When the massive statue of Lenin in Kharkiv was to be demolished, it was feared that it would topple over and its weight would break through the ground, beneath which ran the underground railway. But when the statue was broken up into many pieces, the truth was revealed: it was hollow inside, as hollow as the promises of communism. The place where the monument used to stand is now covered by tarpaulins on which an icon of the Mother of God is depicted.
Nevertheless, Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, the 82-year-old former head of the Greek-Catholic Church, complains that many people are still influenced by the Soviet period. “The older people began their lives in the Soviet era, and it is not easy to bring them to a different way of thinking. The Soviet mentality is still present in politics and economic life,” he told a delegation from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) which recently visited Eastern Ukraine. It is therefore necessary, he said, to thoroughly study the Soviet period in order to use it as the basis “to make clear to the young people what they should not do. But one must also ask the question whether we have the right model before us, because Western Europe is also no ideal model. One must be very careful. There is much that is good, but also a moral liberalism.”
It is a challenge to find the true path from the past into the future. Many people in Ukraine feel an inner emptiness. They are in search of God. Bishops, priests and members of religious orders unanimously report that the longing for God is becoming ever greater and that the people seek true catechism and pastoral care.
Often, the first contact with the Church is made through practical love of neighbour. The poverty in the country, which was already great, has been made more severe by the crisis in the East; more and more people are dependent on soup kitchens, clothing banks or other forms of practical assistance. Added to these are the families that have fled from the districts affected by fighting. With help from ACN, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk, has set up a social centre offering a variety of assistance such as clothing banks, outpatient care, advice centres, and pastoral care.
Auxiliary Bishop, Jan Sobilo, is also particularly concerned for those on the margins of society, the drug and alcohol addicts. He can feel that it is not enough to help these people with a piece of bread, a bowl of soup and a bit of clothing; they need pastoral and spiritual support to break out of their addiction. “So many of these young people came to our soup kitchens, but too many of them are ruined,” the Bishop says. If they can escape from drugs and find their way to God, wonderful things can happen. Thus, Bishop Sobilo has been able to consecrate a former drug addict as a priest. Today he is responsible for the youth ministry in the diocese.
Today’s Auxiliary Bishop, who comes from Poland, originally only wanted to help in Ukraine for one year as a young priest. But now it has become nearly a quarter of a century. When he arrived in Zaporizhia, he had nothing other than the address of an elderly Catholic lady who had written to the then bishop asking him to send a Roman Catholic priest. When Jan Sobilo knocked on her door, she was disappointed that he had brought no money to immediately start building a church. But she gave him the address of a Catholic family, which received him in friendship and gave him accommodation for a whole year although they themselves only had a small apartment. That same evening, the family called other faithful together and the first Holy Mass was celebrated. Jan Sobilo, who could not imagine at that time that he would ever become the Bishop there, built a chapel and also started to build up the congregation, practically from nothing. Later, when he was able to build a co-cathedral, he donated the little chapel to the Greek-Catholic parish, which had no church in the town at that time. Now, two of the sons of the family that had given accommodation to today’s Auxiliary Bishop have become priests.
Jan Sobilo describes the Carmelite convent as the“heart”and the“most important point in the diocese”. The mostly young sisters even get up at night to pray when anyone calls on them needing help in prayer. “Their prayers are a great support for the priests, for the sick and for many people. The success of the pastoral work of our diocese also depends on their prayers.”
In the last year, ACN has supported projects in Ukraine to a value of over 5.1 million euro.