Ukraine: “War begins in the heart”

During his visit to the international headquarters of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia spoke with the charity about the situation on the ground. During the discussion the bishop, who leads one of the largest dioceses in Europe, highlighted the importance of pastoral care in the region, which lies directly on the Russian border and is under heavy fire. In June 2024 alone, according to the media, Russia fired some 700 guided bombs at Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine.

Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk, of the Latin rite Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia in Ukraine, during a visit to ACN headquarters in June 2024
Bishop Pavlo Honcharuk, of the Latin rite Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia in Ukraine, during a visit to ACN headquarters in June 2024

The city of Kharkiv lies just 30km from the Russian border. Since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression it has regularly been under heavy fire and is now badly damaged. Can you tell us about the current situation?

We live from hour to hour. S-300 missiles fired from the Russian side hit Kharkiv in less than 39 seconds. Because it travels so fast, the missile lands first, and then comes the air raid warning. All those who live within 70km of the front are the first in the Russian line of fire. In Ukraine, however, there is no safe place. The attacks can happen anywhere.

Here in Kharkiv, the air raid warning goes off almost non-stop. Also, every hour of the night. Many people still don’t dare go outdoors. There are lots of suicides, because people don’t know what’s going to happen next. The schools and kindergartens are closed. Many children are learning in underground stations. I know of a teacher who every day goes to a nearby place where she has Wi-Fi and from there gives online lessons to her students, who are now scattered across 18 countries.

Everything has been destroyed. The people have no houses, no apartments…a 73-year-old man came to us and had nothing with him. Fortunately, he was out when the rocket hit his house. But everything is gone. We bought him clothing.

What is the situation for the local Church?

I have a very large diocese, but a quarter of it is occupied, and in that part, there are no more priests. Before the war in 2014 we had 70,000 believers in our diocese. Today there are only 2,500.

Activities in the parish of Our Lady of Fatima in Konotop
Activities in the parish of Our Lady of Fatima in Konotop

Even if everything here is unstable, there is one thing which doesn’t change: we must pay the running costs for gas, water and electricity so that priests and religious can secure their existence. The faithful can’t support us, they have lost everything. Therefore, I thank ACN from the bottom of my heart that they are there and are helping us. Priests and religious are irreplaceable… They are a sign of stability and security. The people say: when a priest is there, I can stay as well. They simply need our presence. Loneliness is very difficult to bear, especially when you have lost a loved one.

What is the most important task of the Church in this bleak situation?

Our mission is to proclaim Christ and His word. Prayer is the greatest weapon. Many people ask: when will the war end? There is no answer. But we mustn’t stop praying.

Just as important, however, is being there for the people, accompanying them, carrying their burdens with them, praying with them, serving them. And seeking means to help them to overcome this difficult time. It’s not just about material help, but also about psychological help. It‘s important that a person understands what is going on inside him, so that he does not condemn himself, for with fear comes also aggression. That is normal in a war situation. Then you must speak about it. We have few specialists and experts, and that is a problem. ACN has supported psychological formation for priests, religious and volunteers in relation to war wounds. That is so important, and we are very grateful for it!

You yourself were once a military chaplain and are now responsible for all the military chaplains of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Can you explain what their work is like?

A military chaplain deals with the pastoral care of the men at the front, but also of their families. We have 46 military chaplains in my diocese. Each young man at the front is a lone fighter. He feels very alone, because there are very few people that he can tell how it’s going for him. He wouldn’t confide in a psychologist, because he has no trust in him, nor in his family, because he would want to protect them. What these men have in their souls is a nightmare. That’s why a military chaplain is so important. He listens to what men have on their souls. You often don’t know what you should say, you are simply there.

What experiences have particularly marked you in recent times?

It’s very difficult of course when I have to tell families that the son or husband has been killed. Often the bishop is asked to do that…

A soldier looks at the wall with photos of those who have fallen for Ukraine since the invasion of Crimea in 2014
A soldier looks at the wall with photos of those who have fallen for Ukraine since the invasion of Crimea in 2014

I was particularly moved by an experience in a village near the front. A woman died there, and we wanted to bury her, but the local Orthodox priest thought that it was too dangerous. Nevertheless, I went. The people there were pro-Russian, they didn’t want to speak with us and were very aggressive. The burial took place in a cellar, without electricity. I gave out candles. There were about 10 people. They looked at me – I looked into empty eyes and got goose bumps. It was dark and it was so difficult. The dead body was laid out. Before I prayed for the dead woman, I began first to pray for the people who were in front of me: “Dear God, please come into the hearts of the people here…” When we came up, I finally saw the people in daylight, they had cried. The woman who at the beginning had been the most aggressive, asked me to pray again. I asked her why. She said: “When you prayed, my heart became so light.” The others confirmed it. They repeated my words of prayer. God had touched their hearts. For these people the war has ended. For war begins in the heart and ends there.

Many people have left Kharkiv because of the constant bombardment. Have you yourself thought about leaving the city?

No, I’m staying. My place is here. The local people need me. If I leave Kharkiv, it will be with the very last car.

Since last year, in the Latin Diocese of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia, ACN has funded emergency relief for religious, special help for 25 parishes, and heat pumps for various parishes and for the curia. The charity has also made available Mass stipends. As well as psychological formation for priests, religious and volunteers, it has funded first-aid kits for priests and nuns who are working in dangerous places.

 

By Sina Hartert.

Our Task Areas
Our Regional Activities
Press contact

Latest News

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, met on Wednesday, 17 July, with a delegation from Aid...
The Catholic Church in Belarus is highly involved in pastoral work with children and young people. Every week,...
On 4 June, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or Popular Party of India, won its third election, extending...