Dear sisters, dear brothers,
When I wrote my previous letter from Ukraine at the beginning of August, no one expected that the world would soon be watching with surprise and pain the events of another war. This time, war in the territory of the state of Israel in the Gaza Strip. The media bore the information about thousands of dead and wounded civilians, including women and children, along with the drama of kidnapped hostages. The horror of the military conflict is repeating itself before our eyes in such a short amount of time. The war in Ukraine that’s been dragging on month after month is no longer an interesting subject for many around the world, and news from the Dnipro River rarely appears on the front pages of the world’s media. Even in Ukraine you can pick up on a certain level of exhaustion, sometimes accompanied by irritation and anger. But despite 627 long days of war drama, I still cannot detect any attitude of resignation, apathy, or surrender — maybe because we’re all aware that the stakes in this war are very high, and its conclusion will shape the future of the Ukrainian nation.
The new academic year at the Dominican Institute of Saint Thomas Aquinas began with an excellent opening lecture dedicated to the concept of the “Russian world”. The director of our institute Father Petro asked a renowned Ukrainian Orthodox theologian Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun to take up the “Russian world” as the subject of scholastic analysis; he is a lecturer at a number of Western Universities. Our guest compellingly described the religious and philosophical foundations of Russian aggression against Ukraine, demonstrating specific examples of Russian Orthodox entanglement in it.
Father Misha and volunteers from the house of Saint Martin de Porres in Fastiv regularly organize humanitarian missions to the Kherson to Kharkiv regions. Recently they went to a new location with a supply of food, warm clothes, and hygiene products. On the way to Kostiantynivka in the Donbas region, you pass by many destroyed buildings and damaged military equipment. In one of the villages on the region’s border, there is a small Orthodox church. The outside of the building is destroyed, but the inside along with the spectacular icons remains almost untouched. “When you enter, you see Heaven!” said Father Misha, adding: “This church reminds me of every one of us. During this war, we can be wounded on the outside, but if we have God in our hearts internally, we belong to Him.”
November 11 is the anniversary of Poland’s regaining independence after 123 years, a national feast. But there’s another reason for joy on this day. Exactly a year earlier, on November 11, 2022, the people of Kherson went out with Ukrainian flags onto the streets of the city just liberated after eight months of Russian occupation. I remember clearly the joy from a year ago and the emotion when a week later we shared that joy in the still-darkened city of Kherson. I pray with gratitude for all those who pay the highest price for our freedom.
There are continually more and more victims of this war. A few days ago, participating in the opportunity for the indulgence that can be obtained and offered for the souls of the dead by visiting a cemetery in the first days of November, I went to the nearby necropolis Lukianivske Cemetery, one of the oldest in Kyiv, which now has a whole avenue where the modern heroes are buried. When I went there, a funeral of two soldiers was taking place. I saw so much pain on the faces of those coming to bid them farewell. A bit further on, an older woman was arranging flowers. I delicately asked her if it was the tomb of her son. “He died in Bakhmut,” she responded and immediately led me to the neighboring tombs, naming the buried soldiers. “These are his friends. They died together when the shell hit the trench.” She talked about it in a way that made me think all three are now her sons. I found a few tombs of soldiers who fought in the International Legion. At the tomb of 27-year-old Christopher Campbell, veteran of Iraq and Kuwait, there are two flags: American and Ukrainian. “Chris’ last will was to be buried in Ukraine, in the country that he loved and for which he gave his life. Here he also found his love,” wrote the Ukrainian director Oles Sanin, the father of Ivanna, his fiance. Christopher had been learning Ukrainian in order to ask Ivanna’s parents for permission to marry their daughter in their native tongue.
While I was in Lviv helping the brothers on one of the weekends in October, I went for an evening walk. After all, the city is famous not only for coffee and chocolate but also for its good beer. At some point I stopped, surprised, recognizing through the noise of the Lviv street the notes of Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia.” As I left the store, I joined the street musicians singing Ukraine’s spiritual anthem: “Boże welykyj jedynyj”. I went over to thank and shake the hand of 9-year-old Yuri, who was accompanied and musically supported by his father Nazar. For over a year he has been singing on the streets of his hometown Horodok as well as Lviv and the surrounding region, collecting money for the Ukrainian army. He managed to raise almost 3.5 million hryvnia which is over $90,000. The boy received a special letter of gratitude from the chief commander of the Ukrainian forces, General Zaluzhnyi for his volunteer activity.
Ukraine has received relics of Saint Catherine of Siena. They were given to our parish in Fastiv by the General Postulator of the Order, Father Massimo Mancini. Our saint sister is one of the patrons of Europe. The whole Dominican order prays for her intercession. I am very happy that after the long break caused by the pandemic and then by the war, the lay Dominicans in Zakarpattia organized a retreat. They were accompanied by Bishop Nicholas of Mukachevo and Fathers Wojciech and Irenaeus. I know that this was a long-awaited and spiritually inspiring event for many brothers and sisters.
For 25 years, Ukraine has been celebrating the Day of the Ukrainian language. On October 27, following the tradition, the National Writing Test began at 11 am, which anyone could join via radio or social media. As I was taking a shortcut through the neighboring McDonalds on the way to the subway station, I passed a table where a mother and daughter were sitting with open notebooks and headphones on their ears. This illustrates that love for your country and respect for your national language begins at home, in the family. My Facebook friend, a Ukrainian singer and author of children’s books, put it better: “The question of language begins with the mother.”
While I was driving from Lviv, I saw a man on the side of the road dressed in a white tunic. He was carrying a cross. It’s Jimmy. The 33-year-old American from Virginia who was walking on foot to Kyiv. After a moment of hesitation, I turned around. We had a conversation at the gas station for about half an hour. “I am not Jesus. I am not perfect. I am walking east from Warsaw, and I meet people. I share with them friendship, love, and hope,” he explained while sipping on the coffee given to him by a group of women. Seeing Jesus, they had stopped like I did and took a selfie before exchanging a few words. “Not only in Ukraine and Poland but all around the world, people need more love and less judgment. I accept everyone who comes to me, although it’s not easy, especially when I’m tired and hurting.”
Saturday, two weeks after our first meeting near Zhytomyr and after 70 days of walking, Jimmy finally arrived in Kyiv. The weather was exceptionally bad. He himself admitted it was one of the worst days of his whole trip, and not only because it rained nonstop from morning til evening: he was sad that very few people in the capital of Ukraine had paid attention to a man who looked like Jesus. I invited Jimmy to stay with us in the priory for a couple of days. During Sunday dinner with the brothers, we talked about what he does. “Most people who I met wanted to give me something — food, drink, money. Some even tried to force me to have a meal with them. But only a couple were ready to accompany me, to walk with me part of the way.” I thought about these words. It’s true: it’s easier for us to give something to God with the conviction that it would be necessary or nice for him. It’s much more difficult to walk with Jesus. I considered Jimmy’s words when turning to the words of the real Jesus spoken to the rich young man: “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor [...] Then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21) When I give away everything that I think I can use to barter with God, then I will truly become poor and free in order to walk with Him.
Thank you for remembering us and for all the support you’ve shown to Ukraine. I also ask you continually for prayer.
Jarosław Krawiec OP
Kyiv, November 13, 2023
You can DONATE to help the work of the Dominicans in Ukraine through the Western Province of the US Dominicans.