Ukraine’s Long Lent

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: As this bloodbath initiated by Russia moves into its second year, the world can assess the war’s toll, both material and spiritual.

A priest holds a cross towards the coffin of Ruslan Zastavny, 33, a volunteer in Ukraine's Territorial Defence Forces, during his funeral at the Field of Mars cemetery on Feb. 20, 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. Feb. 24 marked the first anniversary of Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine.
A priest holds a cross towards the coffin of Ruslan Zastavny, 33, a volunteer in Ukraine's Territorial Defence Forces, during his funeral at the Field of Mars cemetery on Feb. 20, 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. Feb. 24 marked the first anniversary of Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine. (photo: Sean Gallup / Getty)

Still scarred more than a decade later by his own Civil War experiences, Gen. William Sherman famously declared in 1879 that “war is hell” — in a stern rebuke to those who would glorify armed conflict and overlook its devastating human toll. The innocent people of Ukraine have been experiencing the hellish reality of modern warfare, personally and continuously, for more than a year, since Russia brutally invaded their homeland on Feb. 24, 2022. 

As this unnecessary and unjustifiable bloodbath moves into its second year, the world can assess the war’s toll, both material and spiritual. 

On the battlefield, Western military officials estimate that more than 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded, alongside Russian casualties estimated to run as high as 200,000 soldiers. Additionally, more than 20,000 Ukrainian civilians have been documented to have been killed or wounded, according to U.N. figures, with the overall total of civilian casualties likely to be considerably greater than that number. Atrocities, torture, deportations and mass graves have also been features of Russia’s brutal aggression. 

In terms of the economic and political impact, 15 million Ukrainians have been forced to leave the country or displaced internally. Ukraine’s economy is projected to contract by 35% this year, the value of its currency has declined by 25%, and even if hostilities were to end immediately, the costs of rebuilding the nation are estimated at 100-200 billion euros. 

A Feb. 22 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not shy away from unequivocally identifying Russia as the aggressor and condemning the consequences of its brutal assault. 

“It is with a heavy heart that we acknowledge the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” it stated. “This past year has seen the horrific consequences of Russian armed aggression on the sovereignty of Ukraine, its infrastructure, its economy, and, most of all, on its people.”

These ill effects extend far beyond Ukraine’s borders. There are risks of a global food crisis from the collapse of wheat and corn supplies from Ukraine and Russia, which are responsible for almost 30% of the world's exports, and lower economic growth is already being felt by a global economy that’s still trying to recover from the COVID pandemic. There are also continuing fears of escalation, with concerns about the war potentially spreading further westward into Europe, China threatening to support Russia, and the very real potential for nuclear war.

The return of war to the European continent, on a scale unprecedented since World War II, has also generated an immensity of spiritual suffering. The sorrow of those coping with losing loved ones — a pain that is now commonplace in Ukrainian households — is compounded by the stress of living daily within direct aim of Russia’s deadly bombardment of Ukraine’s cities and towns. 

Souls enduring this kind of intense trauma are in urgent need of the pastoral support of their nation’s religious communities, yet the war has also undermined their capacity to respond. Russian aggression has targeted churches and shrines and has included the detainment of Catholic priests, such as Father Ivan Levitsky and Father Bohdan Geleta, who were arrested in November and who are being tortured, according to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. 

The war has also resulted in profound ecumenical damage, diminishing the capacity of Christians within Ukraine and Russia and elsewhere around the world to unite ecumenically in the cause of peace. 

While Pope Francis initially sought to maintain a line of communication with the Russian Orthodox Church, in hopes of serving at some point as a peacemaker, Patriarch Kirill’s intransigent backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military ambitions has pushed the always-strained relationship with the Vatican near to the breaking point. Kirill’s stance, as the leader of Orthodoxy’s largest national Church, also has led to a collapse of relations with other Orthodox Churches. 

Throughout all of this hardship and pain, however, the extraordinary resilience of the Ukrainian people has shined forth as a beacon of hope amidst the darkness of war. Refuting widespread predictions when the war started that Russia’s far larger armed forces would certainly secure a quick and decisive victory, Ukraine’s more committed and innovative troops found ways to withstand the initial assault on their capital city of Kyiv. And defying the odds even further, they subsequently launched a successful counteroffensive in September that reclaimed a substantial percentage of the land that Russia had occupied in eastern Ukraine.

Since then, the battle lines have stabilized, and the conflict has morphed into a war of attrition, with Russia seeking to break this battlefield deadlock via indiscriminate missile and drone attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure. Along with trying to cripple Ukraine’s economy, this immoral strategy is also intended to break the fighting will of its people. But Ukrainians instead have found ways to rapidly restore damaged infrastructure and to retain a highly functional economy despite the ongoing bombardment. Moreover, their morale remains remarkably high, with overwhelming support for maintaining their military resistance to the Russian invasion and overwhelming opposition to ceding any of the Ukrainian territory that Russia currently occupies as the price for a cease-fire.

Still, the continuing bravery of Ukrainians would not have been sufficient to withstand Russia’s military ambitions over the last 12 months without the continuing flow of military and non-military support of the United States and other Western nations. It’s crucial that this support continues moving forward. 

Spiritual support from other countries is equally imperative, and Catholics have taken a leading role in this regard. Poles, Hungarians and countless others around the world have rallied in prayer and works of mercy to help the Ukrainians. One especially moving example was provided by Polish mothers, who left baby strollers in train stations to await arriving Ukrainian mothers forced to flee their country. 

Catholics in the U.S. are playing their part, too. The Knights of Columbus, for example, have raised more than $20 million in a manifestation of their support and solidarity.

Speaking out on the anniversary of the start of the war — and two days after the Church entered this year’s penitential season of Lent — Archbishop Shevchuk highlighted the central role spiritual actions must play in fortifying his people. “We feel that when we join together in prayer, fasting and good deeds, we win,” he said. “We so much need spiritual strength to bring our victory closer.”

Above all, Catholics must continue to storm heaven with prayers for a peaceful and fair resolution to this disastrous conflict. Only then will the unjust suffering of the people of Ukraine be alleviated. Pope Francis has spoken out repeatedly, including just a few days ago:

“Let us remain close to the tormented Ukrainian people, who continue to suffer,” he said, “and let us ask ourselves: Has everything possible been done to stop the war? I appeal to those who have authority over nations to make a concrete commitment to end the conflict, to achieve a cease-fire and to start peace negotiations. What is built on rubble will never be a true victory.”

While we have our own serious issues to address here at home, U.S. Catholics continue to enjoy the blessing of peace, unlike our suffering Ukrainian brothers and sisters. So we must make use of the opportunity this blessing provides, to continue to rally in their support both spiritually and materially. And, as Archbishop Shevchuk indicated, the three pillars of Lenten conversion — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — can be most fruitfully directed toward this cause, during our own personal journeys through Lent this year.

God bless you!