The anniversary of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 is a moment to take stock of the resilience shown by Ukrainians. But it also puts a spotlight on a key role played by the Catholic Church in channeling humanitarian aid and sustaining morale.
“As a Church, we’ll remain aware of people’s constant needs — but we’ll also be encouraging people everywhere to fight against this evil with prayer,” Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Odessa-Simferopol told OSV News.
“Everyone knows soldiers on each side will die when fighting on the battlefield. But this is a hybrid war in which no one knows where the missiles will strike next. We’re left feeling the devil has simply wanted to destroy a whole nation for no reason. This is what causes the most hurt and sadness,” he said.
Bishop Szyrokoradiuk said the “reign of terror” marked by the random killing of civilians had stifled any lingering pro-Russia feelings, leaving all Ukrainians “united and patriotic.”
Russia’s campaign against Ukraine began with the February 2014 to March 2014 occupation and annexation of its Crimea peninsula and separatist rebellions in its eastern Donbas region, and exploded into full-scale war early Feb. 24, 2022, with strikes against Ukrainian military facilities and a Russian ground invasion.
In a televised speech, President Vladimir Putin blamed the U.S. and NATO for seeking control over territories historically belonging to Moscow, and said the “special military operation” would secure Ukraine’s “demilitarisation and denazification,” while protecting Russian speakers from “humiliation and genocide.”
With his country under illegitimate attack, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, declared martial law and a general mobilization of male citizens, while the invasion triggered international sanctions and a U.N. General Assembly resolution demanding full Russian withdrawal.
Having expected a quick, decisive victory, Russian forces had retreated with heavy losses by April, while Western-backed Ukrainian counter-offensives later recaptured most of the northern Kharkiv and southern Kherson regions, forcing a standstill amid artillery fire and trench warfare along a 500-mile front line.
On Feb. 19, Ukraine’s General Staff claimed 142,000 Russian troops had been killed since the invasion, with hundreds dying daily, although military casualties on both sides remain unverified.
Meanwhile, the U.N.’s human rights office said in mid-February it had recorded 7,199 civilian deaths and 11,756 injuries, but warned the actual figures could be much higher.
U.N. agencies registered 18.6 million Ukrainian border crossings during 2022, more than half to Poland, and requested a further $5.6 billion Feb. 15 to help over 8 million refugees currently dispersed across Europe, with up to 6 million more displaced within Ukraine.
Britton Buckner, European outreach manager with Catholic Relief Services, said the initial shock of the invasion had “quickly transitioned” into prioritizing “immediate humanitarian assistance,” adding that the efforts of Catholic aid organizations had ranked with those of national governments and the Red Cross.
“The whole global humanitarian community has mobilized for this crisis, with U.N. agencies, international organizations and NGOs all responding — but it’s the Catholic Church, with its grassroots network, which has been most active,” Buckner said.
“While Catholic social teaching has been a driving influence, the Church has long been a substantial presence in this part of Europe, and has been well placed, with its many donors, to give financial, physical, moral and emotional support to the millions in need.”
In Poland, where 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees are still registered, the Church’s Caritas charity has provided help — from food and medicine to generators and wheelchairs — via 32 separate centers, working with CRS and church agencies in Ukraine and abroad.
Other Catholic groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, have given life-saving assistance as well, working alongside Catholic organizations such as Renovabis in Germany, where over a million Ukrainians are currently also sheltering.
The Church works closely with Ukraine’s larger Kyiv-based Ukrainian Catholic Church, whose leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, has recorded the destruction and suffering and praised the courage of Ukrainian soldiers, volunteers and clergy serving on the front lines.
Archbishop Shevchuk’s daily messages throughout the war — with their now-famous invocation, “Ukraine survives, fights and prays!” — have offered thanks to God for each new day of life, while reflecting on the challenges of being a Christian in wartime.
Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia thinks the Ukrainian Catholic archbishop has played an exemplary role.
“His deeply spiritual closeness to the nation, unambiguously supporting its right to defend itself, has sustained not only Ukrainian Catholics, but also Orthodox Christians, Protestants and others, irrespective of confessional loyalties,” the Kharkiv-Zaporizhia auxiliary said.
Gratitude also has been shown to the pope, who has voiced compassion for Ukraine’s “martyred and suffering people” in weekly peace appeals.
Ukraine’s Catholic bishops will mark the war’s first anniversary by meeting with the Vatican’s nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, at the historic central sanctuary of Berdychiv, as parallel prayer services take place across Europe.
As Ukraine’s civilian population bears the brunt of the war, with 40% now needing assistance and protection, Buckner, the CRS outreach manager, is confident the massive humanitarian response will hold up, as the world’s biggest armed conflict since World War II enters its second year.
“Much contingency planning has been needed for various scenarios — for recovery and rebuilding if the war ends, and for even larger displacements if it drags on,” Buckner said.
“Many European countries have faced migrant and refugee waves before. But the generosity being shown by people who’ve opened their homes and stepped forward to help those in need, by virtue of a shared history and humanity, has been inspirational,” she said. “Wherever there are people of faith, there’ll be people working in good faith to help others.”