No matter where you live in Ukraine, you can’t escape the war.
The fighting is now mostly in the country’s eastern regions, but the war is everywhere. War is on tv, it’s on the radio, and online.
Soldiers stand on street corners.
Daily death rolls report the names of relatives or friends, sirens announce the danger of air raids.
War is the reality of Ukrainian life. Which means it has become the Church’s reality — pastoral care, priests and religious across the country told The Pillar, means helping people hold on to faith, to themselves, and to a sense of being a human.
Of course, war did not come to Ukraine in 2022; it has been present in Ukrainian life since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and began a proxy war in the Donbas.
When the full-scale invasion began Feb. 24, Ukrainian churches were prepared for various challenges related to the conflict. But it is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the magnitude of this war.
Over the years, many Ukrainian priests had already gained experience as military chaplains; psychological services had developed programs to help those affected, and charitable organizations, especially in the Donbas, had managed to establish assistance to those in need throughout Ukraine.
But pastoral ministers told The Pillar that recent months have inflicted severe wounds on virtually the entire population of Ukraine. Large numbers of men and women who have never experienced war have been mobilized into the ranks of the Ukrainian army, and people across Ukraine face serious psychological challenges.
For the Church, that means new pastoral strategies and approaches.
Of course, when they’re looking war in the face, priests don’t always manage to find the right words.
Fr. Yurii Zakharevych spent a year before his 2015 ordination as a volunteer serving in the Donbas region, where the war began. He now serves as a chaplain in the local branch of Caritas, in Kolomyia in western Ukraine.
The priest said the front lines can’t be compared with other ministry fields:
“I went through the war with my comrades-in-arms. But it’s different. It’s different when you look at death in combat. And it’s different when you look at human death here. Not every question has an answer, and not everyone can be helped. And often, words don't mean anything, especially at funerals. You can just take a person by the hand and cry with her. And the person already understands that she's not alone,” Zakharevych told The Pillar.
“I act on the circumstances as they arise. And that’s really the help of the Holy Spirit,” he added.
“People come in with challenging experiences, and I often just cry with them. For example, a psychologist tells me she was talking to a woman whose child was raped in front of her, and she asked what I would say on the religious side. Religion doesn't have all the answers. I could only say that Our Lady watched her baby being crucified, too. And I just cried with her.”
“We were taught about such cases. But when already confronted with such wounded people, it's hard to find words... It’s a shock, of course,” he added.
“The brutality and heinousness of the enemy’s crimes are shocking. It is a misuse of free will – for evil, not for good. Humans themselves would fall into despair, but faith is the only thing that holds in this world. It held me in the war, and it holds me here,” the priest said.
After the beginning of Russia’s open invasion in February , the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Department of Military Chaplaincy issued the “Catechism of a Christian Soldier.”
Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Catechism of the UGCC, the text explains the foundations of Christian teaching, especially regarding the moral aspects of military service in war conditions. It’s aim is to help minister ministers in the field, and soldiers looking for answers.
Fr. Andriy Zelinskyy, SJ, chief military chaplain of the UGCC, who has been with the military in many hot spots since 2014, told The Pillar that war is unlike any other human experience - and the challenge for a soldier is to hold on to his humanity.
That challenge, Zelinskyy said, is the fundamental essence of pastoral care in time of war.
“A pastor can be involved in many different ministries: he can provide social assistance, he can help refugees, he can provide a serviceman with different stuff. But his main task is always to preserve what is God’s in man. And, accordingly, to protect the humanity of each soldier.”
“The soldier remains a human being who, while preserving his freedom, remains responsible for his actions. And in this way, Christian teaching formed the basis of what we have today as International Humanitarian Law. And by issuing this Catechism, we demonstrate how different we are from our adversary,” the priest added.
“Our purpose is not to destroy life but to protect it. These are two very different goals. The Christian warrior takes up arms to protect himself, his loved ones, and life itself. This is where the Catechism begins – with a reminder that the legitimate defense of life is not only a possibility but a duty of the Christian. God has called me to life and, accordingly, in doing God's will, I should protect it and protect the lives of others.”
“This Catechism helps the Christian soldier not to become infected with hatred but to focus on the struggle. This struggle helps us protect life, especially those who cannot do it on their own. In other words, the Christian warrior must be armed above all else with his noble mission,” Fr. Zelinskyy explained.
Fr. Taras Mykhalchuk, rector of the Garrison Church of St. Peter and Paul UGCC in Lviv, told The Pillar his aim is also to help soldiers focus on the meaning of the fighting.
The military chaplain said that the heart of his country’s defense effort is the principle of love: Love for relatives and friends, love their lives, and love for a homeland, a nation.
The Ukrainian military is “fighting to prevent this evil from going further. This is quite different from what guides the occupiers, who come to someone else's land and kill, destroy people, commit terrible atrocities,” Fr. Mykhalchuk told The Pillar.
Fr. Mykhalchuk said his church is visited often by people who have already lost their loved ones; military funeral services occur almost daily — on some days, there are more than one.
Sometimes sad events are mixed with joyful ones, the priest said:
“I had the experience one morning where I had the funeral of one soldier, then I celebrated the sacrament of matrimony for another, and after that, the baby of another was baptized. And it was all on the same day.”
“God shows me that there is always hope, there is always light, and it allows us to stay in normality and understand that we are called to be a support for others. And for those mothers who lost their sons and are crying.”
Fr. Mykhalchuk told The Pillar he is most inspired by the optimism of the soldiers with whom he communicates daily — those who have not lost the will to live.
“For example, an officer who has lost an eye and half of his face comes in. And he says: ‘My job in life is to be an optimist; I must help others not to fall into decay in my example.’ Those are his words I quote.”
“There was also the case of our defender who lost his leg in the war. He thought he would not survive it. But he did. And then he got married, had a child, and is a teacher at the military academy.”
“So, we see with our own eyes how God wipes away people's tears. Once again, talking to the officers and defenders allows me to see their courage and understand that we, here on the home front, have no right to lose heart.”
In the western regions of Ukraine, volunteers from numerous Christian communities work with people who have fled the war zone in the country’s eastern regions.
In addition to other help, those volunteers are also trying to help them keep or discover their Christian faith.
Olesya Kolos, a laywoman who works at the UGCC’s Council on Evangelization, told The Pillar that a friend, a devout Catholic and father of 14 children, volunteered for the army when the Russian invasion began, telling her that “this war is like a black hole. What can you do? You can only bring God into it. That's it. There's nothing else you can bring there.”
As Kolos helps refugees in Lviv, she tries to talk with them about their faith when she can.
“I didn’t go through what these people went through. Then what can I do? I can help with their most trivial needs. Those who come here don't have the basic needs provided - housing, food, security. And it's just a struggle for them to survive. And they will thank you a thousand times over for the food you give them. And it hurts. It’s impossible to listen to. I can’t understand their sense of danger, their lack of food. And at that moment, you won't tell them ... It's worth saying, though: ‘God cares for you, loves you, and keeps you safe.’”
“Words of hope should be said. But maybe not more, because they won't hear more now. Because what they need now are signals of simple humanity - providing them with food, shelter, and security. It was very acute in the first two months. It's there now, too. But maybe in a different form, in a different way. That's what it should be in the beginning, and then it might be time for a little more in-depth conversation, if possible if people ask questions.”
Kolos said she tries to encourage people to look deeper at the Gospel.
“It's important not to feed people some infantile spirituality. For example, there was a story. In one parish, people were told: ‘We will celebrate Easter, and the war will be over.’ Unfortunately, this is the kind of spirituality we sometimes live by.”
“I see how this war has stirred up everything in each of us and in the country, in the Church. It has all become obvious - both what is healthy and what is not. And it has now become clearly visible,” she added.
Fr. Yustyn Rusyn, OFM Cap, leads a Capuchin friary in Transcarpathia, the westernmost region of Ukraine. He is also a confessor at the Uzhgorod Greek Catholic Theological Academy.
The priest said he often tells his people, and those who have been forced to flee to Transcarpathia, that living during a time of war does not mean living a war.
“I tell people not to sit in front of the TV and on the news all the time. And as much as possible, live a normal life: plant vegetables, do makeup, dress well, go to the hairdresser, etc. For when we get depressed, it is already the enemy's success,” Rusyn said.
The priest said it is crucial in pastoral ministry to help people to acknowledge their emotional experience amid the war — in which there is often both resentment and a sense of offense, feelings of injustice, a layer where anger and even a desire for revenge are born — and to distinguish those emotions from God-given mind and will.
“And here our action is to think and use our will to protect ourselves from that hatred and revenge and to form a proper patriotism. So that we do not contrast to Russian nationalism with Ukrainian one,” he emphasized.
Sister Theodora Shulak, provincial superior of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer, traveled to Chernihiv with several other sisters after Russian forces left the city in April.
In Chernihiv, the sisters organized a camp for children, whom they pick up by bus in the morning and take back in the evening.
The sisters strive to give war-wounded children “a piece of normality,” Sister Theodora told The Pillar.
“Contact, attention, humanity, prayer - that's what people need most right now. I was very shocked by what I saw because those neighborhoods were destroyed to the ground. People live in garages. And I don't even know how they can rebuild their houses. They live close to the border with Russia and constantly hear the warning that Russian troops are going to gather from that side again. And they are afraid there will be more bombings again,” she added.
Residents of liberated Ukrainian territories face more than poverty, the sister said.
According to Sister Theodora, the psychological trauma people have suffered will continue to affect them for a long time. To help, she believes the priests and nuns need more psychological training today.
“I am a psychotherapist myself, and when I came here, my intention was twofold. War is a dramatic period in a person's life that destroys a human person itself. It destroys the integrity of the spirit, soul, and body. We try to take care of the spirit of our people. We also care for the body, organizing the delivery of various humanitarian aid to people. But on an emotional and psychological level, you must have knowledge and training. I think every clergyman should have a basic knowledge of psychology because it is important not to ‘spiritualize’ in those situations where a person needs professional psychological help.”
“Here is a woman who comes to me who is not coping emotionally, and she asks me: ‘Can you give me a prayer so that I can read it and become calm again?’ Somewhere deep down, she believes that there is a God who can heal her. I suggested that we pray together. I told her about the Psalms, and then I said, ‘Now, why don't you tell me what's troubling you, how you're living now.’ I assured her that God is always with her. And then I accompanied her as a therapist.”
For Fr. Zakharevych, “the main thing is not to despair.”
“You know the story about the man who comes to the church with a disabled child? And people ask him: Why do you come here all the time? Do you think that the child will finally get better? And he says, no, I hope we don't lose the faith we have.”
“So I keep telling my friends: come to the church, even if you don't feel your faith grow. The important thing is that you don't lose the faith that you have.”
Fr. Mykhailo Stanchyshyn is a Jesuit from Lviv who moved to Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine in the early days of the war. He went to help the local Greek Catholic bishop in Kharkiv.
The priest talked about working with people who have suffered deep psychological trauma.
“How to help them? We must think about how to do it better, how to do it professionally. From my point of view, it's essential to be able to listen to the person. Listening is the art and essence of spiritual guidance, of accompaniment. Listening is always important, but it is especially evident in times of great crisis. In my experience, a person comes to a spiritual conversation in crisis. And now, there is a time of special crisis and war. It is a time of loss, a time of conflict between people, but also a time of new opportunities,” Fr. Stanchyshyn said.
The priest said spiritual accompaniment, or direction, is not easy for most of his fellow priests in Ukraine.
“Seminary anywhere in the world does not automatically train spiritual guides. A seminary produces ministers of the sacraments, perhaps a good preacher and confessor. But no seminary in the world produces spiritual guides.”
“Spiritual guidance is a separate art. It is an encounter with another person or like an encounter with another planet. And to help this other planet, first of all, in spiritual guidance, one must be able to listen to God. A spiritual guide must have a strong connection with God. He is a man who listens to God; then he listens to himself, that is, knows himself. And only in the third place does he listen to another person.”
“So, in a crisis,” Stanchyshyn continued, “In times of war, it is crucial to listen. To listen to a person is to accept him. Often, priests make the mistake of starting to teach without even hearing the end of the first sentence. Fr. Józef Augustyn, my friend, and teacher, always says: ‘Never evaluate a person. You know nothing about that person because he also knows nothing about himself.’”
“Especially in a crisis, a person knows nothing about himself: why he lost a loved one, why he is hurting, where the evil comes from. So, to listen is to accept; to listen is to love,” Stanchyshyn continued.
“If you ask me about the theology of listening, I will tell you what the Incarnation means. The Incarnation is God wanting to listen to Adam and Eve through Jesus. And a good spiritual guide is alter Christus – who listens and receives.”