Those who could have left, and the rest sleep in basement shelters, to the sound of air raid sirens. This is life in Odessa, where prayer is what sustains the people.
For now, at least, the city of Odessa, located on the coast of the Black Sea, in Southern Ukraine, has been spared the worst of the violence of the war, but the conflict marks every moment of people’s lives, says local Catholic bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk.
“We are always hearing air raid warnings and from time-to-time shooting. It’s very unsettling but at the moment, thank God, the city is relatively calm. We are sleeping in a basement shelter, but during the day we are here and can freely pray and work”, he says, in a video message sent to international pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need on Saturday (5.March).
One of the first priorities was to make sure that the vulnerable children were taken to safety. “We’ve organised a place 280 kilometres away which previously was just for children, but today is a place for refugees. Some children, and young families with children, are living there. We are looking after these people.”
In this situation, priests have taken on other roles besides that of shepherds of souls. “The presence of priests in churches is of great importance to people. Priests celebrate holy masses, organise prayers, and strengthen the spirit. In addition to that, there are food packages, other essentials, and hot meals. The cellars under the churches are open and always available for people to take refuge”, bishop Stanislav says to ACN.
Nobody is entering Odessa, not even refugees from Crimea or other territories, because the city is not safe. Many of those with financial means have left for safer places, either in the west of Ukraine, or iᵃn neighbouring countries, giving the city an eery feeling of being half-empty. But those who remain stand together.
“There is unity in the city, great unity among believers, and ecumenically. The war has made us very united, not just Catholics, but also people of other confessions and cultures. Today we have great unity in the city”, explains bishop Stanislav.
“And, of course, I am very grateful for all the support and solidarity”, continues the bishop. “I would especially like to thank Aid to the Church in Need. It was the first organisation which asked me: ‘What should we do? How can we help?’ Thank you for this readiness to help.”
Faced with this war, the people turn to prayer. Prayer for peace, and for safety, but also for those who have been killed in the conflict. “We pray daily for peace. It’s important to us to pray for everyone, but especially for those who have died. Every day we celebrate a Mass with a requiem for all those who have died, including the fallen soldiers and all war victims.”
In response to the outbreak of war in Ukraine the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is sending an aid package of 1.3 million euros. According to a statement from the President of ACN, Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, the money is for priests and religious, who are working across the country in parishes, with refugees, in orphanages and homes for the elderly.