Ukraine: Donetsk bishop confirms kidnapped priests still missing

The Auxiliary Bishop of the Exarchate of Donetsk, Maksym Ryabukha SDB, travels around to visit each and every person in his war-torn diocese. He asks for prayers, especially those whom he is unable to meet in person due to occupation or kidnapping.

The Archepiscopal Exarchate of Donetsk, the easternmost Greek Catholic diocese of Ukraine, is currently unable to access a large part of its territory. The Luhansk region is almost entirely occupied, the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions are partially occupied, the Dnipro region is under daily bombardment, and the diocese’s seat was temporarily moved to Zaporizhzhia from Donetsk due to the war which, in these regions, began in 2014.

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Visit of Bishop Maksym Ryabukha of Donetsk, Ukraine, to ACN International

Until November 2022, several Catholic parishes and a Redemptorist monastery were still operating in the occupied territories, but in mid-November two Redemptorist Fathers, Fr Ivan Levitskyi C.SS.R. and Fr Bohdan Heleta C.SS.R., one of whom suffers from a severe form of diabetes, were arrested by Russian troops and are still being held at an unknown location.

“Despite prayers, protests, and efforts by the Catholic Church to contact those responsible, to find out the situation of the priests, there is still no news of the priests to this day”, says the auxiliary bishop Maksym Ryabukha.

The bishop requested that Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) continue to ask all benefactors and friends to pray for the speedy release of Father Ivan Levitskyi and Father Bohdan Heleta.

During a visit to ACN’s international headquarters, in Germany, the Auxiliary Bishop testified that loneliness is a sign of this time in the occupied territories. Bishop Ryabukha says he wants to be “the spiritual father not only of the freely accessible part of the Exarchate, but of the whole region”, for which he is appointed bishop in November 2022, therefore he tries “to meet people in person and to give them material help and spiritual strength”.

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Retreat for the priestly families of the Donetsk Exarchate in 2021

Since the beginning of his episcopal ministry, in December 2022, and thanks to an ACN-funded car, Bishop Ryabukha has travelled 50,000 kilometres to visit the people entrusted to him and to share their fate, especially strengthening those who live close to the front line, bringing them signs that the Church is still alive.

Clergy were thrown out of the occupied territories at the outbreak of the war, and “today there is not a single priest of the exarchate there”, said the bishop. Thanks to the provision of Mass stipends to the priests of the Exarchate of Donetsk by ACN, Catholics living in the occupied territories can pray and participate in the Mass through social media.

The auxiliary bishop explains that by receiving the generous support that has been given by ACN and sharing it with others in this situation of war, “the Church in Ukraine is becoming a meeting place for people of more than one nation. This highlights the essence of being together: friendship does not mean the same way of thinking or seeing things, but to be a friend is to live together, allowing the other person to be themselves, with their own culture, history and beliefs”.

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Bishop Maksym Ryabukha of Donetsk, Ukraine, with Magda Kaczmarek – Head of Section Eastern Europe at ACN International.

This is revealed in the Exarchate of Donetsk through very concrete examples. The bishop recalls visiting two elderly people in one house who were not members of the same family: when an elderly woman lost her home due to a bombing, an old man in the neighbourhood opened his door and shared his home with her. “The Church has established social centres for children, families, and the elderly, where people of different denominations come. In times of war, one does not think in what form God is believed to be; it is a time to pray together and to be together in fellowship”, the bishop says.

Being a Salesian and having dedicated his entire ministry to the education of young people before becoming a bishop of the Exarchate of Donetsk, Maksym Ryabukha invites his flock to follow the example of the young people. “Young people do not stop dreaming and do not give in to fatigue, and this is an inspiration for us,” the bishop says, expressing his gratitude and confidence.

Since the beginning of the war, ACN has supported the Churches of both Catholic rites in Ukraine with 353 projects totalling over 10 million euros. The Catholic Church in turn provides important services to society, giving new hope to many people.

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