NASHVILLE — The Knights of Columbus are dedicated to offering charity to people in need. But few Knights have had to offer their charity in the midst of a war.
For nearly six months, that has been the life of Youriy Maletskiy and the 2,000 Knights he leads in Ukraine as the fraternal order’s state deputy there.
“My wish is that nobody can live this experience,” said Maletskiy who was in Nashville Aug. 2-4 for the Knights’ 140th Supreme Convention, during which he received the St. Michael Award.
It is presented to a Knight who has distinguished himself with exemplary service to the order and to the Catholic Church.
Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly presented the award to Maletskiy at the annual States Dinner attended by hundreds of Knight delegates and their families, members of the clergy and special guests. The festive evening includes attendees celebrating the Knights’ jurisdictions with flags and songs.
Carl Anderson, who retired as supreme knight in 2021, also was honored for his more than 20 years of service, and New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan delivered the evening’s keynote address.
About Maletskiy, Kelly said he “is one of the busiest and bravest men in the entire order.”
“When war broke out, Youriy could have easily stepped back from his duties as state deputy,” but instead, he decided the best way to serve his country “was by devoting his time and energy to the Knights,” said Kelly.
“Youriy has helped hundreds of thousands of men, women and children suffering in desperate circumstances,” he added. “With the help of the Ukraine Solidarity Fund, he has opened channels of support from Knights in Poland, the United States and around the world.
“In short, he’s been an instrument of hope to the Ukrainian people.”
Just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, leaders of the Knights in Ukraine met with Latin-rite Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki of Lviv and Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and established the Anti-Crisis Committee to coordinate relief efforts.
The first task was to help all the people fleeing the fighting who were arriving at train stations and bus stations in Lviv in western Ukraine near the Polish border. Most of them had to leave nearly everything behind, Maletskiy said.
The Knights provided food and clothing, and then started organizing buses to take people from Lviv to areas closer to the border with Poland, Maletskiy explained. Once they crossed into Poland, the Polish Knights had established a Mercy Center to welcome them and to provide more help.
From the beginning of the war though the end of May, the Knights in Poland had served 300,000 people, 10% of the 3 million Ukrainians who had fled to Poland, said Szymon Czyszek, director of international growth in Europe for the Knights of Columbus who has been working closely with Maletskiy and the Knights in Ukraine.
“That’s the level of impact,” Czyszek said. “We were not asking, ‘Are you Catholic?’ No. We were asking, ‘Are you cold? Do you need food?'”
The Ukrainian Knights have been working closely with their brother Knights in Poland, where relief supplies from Knights around the world are gathered, boxed and shipped across the border to Lviv.
From there, Ukrainian Knights have been delivering the supplies all across the country as part of Knights of Columbus Charity Convoys once or twice a week, Maletskiy said.
Knights delivering the supplies have had bombs explode nearby, Czyszek said. “You risk your life to provide the aid people need. That’s the level of sacrifice.”
“When I ask them to be more careful, they say who will do this if not the Knights,” Maletskiy said.
As many as 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced within the country since the war began. As the war has progressed, the Knights have started providing other kinds of assistance, including places to stay in converted school classrooms or with Ukrainian and Polish families, and help finding a job, Maletskiy said.
“We are looking to support them in all possible ways,” he added. “We have crisis centers in all the main cities in western Ukraine.”
One area the Knights are trying to provide more help is giving people psychological support for people traumatized by the war and the tactics of the Russian soldiers, Maletskiy said.
“In the beginning it was a very big shock to us,” Maletskiy said of the Russian bombings and attacks on civilians. “People cannot imagine this approach to civilian people. … They have a lot of children from the area of Kyiv who saw this brutality. They are stressed.”
Recovering from the trauma will require “years and years of hard work,” Maletskiy said.
“That’s why the Knights are there for the long haul,” added Czyszek. “The need will not go away.”
Besides the material support, the people of Ukraine need the world to remain aware of the true situation in their country and in their war with Russia, Maletskiy said.
“I am standing here tonight as a humble representative of a nation fighting for its freedom,” Maletskiy said in accepting the St. Michael Award. “All of us are working and fighting for victory.”
“Let there be no doubt in your minds that this victory of which we dream is the victory of good over evil, of freedom over slavery, of life over death,” he added.
“Over the past six months, we saw the unthinkable come to life. We saw death, destruction, rape,” Maletskiy said. “Our enemy uses lies in addition to deadly force. But the truth is on our side.
We are the children of light. The paschal Jesus is our hope and light at the time of darkness and trial.”
“Prayer is our weapon,” he said. “Yes, whatever the Pentagon can send also helps. But all of us gathered here know all too well that evil can be countered only with the power of the savior who suffered, died and was buried and rose again on the third day.”
Maletskiy presented to Kelly a Ukrainian flag signed by Ukrainian soldiers, many of whom are Knights. “I bring with me a flag which represents what we are fighting for. … Don’t forget our nation which relies on you for its very existence.”
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Telli is managing editor of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.