Fr. Andriy Zelinskyy SJ, chief military chaplain of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, invites solidarity for Ukraine and calls for a return to humanity in the face of the loss of lives and massive devastation caused by the war.
The war in Ukraine has now continued into its sixth week since it began on 24 February, when Russia launched an attack on its neighbour. Thousands of civilians have been killed according to conservative estimates and about 4 million people have been forced to flee for their lives from Ukraine into neighbouring countries.
The fighting, that has pitted the military forces of both countries against each other, has also registered thousands of military casualties. While it is difficult to secure accurate fatality numbers from the war zone, it is clear that the soldiers, some of them drafted ad hoc, daily face the risk of death as the war drags on.
Ukrainian military chaplain, Father Andriy Zelinskyy, has had to tailor his ministry to respond to the needs of the soldiers in the trenches as they fight to defend their country. The Jesuit priest is an Advisor to the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church and chief military chaplain of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church since 2018. He is also a lecturer at the Ukrainian Catholic University, a political scientist and author of a number of books on spirituality in times of war.
A war that began 8 years ago…
For Fr. Zelinskyy and the Ukrainian soldiers he ministers to, the war in Ukraine really began in 2014, with the invasion of Russia and Russian-supported forces in the southeastern part of Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea.
During these 8 years, four of which the priest spent in the war zone and three of them in the trenches, about 14,000 civilian and more than 4000 military lives were lost in the fighting, he said. However, the conflict took place in a relatively small territory and people could always move to other parts of the country to get some reprieve.
Linking the 2014 invasion with the war which began in late February, he notes a difference: that the battlefront has extended over most of the country, with the fighting extending from the easternmost cities, and spreading towards the western part of Ukraine.
Devastation and violence
Fr. Zelinskyy expresses grief for the loss of lives and massive devastation caused by the war, saying that it is “cruel, and is one of the most absurd, senseless wars in the history of Europe.”
According to him, “there is no reason for the violence” and Russia’s excuse of demilitarization and “denazification” of its neighbour holds no water. He insists that Ukraine is a peaceful nation, though it is capable of resisting aggression when the situation calls for it.
In his years as a chaplain, he had not imagined that in the 21st century he would witness such violence. The military chaplain laments the destruction of large cities in the nation of over 40 million people, including Mariupol, Kharkiv and Kyiv, where bombs have caused massive destruction, death and displacement.
For example, narrates the priest, in Mariupol – one of the cities that has been under constant siege – international organizations estimate that more than 5,000 people have died and more are at risk due to lack of electricity, heat and food.
All of this, the Jesuit priest notes, poses philosophical questions for society: “Where have we failed? … As Europeans? As a Christian tradition?… That human beings from the culture of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy can create this kind of violence!”
Ministry to the trenches
I asked the chaplain what kind of ministry he offers to the soldiers at the war front who are faced with the high risk of death.
Fr. Zelinskyy explained that it all depends on the unit and the formation received by the soldiers. With the professional military who are formed and prepared for battle, the approach is different. However, the conflict has necessitated a national draft and ministry has to be tailored to meet the needs of someone who, until recently, was a teacher or electrician and has had to become a soldier because of the war.
The chaplain structures his ministry along three major broad lines. First, the creation of spiritual and psychological resilience for the units who run the risk of exhaustion from the relentless fighting that has continued into its second month. Another focus of the ministry is teambuilding and responsibility for one another. Fr. Zelinskyy highlights that this is essential as “your neighbour is the most important means of your safety and security”, especially on the battlefield. Thus, it is necessary to work to build respect and responsibility among the soldiers.
The third focus is hope. Keeping hope alive that the war will come to an end and “evil will never prevail”, especially in the face of death and the loss of people who contribute to culture and society, including actors, poets, among others.
He further notes that the ministry to the soldiers is supported by spiritual means: prayers, being present for those who seek the sacrament of reconciliation, having a listening ear for those who wish to talk and a general ministry of presence.
The Church’s presence
In the face of the war and the massive refugee and humanitarian crisis it has created, the Church has been present, joining forces with state agencies, volunteer support groups and NGOs to respond to the situation.
Fr. Zelinskyy adds that the Jesuit community in Lviv where he is, is not left out in efforts in this regard. The community has a refugee center where it receives and provides help to Ukrainians fleeing the atrocities of war.
Reflecting on the war, the military chaplain holds that society ought to have learned its lesson from the Second World War which taught us that “we can only win evil if we work together.”
But, “we find ourselves at a time when the greatest gift we have is in danger, that is, our humanity,” Fr. Zelinskyy says, inviting everyone to “come back toward this gift of humanity” because “it is something we need to treasure.”
In this regard, he calls for countries to stand by Ukraine, highlighting that the ongoing war has consequences that will affect many processes and peoples, including European countries and others in the West, some of which may feel that this will pass them by.
“Please wake up!” urges Fr. Zelinskyy. “We are stronger together!”