Kyiv – Sunday, January 14, 2024

Dear sisters, dear brothers,

I hoped that I would manage to join Father Misha on Wednesday with the volunteers from the House of Saint Martin de Porres on their first humanitarian mission of the year to Kherson. Unfortunately, a sudden illness with a high fever made that impossible. Instead of three days behind the wheel of a bus, I spent the time in bed wrapped in a cozy sleeping bag. So I accompanied my friends in my thoughts and in my prayers. Kherson and the surrounding villages are currently on the frontlines since they are along the shore of the Dnipro. Father Maxim, a local pastor, claims that between Christmas and New Year they counted almost 800 “arrivals”, which means attacks by artillery, rockets, bombs, or drones. Because of this, fewer people can be seen on the streets. Local authorities have been trying to convince families with children to evacuate, including those in the neighboring villages which are increasingly ruined by the war that has been going on for already 690 days.

One of those villages is Antonivka. Father Misha told me about an encounter with an 80-year-old woman who lives in a destroyed house: “I live from one day to the next. When I wake up, I look at an icon, and I say ‘Good morning, Jesus Christ. What are we gonna do today?’” “We brought some coal for her to last three weeks, and we renewed our efforts to convince her to come back with us to Fastiv,” said Father Misha. “And she said no again.” Like many older people, this woman wants to live in her own village, in her own house, or rather in whatever is left of them. She is grateful for all the help we bring, and she asked to take her neighbor’s dog. So Lushia from Antonivka began her journey to a new home, which she will find in Fastiv. I have to admit, I am always moved by the care that people living in such difficult situations still have for animals. That’s why Father Misha brings new cats and dogs to Fastiv from the humanitarian missions.

Yesterday I called the Orionist sisters who run the house for single mothers in Korotych near Kharkiv. We haven’t seen each other for a while. I like these conversations with the sisters because there isn’t much complaining or criticizing others in them, which is a curse of many families and religious communities. We just try to share with each other the good that we see around us. Sister Camilla told me with passion about people she met in the destroyed villages in the vicinity of Chuhuiv where with the help of Father Leszek Kryży and his Team for the Help of the Church in the East as well as other people of good will, they managed to open a tailor shop in an abandoned residential building. Women from neighboring villages found employment there. “Somehow I don’t see any resignation or despair in these people,” said Sister Camilla. “Our neighbors, whom I meet daily, often share with us little joys of everyday life — somebody fixed his car or someone cleaned his backyard. When you listen to people — she adds — you realize that the war changed us all. Also in a good sense, because we understand better now than before how important it is that we stay together, how important family is.”

This year, most Christians in Ukraine celebrated Christmas on the same day. That was a result of the decision of the bishops, both Catholic of Eastern Rite and Orthodox of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, to switch to the Revised Julian Calendar, which is similar to the Gregorian Calendar used by Roman Catholics. So we can finally celebrate together one of the most important Christian feasts. In the Eastern liturgy, the Solemnity of the Epiphany (now celebrated on January 6) is also a celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. According to tradition, apart from the liturgies celebrated in the churches, special rites are celebrated on the shores of rivers and lakes. There is no shortage of volunteers to be submerged in the ice-cold water on that day. The authorities of Kyiv prepared a number of locations where one could do this safely under the supervision of the water rescue teams. That was exactly the setup on one of the islands of the Dnipro. In the Hydropark, a chapel was arranged where the Metropolitan of Kyiv and the entire Ukraine Epiphanius blessed the water. Every year I try to participate in this liturgy, experiencing together with my Orthodox brothers and sisters the Mystery of the Baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Son of God to the world.

On the shore I met Father Jakub.  One of his passions is photography. So this year, like every other year, he joined with camera in hand, the citizens of Kyiv celebrating The Jordan (that’s how the solemnity of Epiphany is commonly known in Ukraine.) “This year we have much fewer people,” said Jakub, adding that certainly for many Orthodox Ukrainians “the real Jordan” will happen on January 19, according to the Julian calendar. The Moscow Patriarch in Ukraine decided not to change the liturgical calendar. Among the Dnipro ice-cold bath enthusiasts I met Martin Harris, an ambassador of the United Kingdom in Ukraine. As I looked at him with admiration and praised his courage, I was wondering only if the member of his protection detail who jumped into the river did it out of duty or for fun. Maybe a little bit of both.

“If somebody asks me one more time where this war in Ukraine is (since it hadn’t been visible in Lviv before), I welcome him to visit my neighborhood. This morning: three schools, one kindergarten, and a number of residential buildings were damaged or partly demolished by a rocket attack,” wrote Vita Jakubowska, a journalist friend, on December 29. It was a tragic morning, not only for Lviv. We could also invite all the “war-skeptics” to the neighborhood of our Dominican priory in Kyiv and to our metro station where a couple of rockets hit around 7 in the morning. Even our priory trembled with the energy of the explosion. Our cook who lives closer to the area destroyed by the rockets said that people had just started work, and many died in the ruins. The billows of smoke hung over that place for many long hours. A couple days later on January 2 during another concentrated attack on the capital of Ukraine, a residential building was destroyed a couple kilometers from our priory. I went there the next day. I saw with pain the results of the brutal war and the people who were trying to rescue whatever was left of their homes.

On the way back from Jarosław where I had preached an Advent retreat, I joined Father Marek Grubka, the prior of the local community on the visit to archbishop Adam Szal. The Metropolitan of Przemyśl gave the Dominicans in Ukraine relics of the Ulma family, who were beatified on September 10, 2023 in the village of Markowa. During the German occupation, from the second half of 1942, Józef Ulma sheltered eight Jews in his home. On Math 24, 1944 his whole family was shot after being anonymously reported to the authorities. The Jews hiding there died together with the Ulmas. In his personal copy of the Bible, the future martyr marked two passages: the parable of the merciful Samaritan next to which he wrote one word, “yes”, and the words of Jesus, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt. 5:46)

After a couple hours of waiting in the passport control line at the railway station in Przemyśl, I boarded the delayed train to Kyiv with great gratitude. The spontaneous decision of Father Marek to take the relics of the Ulma family to Kyiv I read as an important sign for our Dominican mission in this war-torn country. The title of the retreat I preached was “Life by the Gospel.” Blessed Józef Ulma and his wife Wiktoria as well as their little children Staś, Basia, Władek, Franuś, Antoś, Marysia, and their seventh child who died in the womb of his mother lived by the Gospel and their house became “an inn where the despised, outcast, and death-stricken were welcomed and cared for. […] For this gesture of hospitality and care — in a word, mercy — that had its roots in an honest faith, the Ulma family along with their children paid the highest price of martyrdom.” (From the homily of Cardinal Marcello Semerarro during the beatification of the Ulma family.) The relics of the blessed martyrs in Markowa joined our prayers in Kyiv on the Sunday of the Holy Family. Some people would approach and pray in silence before the relics of their “neighborhood saints”.

I am very grateful to all the benefactors. Thanks to you and your prayer, your fellowship, your offerings for the intention of peace in the world, your sufferings and difficulties of life, as well as your financial support, we can do good and help people in need. This year when I was sending Christmas greetings, I included in them the title of the book I happened to find in the monastery of Dominican nuns in Święta Anna. These words were from Cardinal Karol Wojtyła: “That Christ May Use Us”. This is what I want to wish you, my dear sisters and brothers, at the beginning of another year.

With gratitude, greetings, and request for prayer,

Jarosław Krawiec OP

Kyiv, January 14, 2024

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