WASHINGTON, D.C. — Faith is sustaining and inspiring Ukrainians as they fight to defend their nation from invading Russian forces, the Ukrainian Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia said March 10.
“Ukrainians are together, (Catholic) Ukrainians have courage because they have a mindset informed by Catholic social doctrine,” Archbishop Borys Gudziak said during a news conference at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family.
But he said that while the Catholic faith sustains the people of Ukraine, it is being threatened by Russian forces seeking to overtake the country. He also criticized Russian attacks on civilians.
“In the last 250 years, every time you see the Russian occupation of Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Catholic Church is ministering, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has been strangled,” Gudziak said of the Eastern Catholic rite. He added that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also was “extinguished” by Russian occupiers. “Religions are being hit hard.”
He likened Ukrainians suffering to Lent and said, “We are on a pilgrimage to resurrection.”
“Ukraine is being crucified,” he said. “It is being crucified and the world watches and the world waits. It is clear what is happening is devastating.”
The archbishop said that in some besieged cities, Masses and other services “are regular, but hidden. They are being held in bomb shelters and subways.”
“Children are being born. Children are being baptized. We have seen some of the marriages performed on the (battle) front. Life goes on, and people with faith are willing to give their lives” to defend Ukraine, he said.
Gudziak said that escape routes from the war “have become corridors of death … people fleeing have been shot at.”
“There are actually more civilian casualties than military casualties,” he said.
He noted that schools, apartments, residences, hospitals and even a Holocaust memorial have been hit by Russian artillery, and “this has caused an atmosphere of great fear.”
In the city of Mariupol, a maternity hospital was bombed. The archbishop said the Russians claimed the hospital was housing soldiers.
“There were no soldiers in that hospital, there were mothers giving birth and mothers weaning their children and mothers hoping to go home,” he said. “They (Russian forces) intended to hit that building, they aimed at it.”
Gudziak said intercepted Russian military documents show that “the Russian invaders” planned on overtaking the country within 15 days.
Likening the war to the biblical story of David and Goliath, Gudziak said, “Ukraine is holding its own against the second-biggest army in the world.” He said that within Ukraine, in addition to military personnel, about 250,000 men and women have joined territorial civil defense units, and about 100,000 Ukrainian nationals living abroad have returned home to fight.
“We see that Ukraine has withstood the first assault that was intended to bring the government down,” he said, adding that now the fear is “indiscriminate bombings that could lead to leveling of cities.”
“What the world fears most and what (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin has already threatened is the application of nuclear weapons,” Gudziak said. “It is not inconceivable that tactical nuclear weapons could be used … to capture the capital as they aim for the charismatic president.”
Putin is waging this war, the archbishop said, because Ukraine has a free and open society.
“Ukraine is being punished because it is a democracy, with a free press, freedom of conscience, free elections,” he said. “A vibrant democracy and a liberal society are what Putin fears most.”
Speaking of the outpouring of sympathy and support for the besieged Ukrainians and the massive assistance being offered to those fleeing that war-torn nation, Gudziak said the world community could be proud how it is responding to the crisis.
“There is a global community of people — people of goodwill, simple people — that are serious about what is just and what is right and what is wrong. Rare is there such clarity,” he said. “Ukrainians have united the world. Back here at home they have united Democrats and Republicans — that’s a miracle.”
The archbishop thanked Americans for the solidarity and support they have shown to the Ukrainian people, and added, “We’re asking you to pray and to help.”
He noted that as of March 10, about 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees had fled the country, and he asked people to imagine what it would be like for much of the population of metropolitan Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia to suddenly have to flee their homes, continuing onward for days in freezing weather in search of a safe haven, which they have found in neighboring European countries.
“It is clear that millions of refugees will need hospitality, and it would be wonderful if America, which was built by immigrants, if we could prepare to welcome these homeless, beleaguered people,” he said.
After the news conference, the shrine hosted a memorial service to honor those killed in the war.
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Szczepanowski is managing editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.