Before Lent begins, many Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics celebrate “Forgiveness Sunday” — an observance in which believers seek God’s mercy, and aim to forgive those who have wronged them.
For Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishes, “Forgiveness Sunday” could hardly have come at a more difficult time — the day was observed in many parishes February 27, three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Forgiving a national invasion doesn’t happen easily. And at Denver’s Transfiguration Ukrainian Catholic Parish, Fr. Valeriy Kandyuk said forgiveness isn’t something easy to preach right now, either.
But with a heavy sigh, Kandyuk told The Pillar that “we have to forgive everybody, just as God forgives us all of our sins.”
After he was ordained in Ukraine, Kandyuk came nearly two decades ago to serve as a missionary in the eparchy of Chicago, leading parishes in California, Detroit, and Colorado. But he’s still most comfortable speaking through a translator, and, these days, his thoughts and his heart are in Ukraine.
As Ukrainian forces repelled the Russian army from taking Kyiv on Sunday, Kandyuk told The Pillar that “we feel a protection from God, and from Mother Mary. We have a lot of places [in Ukraine] where Mary appeared. So we feel that God is helping us and protecting us.”
Still, “what’s happening in Ukraine is terrible,” he told The Pillar. “Truly terrible.”
Kandyuk’s friends, priests in western Ukraine, “are keeping their churches open. The people are allowed to come,” the priest explained. And in the eastern parts of Ukraine, pastors are keeping churches open even as villages are torn apart in battles with Russian soldiers. In cities, some priests are offering Divine Liturgies in bomb shelters and subways.
With an invasion underway, Kandyuk said, the call to forgiveness is personal — not forgiveness of an abstract enemy, but of those right now causing harm to people he loves.
Fr. Alexander Laschuk, a Ukrainian Catholic priest ministering in Toronto, told The Pillar that on Forgiveness Sunday - which his family, observing the Julian calendar, will celebrate March 6 - he’ll talk with parishioners, and with his children, about loving their enemies.
“I can say that loving your enemy is the hardest thing we are called as Christians to do. Absolutely the hardest,” Laschuk told The Pillar Sunday.
“And I tell people that loving your enemies means if you get to heaven and see Putin sitting there, you think ‘Wow, God is so great!’ And not ‘What the heck are YOU doing here?’”
“Forgiving doesn’t mean being a pushover. It means loving [adversaries] and desiring their salvation and seeing they too are created in the image of God,” Laschuk said.
“And in the specific case of Mr. Putin - this is something a lot of people obviously struggle with, even before this most recent move. But he says he is a Christian. I believe he thinks about his faith. And for me, that is something the Holy Spirit can work with. I tell people to pray for him.”
“The Holy Spirit can do incredible things and maybe, just maybe, he can speak to [Putin’s] heart and bring about that conversion that we seek — to see the dignity of the human person,” the priest added.
Another Ukrainian Catholic priest, Fr. Oleh Katchour, of St. Nicholas Catholic Parish in Toronto, told The Pillar that “forgiveness is that battlefield in a human heart that will always give advantage to that which is good over that which is evil.”
Forgiveness can be, he said, “the light with you, which will never be consumed by darkness.”
In Denver, nearly 100 worshippers came to Transfiguration Parish’s Ukrainian Sunday liturgy Feb. 27 — a much bigger crowd than the parish often draws. Many of them came in the brightly embroidered traditional garb of Ukraine.
As the Sunday liturgy concluded, Fr. Kandyuk led parishioners in a rite of forgiveness.
“From the bottom of my heart, I truly and sincerely forgive those who hate me, who have offended or hurt me, and against whom I carry a grudge or ill-feelings,” the parish prayed.
After the liturgy, parishioners said those prayers came at an unusual time.
Daria McKay of Westminster, Colorado, is of Ukrainian ancestry — her maiden name is Maksimowich, she told The Pillar.
Watching the war unfold has been an experience of “complete devastation,” she said Sunday, after Divine Liturgy at Transfiguration Parish.
“It’s really hard to think about my grandparents, who fought for our freedom…to see this happening in the 21st century is mind-boggling.”
McKay said she wanted to forgive the Russian military for its invasion of Ukraine.
“I think about the Russians, and the military…and I don’t even know what would convince them to attack. And so giving forgiveness to those [Russian] soldiers, who are really misguided…it’s not easy.”
She said she also saw forgiveness in a broader lens.
“I was thinking [during the liturgy] about how much other countries are supporting Ukraine. And how much that represents forgiveness,” she said.
McKay told The Pillar that during the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918 and 1919, her Ukrainian grandfather’s sister was killed by Polish partisans.
Today, to see Poland assisting the Ukrainian people represents a kind of cultural healing, she said — forgiveness and reconciliation, after historical wounds.
Michael Wynar of Denver, is a first-generation American. His wife and parents are from Ukraine, he speaks Ukrainian with his children.
Wynar’s in-laws, living in Ukraine, are now “hiding in the mountains, because Putin said he might use nuclear weapons,” he told The Pillar.
“We have a long tradition of trusting in Mary to protect Ukraine,” Wynar said Sunday, as he watched his sons play outside Transfiguration Parish.
“I think that people have a lot of hope that Mary and Jesus will intervene. Even though we have such a small army, it’s kind of like David and Goliath.”
“And this is everyone’s war. Because if Ukraine falls, then Europe is next. Or if it spills into Estonia or Latvia, then all of the sudden America is involved. So this is everyone’s war. And prayer is the most important thing right now,” he added.
Forgiveness, Wynar told The Pillar, “is hard.”
“We actually are just now praying that God forgives even the Russian soldiers for attacking. It’s hard to be Christian in times of war. And as weird as it sounds, it’s not the soldiers’ fault, they’re following their orders — it is whoever is in charge at fault.”
“We say in the Church that there is no enemy except the Enemy — Satan, the devil. Every person can come back to God and be forgiven. And during a time of war it’s really black and white,” he said.
“It’s just a really hard time, but it is Forgiveness Sunday. And — and we’re praying for both sides right now, because we really want peace.”
Olga Odom emigrated from eastern Ukraine in 2009; her hometown, where her family still lives, is “two hours from the Russian border. And they are all so terrified.”
Odom emphasized that people in her region, many of them Russian-speaking, are loyal Ukrainians — despite Moscow’s claims that most eastern Ukrainians identify more strongly with Russia than with Kyiv.
That claim “is absolutely a lie,” Odom said. “We are one country, and we believe in democracy. It’s a lie, just another excuse to attack.”
She emphasized pride in Ukrainian defense forces.
“We are very proud of our boys. They are heroes of our country,” Odom said.
On Forgiveness Sunday, Odom said she is “praying for Ukraine, and for our family and friends, and for all Ukrainians’ safety.”
Odom said that Forgiveness Sunday came at a challenging time.
“But, I mean, we have to be strong to forgive, right? And we are a strong people.”