Clergy help Ukrainian soldiers overcome physical, emotional wounds

Mariana Karapinka

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The lives of many Ukrainians switched into emergency mode 18 months ago when riot police brutally beat a peaceful gathering of students protesting in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev against the government's refusal to cement closer ties with the European Union.

In those days, the golden-domed Orthodox St. Michael's Monastery became a shelter for students and that gesture of service became prophetic as the Ukrainian churches stood by the people in what became known among Ukrainians as the Revolution of Dignity.

During the darkest days of the protest, when police started shooting at demonstrators, local Kiev churches -- Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Orthodox alike -- became field hospitals as emergency care and surgeries were carried out next to church altars. Priests and lay ministers became spiritual counselors and psychologists.

The work of the churches goes on as fighting has continued between Ukrainian troops and separatist forces in the eastern part of the country, claiming the lives of more than 1,800 Ukrainian soldiers while leaving more 7,000 wounded. Civilian casualties number in the thousands as well.

Fr. Petro Terletskyj, professor of theology at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, started visiting injured soldiers in August after fierce fighting erupted between government troops and separatist forces in Ilovaysk.

In addition to his pastoral work, he joined volunteers at the military hospital in Lviv to help treat the injured and organize medical supplies and equipment. He said he also helps soldiers who must be transported abroad for treatment of their injuries and negotiates with clinics and doctors, cuts through paperwork and raises money for their care.

"Soldiers need to know that church is a community that supports and heals," he told Catholic News Service. "This support requires concrete solidarity, not just theory. Pastoral ministry is closely interconnected with psychological assistance and social work."

Priests often work with psychologists, but Terletskyj has noticed that clergymen gain more trust among patients.

"We are privileged. We are not part of the military system. We are the church. We want to help, and soldiers know that they are truly valuable to us. And that makes them more open," he said.

Terletskyj explained how he has heard searing testimonies of faith from those to whom he has ministered and that their stories strengthen his own faith.

"Soldiers often say, 'You know, father, God helped us. By all the laws of physics and ballistics we would have to be dead.' In those sufferings there is a challenge and a call to the whole society. It is a call to seek the truth in your life and fight for it."

Fr. Andriy Lohin, administrator of the Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky Hospital in Lviv, helped the injured at Kiev hospitals during last year's protests in Kiev. He started a special program to treat soldiers and their families as well as volunteers who may have not been wounded, but were in need of general medical care.

"They have spent months in very hard circumstances, obvious that their health deteriorated," he explained. "They simply need the attention and due respect. For us this ministry is the embodiment of Christian love in concrete actions."

In March, Lohin opened the Center for Psychological Health at the hospital, saying mental health needs often are as great as physical needs.

Similar initiatives exist in other cities. In the central Ukrainian city of Khmelnytsky, Christ the King Roman Catholic Parish established a rehabilitation center for internally displaced persons, military, volunteers, relatives and friends of military.

Fr. Ihor Boiko, rector of Holy Spirit Seminary in Lviv, focuses his ministry on helping families of soldiers killed in action. His ministry started with spiritual support of families of the "Heavenly Hundred," the protesters who were killed in February 2014 on Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan. As the conflict evolved, the ministry expanded to include families of fallen soldiers.

"Our idea is to create the mutual support groups. Church has to be close, listen to them," Boiko said.

The priest also tries to engage seminarians in such work.

"They need to learn, that's very deep and special experience that cannot be found in any book," he explained. "Talking and being with families of killed protesters and military seminarians learn humanity, warmth, and attention."

Such different grass-root initiatives of priests and faith communities resonate with church leadership. For example the synod of bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church conducted special training for clergy on how to deal with people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Diocesan bishops have been encouraged to create centers of spiritual and psychological support.

Priests and volunteers who work with wounded say that this ministry reshapes the mission of the church.

"The encounter with the wounded heroes is for me the source of inspiration," said Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Borys Gudziak of Paris, president of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He became friends with Serhiy Zahasajlo, a young army sergeant who was severely injured in a May 2014 mortar attack at a military checkpoint as he shielded other soldiers.

"Christ calls us to give our life," Gudziak said. "And they, those young men, have given more than many of us who have lived a Christian life for a long time. An encounter with them puts many things into spiritual and eternal perspective. When people shed their blood and sacrificed for your dignity, our petty concerns fall away."

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