Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, on Dec. 9, 2022 / Oleksandr Sawranskij / Major Archbishopric of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
Rome Newsroom, Feb 24, 2023 / 09:30 am (CNA).
What does it mean to be a Christian in times of war? This is the existential question to which Christians in Ukraine seek an answer while they grapple with the devastating consequences of Russia’s now year-old invasion.
In the view of Ukrainian Catholic Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the Church does not give “sufficient answers” to such questions, because, he says, modern warfare “is worse, it is different, it is much more destructive” than than the distant conflicts around which the Church built its social teaching.
Shevchuk spoke on Feb. 20 in a meeting with some journalists, mainly from the Catholic media, while President Joe Biden was visiting Ukraine. The major archbishop recalled the challenges faced in the past year and discussed the need for a proportionate defense, among other topics.
Since the beginning of the war, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been sending out short video messages every day. These reflections amount to mini treatises on social doctrine, addressing even such tricky topics as forgiving the enemy and reconciliation.
“Now,” Shevchuk said, “an existential question arises for us Christians in Ukraine: How can we be Christians in times of peace, and what [does it mean] to be Christians in times of war? And above all, what does it mean to be a bishop in times of war and modern warfare?”
Shevchuk explained that for years he has taught social and moral theology in Catholic seminaries and universities and is well aware of the developments in Catholic social theology on war and peace. Still, he argued, “we see that we cannot find answers that can be exact guides and clear for the new circumstances.”
He characterized the present battle as a “piecemeal third world war, which today is called a hybrid war.”
“It is a war that is not only fought with conventional weapons. Even the economy becomes a weapon; the same grain that Ukraine today tries to export to the world becomes a weapon,” he noted.
Such a war, he said, calls for “a profound study of this issue on a scientific level, so that the magisterium of the Church can give adequate answers.”
After a year of the war, Shevchuk says his emotions are pulled in two opposite directions.
On the one hand he has “a feeling of joy and gratitude to the Lord because we were able to survive and serve our people all that we could and knew how. And I am grateful for the immense universal solidarity we have experienced.”
On the other hand, there is a “feeling of helplessness for not having been able to prevent this war, the ghosts of which were already visible at the end of 2021,” he said.
“I have tried to raise awareness of many institutions, including the Holy See, about this danger. Still, unfortunately, neither the mechanisms of international law, diplomatic tools, nor even the tool of dialogue have been able to prevent this tragedy.”
The ongoing war is “blind, absurd, sacrilegious,” Shevchuk said, adding that “it is precisely in the face of the use of blind violence that the world proves impotent.”
The question of weapons also needs to be addressed, he said.
Referring to the moral principle of proportionate defense, Shevchuk emphasized that Ukraine’s ability to defend itself “is not yet proportionate to Russia’s ability to attack us.” For this reason, he argued, “the shipping of arms to improve the quality of defense is considered morally acceptable.”
Having avoided an even worse human tragedy thanks to an outpouring of food shipments and other forms of international humanitarian aid, the pastoral plan of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is now focused on “treating wounds,” Shevchuk said, because “we have all been wounded, and those who are under bombardment at least once in their life experience a wound that remains for a long time.”
Regarding peace plans, “they say that a compromise must be made, but when I hear talk about territories, I shiver with pain,” Shevchuk said.
“For us, it is not a question of territories, but of people. We must free not the territories but the people, our faithful,” he said. “In the occupied territories, there is sometimes not even a Catholic priest. I want to remember the Redemptorist Fathers of Bergyansk, Father Ivan and Father Bohdan, who were subjected to daily torture for a hundred days. No negotiation, no diplomacy, no instrument of dialogue has been able to ease their pains.”
Despite the hardships and the war, people try to return to their homes. “During the encirclement of Kyiv,” the major archbishop said, “800,000 out of 4 million inhabitants remained there. Today the capital has about one and a half million inhabitants. Some say that around 5 million Ukrainians who have left the country have returned, but the figures cannot be defined. It is a continuous flow.”
People return for economic reasons and psychological reasons because “if you move from your city, you are afraid that something will happen to your home,” he said.
War also has catastrophic consequences for children, Shevchuk emphasized. On a positive note, he spoke about the opening of a kindergarten for 120 children in the parish of Ivano Frantivsk. “While the Russians destroy, we were able to build,” he said.
Finally, he made an appeal. “Do not leave us alone, do not abandon us. At the beginning of the war, everyone abandoned us, and all the diplomatic representations fled from Kyiv, except for the Holy See and Poland,” he said.
“But now everyone is back. And truly, now we feel that we are not forgotten,” he added. “We want to build a free country and a democratic country.”