Magda Kaczmarek has been with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for 32 years and is head of projects in Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria and the Balkan countries. These are mostly countries where Catholics are a minority. She recently returned from a trip to Ukraine, and in this interview speaks about what she found, and what the needs of the Ukrainian people are at this time.
How many times have you visited Ukraine since the Russian invasion in 2022? Is it easy to enter the country and travel within it?
This was my third visit since the full-scale Russian invasion. Ukraine can only be reached by train, bus, or car. In our case, we flew to Poland and crossed the border by car. This time we were able to travel to Kyiv and to neighbouring locations such as Irpin and Brovary, areas previously occupied and destroyed by Russian troops.
What were your thoughts seeing those areas that were scarred by the war?
I kept asking myself why are the Ukrainians being killed by their neighbours? Why destroy their lives forever?
In April 2022 we saw thousands of refugees in western Ukraine, 80 percent were women with children, the elderly, and sick people, who tried to leave the country or to survive in the seminaries, monasteries and parish houses that opened their doors to them, waiting for the end of the war. Today there are fewer refugees in the west, but more in central Ukraine. Fifteen million people have left eastern Ukraine, seven million of them are in Poland or Western Europe, one million have gone to Russia, and seven million are internally displaced in western or central Ukraine.
What is the mood like? Are people hopeful that things will improve soon?
It is very difficult to say what will happen next. The end of the war cannot be foreseen, so nobody can answer this question. People just wish for peace, and the Church is constantly praying with them for freedom; families want to live together and not be divided; children want to have their fathers back, to be with their friends and to play with them, and not live in fear, far away from their houses. Their life has changed forever, and it will never be the same again.
What is the most difficult part for Ukrainian people, especially Catholics?
In this situation we cannot differentiate between Catholics, Orthodox or otherwise. The whole of society is suffering. Millions of people have lost their means of subsistence and had to leave their homes. Their world has collapsed, they don’t have work. Helping people in this situation is a work of mercy and a big challenge for the local Catholic churches.
What role does ACN play in Ukraine at the moment?
Pope Francis continues to call for prayers for peace. As a pontifical foundation, we listen to the Pope and share his concern and his appeals for an end of this terrible war as soon as possible.
An elderly woman prays for peace with Sister Halyna Dyiak of the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Odessa, Ukraine.
Fortunately, our benefactors are still very generous, and they understand who is suffering and living in pain. They realize that the local Catholic churches help everyone who comes to their door, looking for food or shelter. We can assure them that our sisters and brothers in faith pray for the benefactors and their families every day!
ACN has also been helping in eastern Ukraine. Have you travelled there? And if not, is it easy to get information?
It is important for us to go there, to see the situation on the ground, but it is very dangerous to travel to the most difficult regions in eastern Ukraine. However, we are in contact with the priests, sisters and bishops who live there. They tell us about conditions, and how they try to live each day as if were their last.
What is the atmosphere in the Catholic Church in Ukraine during Easter time?
This is the second Easter in this terrible war and again Ukraine is experiencing a Way of the Cross, where so many innocent people are dying and suffering. But we have hope that in the end there will be victory through the Resurrection.
What are the priorities of ACN for the future?
It is important to make sure we don’t tire of helping, and that we continue to support priests and religious so they can survive and continue their pastoral work, preaching the Gospel, and evangelizing those who are seeking God.
The greatest challenge for the local Church, however, will be to heal the wounds in the souls of so many people, especially children. Rehabilitation is a major challenge, as is the psychological formation of priests or sisters related to pastoral care. According to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, 80 percent of the population needs this kind of help. ACN stands ready to support them in this.
Therefore, please do not stop praying for peace in Ukraine and don’t forget those who depend on your generosity.