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Australian bishops witness suffering and hope in Ukraine

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ACBC delegation at a destroyed building in Irpin, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv. Photo: Annie Carrett/Melbourne Catholic
ACBC delegation at a destroyed building in Irpin, a town on the outskirts of Kyiv. Photo: Annie Carrett/Melbourne Catholic

Australia’s bishops will consider a renewed push to support Ukraine following a pastoral visit to the war-torn country by a delegation this month.

Melbourne Archbishop Peter A Comensoli, Hobart Archbishop Julian Porteous, Port Pirie Bishop Karol Kulczycki SDS, Fr Simon Ckuj, vicar general of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Australia, and Melbourne chancellor Annie Carrett visited Ukraine from 8-11 August at the invitation of Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania.

The group met with church and civic leaders, families and soldiers and learnt about efforts to support and begin to heal the country’s people even in the midst of war time.

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At a rehabilitation centre in Lviv they spoke to wounded veterans and attended a funeral of a fallen soldier, one of almost a dozen or more such funerals each day in the city.

Fr Ckuj, who is also the parish priest of St Andrew’s Ukraine Catholic Church in Lidcombe, told The Catholic Weekly he was deeply impressed by the hope and resilience of the people they met in the cities Lviv and Kyiv plus two outlying towns of Irpin and Bucha from which occupying forces were expelled last year and where the destruction was still plainly evident.

The Kyiv capital, despite frequent air alert sirens, does not look or feel like a city under siege, Fr Ckuj said.

“People were going about their daily business, children were playing in the streets.

“There were soldiers with weapons everywhere but there was a sense that, yes, this is going on but we have lives to lead and we’re going to live our lives.

“The whole trip really underlined the incredible resilience and courage of the people.

“We also saw the incredible closeness and gratitude of the people towards their priests and bishops.”

On arrival in Kyiv, about 380 kms from the Russian border, a missile alert siren sent the group to a bomb shelter at their hotel, but Archbishop Porteous said he never felt unsafe in Ukraine.

“For me personally, I was most affected by the reality of the suffering that war induces into people’s lives,” he said.

“Attending the funeral of someone who had just been killed in battle a day or two before and seeing the grieving of his wife, parents and daughter, meeting people who have been deprived of the basics such as food and shelter, people who have lost limbs, people who have been traumatised in many ways brings that out very starkly.

“There was a lot that was very moving.”

Bishop Porteous said the group will report to the next conference of bishops in November.

“Hopefully we will put forth some suggestions the bishops’ conference will take up,” he said.

“For myself, I want to be able to talk more about this so that people are aware of the human suffering associated with the war in Ukraine.

“And as Catholics we can pray particularly to our Lady for peace to be restored in Ukraine.”

Fr Ckuj said that despite much sympathy for Ukraine he is still mindful of “war fatigue.”

“We have to keep raising awareness, raising funds and most of all pray for Ukraine, but to say there is war fatigue in Australia not to mention in Ukraine would be an understatement.

“We are all fatigued but we can’t lose sight of the great need that remains there.”

The Australian Bishops Conference advent appeal last year raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for much-needed food packages as well as evacuation and shelter of people from frontline territories.

“Watching this tragedy from afar, and offering financial support is one thing, but it is important that we hear and share the voices of those directly affected,” said Archbishop Comensoli upon returning from Ukraine.

“This visit was about caring for our neighbour and personally offering a strength in friendship and prayer to the Ukrainian people.

“It was key for us to bring dimensions of faith, friendship and solidarity to this trip.

“Wherever we went, we heard how important it was for the people to know of our own prayers from afar.

“But, significantly, we repeatedly heard of their acknowledgment of the ‘courage’ to physically travel to the country and show that Ukrainians are not alone.

“And for us as bishops, it was particularly important to hear of the faith leadership of the Major Archbishop, and his call for what is needed in taking the pathways to peace.”

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