Vitaliy Osmolovskyy is a Ukrainian Jesuit who has been in Poland working to support refugees fleeing the war but also combatants on the front lines. He was in Lisbon a few days ago and gave his testimony.

Fr. Vitaliy Osmoloskyy is Ukrainian and a Jesuit. He was in the United States doing a doctorate when war broke out in Ukraine on 24 February 2022. He was called and immediately returned to his country to be with his people. The fact that he had dual nationality (Ukrainian and Polish) proved to be of enormous importance, as over the months many thousands of Ukrainians had fled to Poland, and the country was now struggling with about four million people. There he contributed to the Society of Jesus' response in supporting refugees fleeing the war - by setting up a Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) office in Warsaw - and also by helping Ukrainian fighters on the front line.

At the beginning of January, Fr. Vitaliy came to Portugal, more precisely to Fatima, to accompany his parents, who, like the Ukrainian people, are deeply devoted to Our Lady. Taking advantage of the Ukrainian Jesuit's presence in Portugal, invited him to take part in the Sunday Eucharist and to bear witness to the situation in Ukraine and the support given to the refugees.


Ponto SJ: You are a Jesuit, but before that you were Ukrainian. Ten months after the start of the war, how do you feel about what is happening?

Vitaliy Osmoloskyy: First of all I would like to say that I am very happy to be here and to share with you my gratitude. I came to Portugal with my parents, as a pilgrim, to pray in Fatima for peace, because Our Lady of Fatima is very important for us and has a great devotion in Ukraine. For me, being a Jesuit is very simple, it means being human. So if you are able to be human through the instrument that is being a Jesuit it is a miracle in terms of vocation and calling. And this also applies to other professions and lifestyles.

The situation ten months after the war started in Ukraine is that of a society in the process of change and birth. It is a time when we see how a new nation is being born for itself, and for its future. It is a time when, not only in Ukraine but also in Europe, many institutions, politicians, and nations have to review their values. At this time we also see that the work of international organisations is not working. It is a time of extremes. In Ukraine people are fighting for life, while in Western Europe people are thinking about quality of life. It is a time of extremes. In Ukraine people are fighting for their lives, while in Western Europe people are thinking about quality of life.


Ponto SJ: At the beginning of the war the project Jesuits for Ukraine was created, on the part of the Polish province of the Society of Jesus, to coordinate efforts and aid to reach Ukraine. You send aid to Ukrainian territory, but you also provide support for Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland. What kind of work do you have in these two lines of action?

V.O.: I think one of our biggest successes was the creation of a JRS in Poland. Now we have a main office in Warsaw and three other regional offices. We can organise and distribute more aid not only to Ukraine, through the JRS that was founded there in 2008, but also within Poland. To show what is important for JRS and for us, I would say that life is important, but quality of life is even more important. Now, I am not talking about benefits and luxuries, but about the meaning and value of life. It is not enough to maintain life. What is needed is to take care of life, and that means, when we are helping our neighbours or even ourselves, living in conditions of peace, love and mercy. This is "quality of life".


Ponto SJ: How are Ukrainian refugees currently living in Poland? What are their main needs?

V.O.: Ukrainian society was already very close to the Polish context, which is something that already comes from history. So when Ukrainian refugees fled to Poland, the first thing they wanted was to learn the language, the culture, the traditions and to find a job. Getting a job is the first thing they want because if they have a job they can afford to have a house, a room. Now the challenge is to find a place to rent because, officially, we have 4 million people in Poland, mostly women and children. It is difficult for mothers to find a job when they have small children, so they have a cooperation scheme: one mother takes care of three children and the others work and then swap. They are creating this cooperation that can be replicated to be able to work and be with their children. The creativity of these people and the way they organise their life is amazing. The main problem is to find a house to rent.


Ponto SJ: How many Ukrainian refugees are there in Warsaw?

V.O.: They are not only in Warsaw, but in the whole country and not only Ukrainian refugees. Poland is a very attractive country for other countries, so we have many people who came from India, China, Bangladesh, Georgia, etc. The economy is still growing in Poland, while there is stagnation in the rest of Europe. So a lot of people are coming here.


Ponto SJ: And when you cross the border to the other side what do you see? Can you describe that experience to us?

V.O.: One of the most touching moments was when the men and husbands were bringing their wives, children and sisters to the border, and there they were saying goodbye. The men would return to fight and protect the towns and the women and children would travel, even to countries in the North. We had many proposals to go to many countries like Holland, Spain, Portugal, France. And these people didn't even know the language. Those were the most touching moments because we know that many of them will never see each other again in their lives.


Ponto SJ: You told us that when you were in Ukraine you also administered the sacraments to people who were in the war zone. How do you deal with these situations in such dramatic circumstances?

V.O.: Yes, I have some good friends from my student days in Ukraine who are in the military service and on the frontline of combat. And when they had an order to fight, some called me or came to me to give them a blessing, to pray for them, and to take care of their families if something happened to them. Those moments were very difficult, and of course I am human, but I would try not to show my emotions and feelings. I tried to be close, calm and gentle and not show too much emotion. Even because in their culture when a man cries it means he is weak. They tried not to cry in front of their wives and children. Personally, I think it is a bad idea because only strong, brave men can cry and there is no shame in showing it. But it's part of our culture.


Ponto SJ: On television, we see war and destruction. But on the ground, how do Ukrainians feel? Do they feel anger, hope or resignation?

V.O.: Most feel anger and that's normal, that's part of it, it's a feeling. But it is in the desire to do harm, to hurt, to wound, that the worst problem lies. We must also have voices of reconciliation and peace-building, especially from the Vatican. In March, I spoke about this at the international meeting of coordinators and said that this is not the time to build peace or reconciliation. This is a process of mercy. First we need the aggressor to ask for forgiveness and we need time because it is a wound. First we have to take care of the wounds and only after that can we talk about reconciliation. I often say that it would be the same thing as saying to the Jews in 1943 or 1944: "forgive your enemies". This is not the time for that. I would say that anger is the first feeling and then disappointment, especially because we see these politicians so weak in Europe... This encourages people to just do what depends on them and not just wait for help from European countries. I say this many times, we cannot wait for help, we have to fight for ourselves. One of the most touching moments was when the men and husbands were bringing their wives, children and sisters to the border, and there they were saying goodbye.


Ponto SJ: We see a lot of resilience in Ukrainians, who fight, defend what is theirs, and that is something that impresses us, this kind of behaviour. Where do these people find strength?

V.O.: I have an image that can help, that of a young horse. First, when we put him in the field, he doesn't know what to do, how to work, but when he realises his power, it's fantastic, he jumps, runs, has enormous beauty and strength. For me, this example illustrates well the Ukrainian nation. Every day we are realising our power and our richness, our uniqueness as a nation. We need help, but we can also help each other, and even during this war, we also help other countries that are going badly in Africa or the Middle East. It sounds strange, but that's the way it is.


Ponto SJ: You mentioned in an interview that the only tangible thing you see in Ukraine is destruction. How is it possible to see the Gospel on the ground and where do you find a glimmer of hope?

V.O.: That is very personal. Of course faith is important, but I would say spirituality is more important. We have religion, it is an external thing, (rights, language, buildings) but we also have faith, we ask God "reveal yourself to us". And when I have a revelation, I have an intimate relationship with God. (And when I say God I don't mean the Catholic or Orthodox God, it is universal). Many people have God and spirituality as their source, but not everyone has help like we have been receiving from other people, from other countries.

It is curious, because when we receive a group of refugee women and children from Ukraine we say "here you have your rooms, a canteen to eat, etc". And they sit down and ask: "What do we have to do?" And we say: "How can we do it? Enjoy, rest, you are in Warsaw, go out, enjoy yourselves". And when they ask what they have to do, they refer to work. And we said: "Nothing, you don't have to do anything, we do it. Can we mop the floor for you? And they say: "Of course not, no way". This is our culture. It is very encouraging for people to know that someone has the desire to help them, to love them. That thought alone makes a huge difference.


Ponto SJ: And what more can we do to help Ukraine, the country and the people?

V.O.: What you do is already more than enough. It is very encouraging for people to know that someone has the desire to help them, to love them. Just that thought makes a huge difference. It's like when you're a long time away from the people you love, but you know they're there waiting for you. It opens up a different perspective. Every little bit helps. I'm not going to ask for a lot of things, but I would say if you get the chance, help.


Ponto SJ: How and when do you foresee the end of the war?

Vitaliy Osmolovskyy: We have an official and an unofficial answer. In the unofficial one I would say - because we have some sources that are giving us information - that Ukraine's victory in this war does not depend one hundred per cent on Ukraine, it depends on other countries. I don't want to create a conspiracy theory, but I would say that it's not just a matter of one country. The same can be said about smaller conflicts that we have in Europe and in the open and in the Middle East. But, I agree with the experts and analysts who say that the war should be over by the summer.