Aid organizations are also raising money to purchase gas-powered stoves, heaters and generators for Ukrainian citizens.
Pope Francis in a recent Wednesday general audience asked faithful to spend less on Christmas gifts and celebrations this year and to instead send the difference to Ukrainians to help them get through the toughest months of the war yet without freezing or going hungry.
In their message, signed by COMECE President Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg and CEC President Rev. Christian Krieger, the European bishops said that despite the present circumstances there is still a message of hope for “the tried people of God.”
This message, they said, is found in scripture when it says, “The people living in darkness have seen a great light,” and “a child has been born to us, a son given to us, and he ‘is named Prince of Peace.”
“God’s way is not power and selfishness. On the contrary, it encompasses closeness and compassion,” they said, noting that scripture itself reveals that “God did not manifest Himself to the prophet neither in the powerful wind, nor in the earthquake nor in the fire, but in ‘sheer silence.’”
In becoming human flesh, Jesus “became a gift to humanity in a small and fragile child Jesus Christ,” the bishops said, and urged faithful to offer special prayers for Ukraine as Christmas approaches.
“May the Peace of Christ bring calm to the rattling of weapons and comfort to mothers weeping for their children, who had to die because of some selfish interests. May He unite the many families and communities that have been torn apart by hatred and violence,” they said.
As thousands are “tormented by cold, hunger and fear,” the bishops prayed that “no one feel abandoned, and may all those fleeing the horrors of war find a warm welcome.”
Though they did not name Russia specifically, they also asked that the aggressors of the war be moved by “the terrible human suffering” and that they would be “guided by the virtues of wisdom, integrity and discernment” in stopping all hostilities.
They voiced hope that by doing this, “all parties, with the help of the international community, may open themselves up to dialogue and negotiation of serious proposals towards a just peace.”
“May the message of Christmas inspire us all to seek reconciliation and peace, so that instead of walls of division and indifference, seeds of mutual respect, solidarity and human fraternity be planted and nourished in our hearts,” they said.
The bishops also included a special prayer they urged faithful to pray this Christmas which asked the “God of peace” to protect and grant strength to the people of Ukraine and to all “who are caught up in violence and war, for all those suffering and afraid.”
“We pray for world leaders, for wisdom, integrity and compassion, that you will guide their feet in the way of justice and reconciliation,” they said, and also prayed for church leaders to act with “determination and courage” so that in these difficult times, they can speak words “of truth and righteousness.”
They also prayed for the people of Russia and for “all those who plead for an end to violence and conflict, for all those who are persecuted for speaking against aggression,” asking that they would be consoled, supported, and safeguarded.
The bishops closed the prayer asking that God comfort for those who are mourning and that he would grant “hope for those who despair, forgiveness for those who commit violence, and mercy for all who suffer.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen