Ukrainian Bishop: ‘Our Risen Lord Is With Us’
Bishop Radoslaw Zmitrowicz discusses his experience alongside his people affected by war, and gives his impressions of the recent European synodal assembly held in Prague.
Kamyanets-Podilskyi is famous as one of the most ancient cities in Ukraine. Located in the west of the country, near the Moldovan border, the city and its diocese of the same name have been relatively unaffected by the conflict that has been raging since February 2022, except for the frequent bomb threats. This made it a favored place for war refugees who could not go abroad and flocked there by the hundreds of thousands.
On the ground, as in other cities with a high concentration of refugees, the Church is on the front line to provide them with the necessary help, material and spiritual as well as psychological.
The Register sought firsthand testimony about the local situation, at the time of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from Kamyanets-Podilskyi Auxiliary Bishop Radosław Zmitrowicz. The Polish-born prelate has regularly appealed for international donations over the past months to provide his flock with needed humanitarian aid as the conflict took further root and family savings were drained.
In this interview conducted in the aftermath of the Continental Assembly of the Synod on Synodality for Europe held in Prague Feb. 5-12, Bishop Zmitrowicz also expressed reservations about the content of the synod discussions he attended, which in his opinion did not sufficiently reflect the depth of the Gospel message. According to him, Ukraine is confronted, in addition to its bloody conflict with Russia, with powerful forces in the West that are using this war to destroy its spiritual and cultural identity.
A little more than a year after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, how is the situation in your diocese? How is your diocese involved in helping people affected by the war?
On the one hand, the situation has stabilized, because we have been living in war conditions for a long time and have become accustomed to them. It may seem that life is going on as normal, but we still carry a certain tension, a certain trauma within us. We always ask ourselves: “When will it end?”
The funerals of the dead, the return of the wounded, the bomb scares remind us that the war continues. Almost everyone has someone close to them in the war, which means that, for them, every phone call can be the bearer of the news of the death of a loved one. Many people have also disappeared without a trace, without knowing what happened to them. Many families are separated because many have gone abroad. This is a source of concern for the relatives and certainly for the children who have no contact with both parents. At the same time, the diocese continues its daily routine: Sunday Eucharist, devotions, retreats, confessions, visits to the sick, catechesis for children and youth, meetings of communities and movements.
We’ve recently launched some new initiatives, among which are regular trips of priests and volunteers to the battlefields to strengthen the soldiers spiritually, to bring them humanitarian aid and, above all, to pray with them, confess and listen to them. The second new initiative is the attempt to bring spiritual and pastoral support to the displaced people who, in their great majority, are far from the faith. We also have a prayer for peace, a prayer for those who defend us, a prayer for our enemies. This war-related prayer has become very clearly part of our daily lives.
What is the situation of the war refugees?
There have been hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Vinnytsia and Chmielnycky oblasts [administrative regions] in our diocese, and the poorest ones often did not have the means to escape abroad. At the beginning of the war, all parish houses, monasteries and retreat houses were full of refugees. After a few months, many returned to their homes or eventually went abroad. At the moment, displaced persons are still staying in a dozen centers, but in addition, humanitarian aid is deployed for those who are staying in towns affected by the armed conflict.
Another very important dimension of help given to them is the healing of mental and spiritual wounds inflicted by war. We are deeply convinced that it is we, as the Church, that can offer a rehabilitation proposal that will cover not only the human psyche but also his spirit. We are training our people in this form of help, and we are completing the construction of a center for spiritual and psychological rehabilitation, which will be our concrete help to the many people wounded by the war.
What are the most significant things and events that you have personally experienced during this year of conflict?
My personal experience is that of the fear that grips your body and God’s help to overcome it. God’s grace allows you to live, to help, to serve, and you discover a special taste of life, a taste of freedom. I was amazed by the courage of many priests who were in very dangerous places. They stayed with the people; they were faithful, I called them in the first months of the war, and I was moved by their courage and their fortitude: God sustained them. Sometimes you hear criticism of the clergy, but it turned out that, in this situation of trial, the vast majority of them behaved very well.
Another observation is the truth of the words of the Gospel, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Someone who you wouldn’t think would sacrifice did. Conversely, someone who you thought was a very good person thinks only of themselves in a testing situation. The mystery of human freedom is revealed! Another important and very positive event was the act of consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25, 2022. Immediately after this event, the Russian troops left Kiev and Chernihiv. They were already in the vicinity of the capital, and Chernihiv was completely surrounded. How could they have withdrawn? We saw the fruit of this act of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
You recently participated in the European synod discussions in Prague. What were your impressions at the end of the week of debates? What are your main expectations for the synodal assembly to be held in Rome next October?
We are fighting in my country to survive as a nation and as a state, so we are fighting for our physical survival. But there is also a cultural war going on; and in this case, the attack comes from the West. Powerful forces are using the ongoing war to destroy our spiritual and cultural identity. The synod is in some ways part of this spiritual and cultural struggle, for in many places in Europe, godless ideology and culture have strongly influenced those who consider themselves Catholic.
This was evident to me at the synodal assembly in Prague. Although, according to my observations, most of the participants at the Prague meeting want to be faithful to God’s Revelation, the documents do not always show this. The working document that was given to us in Prague omitted what was most important for our faith. The Paschal Mystery was not present. The Jesus of whom the document speaks is the Jesus “before Easter,” the Jesus-Messiah who conforms to human imagination and expectations, who gives bread, health, justice and well-being to all. The drama of sin followed by the Redemption accomplished by the Savior goes beyond the horizon of the document “Enlarge Your Tent.”
Without the existential experience of the Paschal Mystery, the world becomes a tower of Babel. Pentecost is only possible through the experience of sin as the greatest evil and of the liberation that the Lord brings through his passion and resurrection. We do not know what the final document will be.
Regarding the synod of Rome, I hope that the authentic sensus fidei will prevail, but I understand that prayer is very necessary because there are influential circles in the Church that try to ideologically colonize the Church.
Would you say that you share the concerns of some bishops and commentators at the end of the week in Prague about the increasing demands for doctrinal change on issues such as the female priesthood and same-sex marriage?
Yes, I share this concern, although I do not think that these proposals will be accepted. The emergence of these proposals negatively affects people’s faith. Some participants in the Prague meeting were genuinely shocked, scandalized by what the delegations from Germany and Switzerland said.
You recently protested against a bill introduced by Minister Inna Sovsun to make same-sex unions legal in Ukraine. You said in an interview with a Catholic website that such a law would be a breeding ground for Russian propaganda. What makes you think that?
Russia wants to destroy Ukraine, to erase its existence as an independent national, cultural and state entity. Whoever does evil almost always tries to justify it with good. In this case, Russia claims that it is defending the Christian values that are being destroyed in Ukraine. It is not true that Russia is interested in defending Christian values. If they really wanted to defend Christian values, they would use Christian methods to do so.
However, it is sad to see that proposals such as Inna Sovsun’s are aimed at destroying Christian values, which feeds Russian propaganda. This proposed law is not only aimed at the legal acceptance of same-sex relationships; it is clearly aimed at the destruction of the family. It gives same-sex relationships the same rights as families, including the adoption of children, while making it easier and faster to break up those relationships.
It also favors Russia because it really weakens the family, morality and leads to the destruction of the Ukrainian Christian identity. And that’s what Russia is interested in in the long run. Many soldiers who are fighting for their homeland must be sad to see that their spilled blood is used to introduce laws that do not respect what is important and sacred for the vast majority of Ukrainians. This proposal has come to create new conflicts; people feel that they are not respected.
We are aware that for the powerful circles of this world only their ideological crusade counts; nations and peoples are not important. At the same time, we are serene because our Risen Lord is with us, and we know that the history that is unfolding is, above all, part of the history of salvation.