“Let us Pray and Help the People”
On a recent visit Dr Francesco Stefanini (Caritas International) met with the friars in Ukraine.
Months after the war in Ukraine began, the friars still stand by the people, exhausted by the suffering and death brought by the conflict. From the very beginning of the war the friars have been active in offering welcome and help to the people in the conflict zone and in the neighbouring countries.
The Minister Provincial of Ukraine, Daniel Botvina OFM, lives near Kyiv. He reports, ‘In the first days of the war, there was great disorientation, crowds fleeing from every corner, from east to west. Right from the start, we put ourselves at the service of the local population, helping, listening, and providing initial assistance. Just today, 32 aid packages were delivered. Since the beginning of the conflict, more than a thousand life-saving parcels of food, health kits, hygiene and first aid materials have been offered to the people and soldiers who requested them.’
He continues, ‘I know many people who died in battle. I remember a woman in her 60s showed me her house, but she told me it is gone now, completely demolished. I remember a mother with a seven-year-old girl from Zaporizhia. She told me that once the Russians entered the villages, they made a list of empty houses, took these houses, occupied them, and now the Russians live in them. The Russian soldiers take the empty houses and give them to their families. Now we live in the moment, fearing that we might die at any moment. I have no thoughts for the future. Let us pray and help the people.’
Daniel ends his description by thanking the whole Franciscan Order, all their benefactors and all those who have been close to him and the friars in Ukraine. ‘I want to thank the whole Order and every single benefactor for every single act of generosity. In this time, we have felt great closeness from the Minister General and every friar in our Order.’
In Ukraine, the Friars Minor are present in 17 houses, with 60 friars in the Province. From the beginning of the conflict, many benefactors and Franciscans from every corner of the earth have responded generously to the worldwide appeal of the Minister General, Massimo Fusarelli, to offer help. This has enabled an ever-greater response to the needs of people, families and children.
Basement of Konotop Friary
In Konotop is a town of 80,000 inhabitants in the Sumy region on the border with Russia in a predominantly Orthodox area. The friars there experienced the full force of the Russian invasion. At times barricaded inside the friary, they managed offer aid to the people, housing several families in the basement.
Friar Romualdo reports, ‘We have done the shopping for people, especially the disabled and the elderly, for those who could not escape, and we have delivered food and parcels house to house to more than 1,500 people. To be honest, at times this means risking our lives. At present, every day we offer bread to 200 people who come to Mass. Some attend even though they are not Catholic, just to feel part of a living community.
‘Among them is a young man named Arthur, father of three children, who while driving his car home, was hit by five Russian bullets. With his last strength and praying, he reached a field hospital where he was miraculously saved.’
He recalls that in the first days of the war, during the Mass in the basement, ‘we only had one candle lit, and the gunfire made the walls tremble. I heard the Russian tanks near the friary, I prayed even louder, and we huddled around that candle, a symbol of life and hope.’
In the capital, Kyiv, there is at present an atmosphere of apparent calm, interrupted by sirens and people running to basements. Fighting rages now in the east and south of the country, and many Ukrainian citizens have returned from working abroad to fight for their country.
Friar Cristian, a Ukrainian Franciscan living in Rome, had returned to Ukraine for his father’s funeral when the Russians invaded. He decided to stay and is now in the city of Zhytomyr, where he documents the destruction of the war and seeks to help people.
Christian says, ‘We are seven friars in the community in Zhytomyr. We are able to help 50 families every day, some 600 since the beginning of the conflict.
‘The kindergartens here are reopening, but only those with basements for shelter from the bombs. Often it is the parents, with the teachers, who dig out the necessary shelters with shovels so their children can be educated.’
He reports, ‘The desire to fight alongside the Ukrainian forces is growing among ordinary people. I remember a mother, partially paralysed, with two children. She let her husband go to fight, realising that the need to defend Ukraine was her greatest desire. Wife and husband talk for 10-15 seconds every week with quick, rapid messages. “It’s raining” or “It’s not raining” means bombs are falling, or bombs are not falling.’
According to the UN agency UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), 7,567,024 refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighbouring countries in search of safety. A further eight million people are internally displaced within Ukraine. An estimated 15.7 million people need protection and humanitarian assistance.
The Order’s friaries are active in supporting and sustaining Ukrainian refugees in countries neighbouring Ukraine, especially in Poland. Also, more than 130,000 displaced people are finding help in Italy, and the Franciscan friaries offer assistance and help to more than 200 families every day, especially women and children.
From the start of the war Minister General Massimo Fusarelli wanted to show closeness and solidarity with the Ukrainian people and all the friars in the area. Massimo visited friaries in Ukraine and was part of an international delegation of religious leaders for an ‘Interreligious Pilgrimage of solidarity with the Ukrainian people.’ He represented the Catholic world and delivering a message of solidarity and hope from the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
Pain and Pride
On his visit to Ukraine Massimo met friars and refugees. Afterwards he wrote, ‘Meeting people, listening to their stories, seeing their faces and contacting their pain allowed me to understand and see things from another point of view. I was able to experience the concrete help we are providing and the solidarity that every single benefactor has allowed us to give, providing life-saving food and medicines.
‘Today, a great pain remains in me, the pain of the weakest, of children and their mothers protecting their little ones from an uncertain future, from bombs and the sound of gunfire. However, I carry also with me the pride of a people that does not give up. The aid we are providing, food and medicine are lifesaving.’
He continues, ‘Ukraine is the conflict today, but there are other conflicts, other suffering and deaths. In Africa alone,28 conflicts are ongoing that are little talked about. This is a test case for reacting to the issues of charity, peace and justice.’