Fr. Bartholomew Przepeluk SJ about the situation in Khmelnytskyi (Ukraine).

On the evening before the start of the Russian aggression, together with a group of friends from the young and adult ministry, we decided to celebrate at a Georgian restaurant. Over delicious food and wine, we shared our dreams, planned the development of the ministry, and talked about future vacations. When we were heading back home, none of us could have imagined that the next morning we would witness the beginning of a war. Around five o'clock, we were awakened by the incomprehensible and ominous roar of enemy aircraft engines flying low over our cities, destroying the times that were once peaceful and calm.

On the first day of the attack on Ukraine (Thursday, February 24, 2022), I was hallway through individual Ignatian retreats that I was leading for two priests. Interestingly, one priest was reflecting on the theme of the First Week, which focuses on personal sin and its consequences, while the other was praying with the theme of the Third Week, accompanying Christ in his suffering.

After a conference, I decided to go for a walk to pray and collect my thoughts. I wanted to somehow support the people and show them that I was with them. So, I put on my Jesuit cassock and went to the city centre. On people's faces, I saw fear, uncertainty, and surprise. A gloomy silence hung everywhere. At one point, the realization came to my mind that refugees would arrive in our city any moment - people we don't know, with whom we have no connection, and whom we would have to take care of and help somehow. On my way back from the walk, I stopped by our parish café where the young people from the ministry had gathered. In a sombre mood, they were following the latest news about the advancing invasion. I sat among them and suggested that we could get involved in this war by helping people in need. We can try to overcome evil with good. I proposed that we jointly reorganize the Jesuit retreat house for the needs of refugees who would be seeking shelter while on the move or a place to wait out the war turmoil. The young people understood the idea and immediately decided to put it into action. Perhaps their involvement stemmed from youthful enthusiasm and heroism, or from a desire to escape and forget about fear and uncertainty, or from a desperate need to take action when we actually feel helpless and don't know what to do. However, what matters is that from the second day of the war, we have been working tirelessly, 24 hour per day, seven days a week.

It has been more than a year since the war began, and so much has happened... Our city is an important transportation hub, and as a result, many people come to us for help. We respond to everyone to the best of our modest abilities. Most of those who come forward are parents with children. It is not uncommon for them to bring pets with them. They wish to spend the night or stay for an extended period of time in a safe place.

House guests

During the first month and a half of the war, we hosted people who stayed with us for short periods of time (1-5 days). The people coming to our house were subjected to security checks to ensure their safety. Our home cooperates with the police, which allowed us to protect ourselves from incidents. We have accommodated over a thousand such individuals! Many of them showed visible signs of how much they were affected by the war and their escape. Some looked like shadows of their former selves: sad, withdrawn, and frightened. By providing them with spiritual and psychological support, we helped them open up and simply pour out their suppressed emotions, and then patiently listened to their stories.

I am still impressed by the expressions of solidarity, selflessness, and self-organization from our parishioners who rose to the occasion in this time of trial. As volunteers, they took care of cooking, laundry, cleaning, security, and logistics. In a word, they did it all!

At the beginning of April, we started accepting people for longer stays. We didn't know how our guests would cope with the hardships of the prolonged war and living in a relatively small house. There were many eager to stay - up to 60 people. The living conditions provided relative comfort for 30 residents. Despite personal discomforts, we decided to help a larger number of people. One of the real challenges was sharing including many spaces, such as rooms, bathrooms, recreation hall, dining room, and kitchen. Our residents patiently and understandingly went through the tense process of discovering the strengths and weaknesses of their neighbours, with whom they were bound by fate. Over time, as the Ukrainian army advanced on the front lines, some of our residents started leaving. Some returned to their hometowns after ensuring that the hostilities had ceased. Others found accommodation in the city or other parts of the country and moved away. Some decided to stay with us and eventually formed a real community of families who support each other in need.

What could I compare this experience to? Maybe to a very long sea voyage that doesn't seem to have an end. We are sailing on a crowded little vessel that resembles Noah's Ark. There are animals on board, as you can find a cat or a dog in every room. The journey is not easy for various reasons, but we are motivated to sail together until the end of this war.

The ministry for refugees

As I mentioned earlier, along with starting my ministry as the director of the retreat house, I had a desire to create a home-shelter where every guest would have a chance to begin their journey with Jesus or find strength on their path. It was important to me that our house would be a significant point on the map not only of the region but also a place known throughout the country. Interestingly, through the policy of hospitality and open doors to needy to some extent, we have been able to realize the guiding ideas.

The fortunes of war brought people of different religions and beliefs to our home. Just imagine: Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims living under one roof. People united by common suffering, helping each other and sharing a little kindness. It's a foretaste of the Kingdom, where there is no Greek or Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all (Colossians 3:11). Writing these words reminded me of a funny incident. It happened that after a few days of hosting a Jewish father and son, they threw a shout-out to me: "Praised be Jesus Christ." I was speechless and I admit I didn't know what to say. Disoriented, I blurted out, "Amen!"

We experienced Easter deeply. Its date coincided with the arrival of many people who decided to stay with us for a longer period of time. All the guests in our home were invited to celebrate Easter in the Roman rite together with our parishioners. To facilitate participation in the liturgy for those who were not familiar with the Roman rite, we organized a series of meetings for the interested ones. Anything "new and different" attracts attention. Everyone was very curious (even the nonbelievers). They asked many questions, compared our customs with Orthodox rituals. Many encountered Roman Catholics and a different Christian tradition for the first time. After the Triduum liturgy, we celebrated together through the night. Although war spread fear and claimed deadly tolls, we were celebrating the victory of Good over evil there; Life over death; Christ over the prince of this world...

Other significant, spiritual and unifying moments were the celebrations of the sacrament of reconciliation, baptism, and confirmation that we administered in our chapel to all those willing and in need. I will never forget the Muslim lawyer who brought a confused Orthodox person to confess and reconcile with God. I will never forget the hundreds of painful stories that people released while staying in our home. I recall with fondness the baptism and confirmation I administered to a young girl. The baptism was organized hastily, and the godparents were quickly gathered volunteers who henceforth referred to each other as "godfather/godmother”.

For our guests, staying in the retreat house is a somewhat unexpected, but extraordinary experience. The residents are aware that they are living in a monastery located next to the parish church, with a communal cemetery surrounding the entire complex. Most of them people are from the former Soviet Union. Although they were baptized formally, they were brought up in a spirit of state atheism in their families. Moreover, in their home countries, they did not have the opportunity to meet and experience what a Christian community is like. On the other hand, the local communities they had access to seemed to them too conservative, closed, and inaccessible. Unfortunately, this is a result of insufficient evangelization and catechesis, a problem present in Orthodox churches. Many of our residents, having plenty of free time, started asking important life questions. Some of them are slowly discovering the presence of God, whom they experience in conversations with our volunteers and parishioners. Encouraged by the hospitality and openness of the locals, they begin to participate in the life of the retreat house and the parish, in liturgies and prayers. Over time, they go to confession. Moreover, the residents are discovering the value of community, opening up to others, and learning to cooperate. Everyone has their duties and helps with keeping order or in the kitchen. Currently, over half of the 30 people living with us have started practicing the faith in the Church. I can say that, in their case, the war has turned into a great retreat.

How am I experiencing all of this?

Currently, I strongly feel the action of the Holy Spirit, and the war has accelerated Ukraine's process of maturing and unifying. Yes, the Holy Spirit is "condensed" here in a powerful way. People pray every day. Church leaders tell people not to harbour hatred, to pray for enlightenment and conversion for the enemy, and for endurance and God's protection for us. Soldiers on the frontlines ask us to pray for them because they are experiencing things that are humanly impossible, bullets miss them. I see how rapidly this nation is maturing, how motivated it is, how conviction is growing deeper, how it increasingly understands the values it is willing to defend at all costs, and how its identity is strengthening. And I want to participate in this and contribute in some way. I consider it an honour to be able to participate in all of this. For me, Ukrainians are now like Christ, going through their own Stations of the Cross, being betrayed, tortured, whipped, killed, but ultimately resurrected. I am proud of them, and it is an honour for me to serve Christ present among them in such a time. People are united and in solidarity, they have grown to love each other. This war has brought this nation together in a way I have never seen before. We have Mass in the chapel every day for those who are willing to attend. The Word of God nourishes and guides us. We know what to do, and we certainly don't rush to flee. On the contrary, we have a strong willingness to serve those in need. To anyone who reads this text, I would like to ask for prayers. Evil has its limits, and we overcome it with goodness.

Bartholomew Przepeluk SJ