For Ukrainians, the Way of the Cross is just another term for everyday life

In the suffering of what Pope Francis has repeatedly called the “martyred people of Ukraine” we can see many traces of Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion. This Holy Week, ACN invites you to meditate on this modern Way of the Cross.

During Holy Week, Catholics all over the world will be meditating on the suffering of Jesus, using the ancient practice of the Way of the Cross, a devotion composed of 14 stations, each one contemplating one particular moment of Christ’s suffering.

But for many people in different parts of the world, the Way of the Cross is not something they need to imagine. In Ukraine, for example, the whole society is walking a seemingly endless Way of the Cross.

Visit to the Cemetery of Lychakivskyi, accompanied by a military chaplain.
The Cemetery of Lychakivskyi in Lviv, where more than 600 soldiers are buried.

How many fathers, sons and brothers have been condemned to die in this war? How many have felt that hopelessness as they bid their wives and children farewell, not knowing if they would ever return. And how many of those who did return are dead within, wracked by trauma?

Jesus carried the Cross: There are many crosses now in Ukraine. Ihor, a seminarian, knows a bit about that. He was born with a congenital condition that affects his mobility and has to undergo regular operations. When the war broke out, he was on his way to Poland to undergo surgery, but when he arrived at the border, it was chaos. There, he understood what real crosses are like. “What I saw there was indescribably awful. Everything was blocked with refugees from Kharkiv, who were desperately hoping for a way out. Many passed their children over the border fence to just anyone, to get them to safety. It was heart-breaking.”

Jaroslav falls three times

Tradition holds that Jesus fell three times while carrying the cross to Calvary. Jaroslav, too, has fallen three times. The first time was when he suffered an accident that crippled his hand, leaving him unable to work. Then, in 2014, when his home city of Donetsk became the centre of a battle between separatists and the Ukrainian army, he left everything and travelled to Zaporizhzhia, only to be forced to spend the last of his savings, in 2022, to board a flight to Lviv, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Fortunately, Jaroslav found the Albertine Brothers, who have helped him to get back on his feet.

The fourth station of the Way of the Cross contemplates Jesus meeting His mother, on the way to His execution. How can one not think of Mary’s suffering at this point? Psychologist Lyudmila Serhiyivna sees this sort of suffering every day, at the retreats she runs at the Capuchin friary in Kyiv for mothers of missing or killed soldiers. “Women who have a lost a child isolate themselves and put their families under strain because they can’t get over their sorrow. I always worry about what I can say to these women, but then I am astonished at how much they change in such a short time, regaining their courage to face life”, she says to an ACN delegation that visited the country as a sign of solidarity.

House Father Pio. Lyudmila Serhiyivna helps mother victims of the war with therapies
Psycholigist Lyudmila Serhiyivna has been helping grieving mothers, otherwise left to mourn alone, since 2014.

Some stations of the Way of the Cross refer to the generosity of onlookers. In one case, Simon of Cyrene carries the Cross for Jesus, and in another Veronica cleans His face. Later, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus’s body and buries Him. The Albertine Brothers were already helping all those in need before the war. The invasion in 2022 just swelled the numbers “The Albertine Brothers are like emergency personnel, first aid. The man on the street, under stress, someone who is freezing, someone very hungry, this is our everyday life. We’re here for that. Most of our residents are alcoholics, homeless, with drug or gambling problems and those who fled the war. For the inhabitants of Lviv and those refugees there is hot soup. There is coffee and bread. We expect it to be enough for about 300 people”, says Brother Bernard to ACN.

Women also help, in so many ways. Just like the women of Jerusalem who Jesus met during His long climb to Calvary, and who wept for Him, they too display a particular courage. Similarly to the Albertines Brothers there is a convent for religious sisters of the same congregation, which houses dozens of women who need help, some of them young mothers with babies.

Jesus is stripped and humiliated.

When Jesus finally made it up the hill, He was stripped naked, humiliated. War is always a useful cover for those who like to humiliate and destroy the humanity of others. How can one forget the stories from Bucha, in the first months after the invasion? When the Ukrainian army took control of the town once more, mass graves were uncovered, holding the bodies of hundreds of civilians who had been tortured and executed. Many of the victims were children, some were raped and burned, many were simply shot in the back of the head.

Jesus was executed. Nailed to a cross. Inna felt the death of her husband twice. He was killed in the first stages of the war, in 2014, and the city of Irpin put up a poster in his honour. When Russians invaded, in 2022, Inna fled Irpin, leaving everything behind. She later learned that occupying soldiers had shot through the poster, she felt like they were “killing” him a second time.

In 2022, Olha also lost her husband. She remembers speaking to him in the evening, and suggesting he get some rest, because he sounded so tired. They never spoke again. “I was told that the building he was in came under fire, that he received a head injury and fought for his life for 40 minutes”, she says during a visit from ACN to Ukraine.

Olha, a Ukrainian woman who lost her husband in 2022 at the front
Olha, an Ukrainian widow and mother of two.

In the fourteenth station of the Way of the Cross, Jesus is laid in the tomb. It can be difficult to imagine something more painful than burying a loved one, but many Ukrainians have learned that the uncertainty of not even knowing if your husband, father or son is alive can be even worse. Seminarian Vitalij lost his father in December 2022, on the frontline, near Bakhmut. At the memory of him, his light blue eyes cloud over, but then he tells how his grandmother comforted him with the fact that they could at least bury his father and were not haunted by uncertainly about his whereabouts.

However, the end of the suffering of the Way of the Cross is a source of consolation to Christians. Jesus rose again. As Ukrainians pray for the war to end, they too find courage in the Faith that one day life, peace and joy will return to their lives. After all, that is what Easter is about, and this is what all Christians around the world pray for during these days.


By Filipe d’Avillez.

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