Suffering on the Cross: Easter in Ukraine
Msgr. Kieran Harrington of the Pontifical Mission Societies: ‘Today is Good Friday, and Our Lord was hung up on the cross. He was robbed of dignity and death. The people of Ukraine are suffering on the cross right now. It’s almost overwhelming, when you look at it.’
“Are you scared?”
That was the question everyone asked when I told them I was traveling to Ukraine.
And to be honest, I wasn’t.
But that changed on the night we arrived.
It was 1am, and we were in a minivan driving through the rural Ukrainian countryside on the way to the city of Lviv, around two hours from the Polish border. We had planned to arrive hours earlier; but due to delays, we were driving through a country at war in the black of night — and after the strict national curfew of 11pm.
I was in the car with three priests from the U.S., and our driver was a young Ukrainian seminarian named Philip. As we drove down a country road, Philip suddenly slowed down. “Get your passports ready,” he said.
Ahead, in the dark, I could make out a large stack of concrete slabs placed across the road and two army men with machine guns standing in front of it. One had his hand outstretched, signaling for us to stop. We slowed down to a crawl and inched closer to the roadblock, trying to show we were not a threat. The headlights soon illuminated two heavily armed Ukrainian soldiers who walked toward the car, trying to figure out who we were and why we were on a rural road hours after the curfew. At a moment like that, everything seems heightened. Even the sound of Philip lowering the electric window seemed so loud, and when the officers spoke, it sounded so crisp and clear. I guess it was adrenaline.
As Philip explained in Ukrainian that we were a group of priests and a journalist, I noticed other soldiers close by, huddled around a fire in a metal barrel.
Then a bright flashlight shone through the window at the rest of us in the back. It felt like we were in a movie. Suddenly, the flashlight shut off, and the officers signaled us to pass. We breathed a sigh of relief and arrived at the seminary in Lviv at around 2:30am.
I was on this trip to cover a story for EWTN News In Depth about the Pontifical Mission Societies. Their U.S. office, led by Msgr. Kieran Harrington, personnel were traveling to Ukraine to bring humanitarian aid and supplies, but, more importantly, to show the Ukrainian people their solidarity and closeness to them during Holy Week. Msgr. Harrington was joined by Fathers Sebastian Sardo and Israel Pérez.
Together with seminarian Philip as our guide, we traveled to the city of Kyiv. It was there, on the outskirts of the capital, in towns like Bucha, that we witnessed the sheer destruction and devastation left in the wake of Russian tanks and troops.
It was surreal to see homes, shops, schools, theaters — everything completely and utterly destroyed.
Walking around, we heard the sound of glass crunching under our feet. Everywhere we looked, we saw walls that had been showered by bullets, shattered windows, burnt-out homes, and cars crushed by tanks. With the EWTN camera crew, I asked Msgr. Harrington about what we were witnessing. “Today is Good Friday, and Our Lord was hung up on the cross. He was robbed of dignity and death. The people of Ukraine are suffering on the cross right now. It’s almost overwhelming when you look at it,” he told me soberly.
Father Sardo, who was close by, spoke, too. “I feel the cold, but it’s the cold in my heart. It’s incredible. I never imagined in my life I would see a place like this.” Father Pérez added, “To think of the people who died in this way: Nobody deserves to die like this — no one.”
Outside an apartment block, we met an elderly lady who pointed up to the eighth floor of her building, where we could see a number of burnt-out apartments. She had lost her son who was fighting in the Ukrainian army and told us there were still some badly burnt bodies in the building that the authorities hadn’t yet been able to retrieve amidst the chaos of war.
An elderly man came over and told us his story of being caught in the building during the bombardment of bullets and shelling. He was convinced he was going to die and said he couldn’t come out of his home for days afterwards due to the trauma. Msgr. Harrington and the other priests did little talking — they focused on listening to the people’s plight. They shook their heads gently every now and then as the people recounted their real nightmares. Other locals walked over and listened too, occasionally chiming in with details of what they experienced.
They did not speak English, and so wouldn’t have recognized the word “Chaplain” — printed in big letters on the priests’ jackets — but they recognized the Roman collar, and it was clear that they took great comfort in the priests’ presence. At the end, the priests gave them boxes of aid, reassured them Christ was with them, and gave them a blessing. The locals kept thanking them and shaking their hands. I was reminded of the power of the priestly collar and what it represents.
“It’s horrifying,” Msgr. Harrington told me. “You can see the physical destruction — but think of the emotional and spiritual destruction.” He pointed to the semi-burnt apartment block. “The truth is that all this will be fixed soon, but the emotional destruction will take a long time to unpack.”
We also traveled to the city of Lviv in the west. There, we stayed at St. Joseph’s Seminary and Monastery just outside the city. Surrounded by a beautiful forest, the monastery has opened its doors to more than 170 refugees, mainly women and children, who have been sheltering there for weeks. The city of Lviv was always thought to be a safe haven, as it’s so close to the Polish border, but just two days before we arrived, five Russian rockets landed on the city, killing seven people.
“They struck just 5 kilometers [just over 3 miles] from here,” Father Panteleymon Trofimov, the seminary’s rector, told me. He went on to explain that most of the refugees had come from Kyiv and the east of the country, the most dangerous spots in this war-torn country.
Father Trofimov and the seminarians were doing everything they could for the war refugees, including giving them comfortable rooms with private bathrooms, meals three times a day, access to computers and a playroom for the children. It was heartwarming to see the young seminarians playing games outside with the children and how well the families were being cared for at such a dark time in their lives.
I met children running in the hallways. They told me they liked it here because “there was no banging,” adding that they missed their fathers, who had stayed home to fight in the war. Older ladies walked around the grounds, going to the main hall for food and popping into the church to pray.
I spoke to Tatiana, who is 85 and from the Donbas region. She fled her home three weeks ago after it was bombed and couldn’t hold back her anger. “Putin is killing us. I curse him. May God give him the kind of hell he’s giving us,” she said.
Speaking to so many of the refugees, I realized that the immediate fear and horror they felt when fleeing had now turned to bitter anger toward Putin and Russia. A 21-year-old young woman named Paulina told me her mother is Russian and that they don’t speak to some of their cousins in Russia because they support Putin’s invasion. She told me she believes they’re being brainwashed by Russian propaganda: “There is only one side to this, not two. We are being killed by Russian soldiers. This is a genocide.”
As the sun set over the monastery, I walked the grounds with Father Trofimov. I asked him where Ukrainians could find hope and not despair. “We put our hope in the Risen Christ!” he exclaimed. “Yes, we have to put hope in our army, in our state, and in all those who help us, but that is secondary. First, we have to put our faith in Christ on the cross.”
“Like faith and reason?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Hope often goes against reason. Having hope in something when it looks impossible is not reasonable. That is why we have faith. Our faith gives us hope,” he said.
“What do you hope for?” I asked.
“That Ukraine will be victorious.”
The night before Easter Sunday, as I lay in bed about to go to sleep, an air-raid siren sounded across the city of Lviv. Then I received a message from one of our Ukrainian cameramen advising me to take shelter underground, as there was a real threat of bombings around Easter. Again, it was another frightening reminder of the reality of war that the people in Ukraine are living every day. Thankfully, the night passed without incident; however, another city, Odesa, was hit that night.
It was a beautiful crisp Easter morning as we drove to 7:45am Divine Liturgy in the center of Lviv. The morning sun’s warm glow illuminated the mist blanketing the fields around us. When we got to St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv, it was clear to see they were ready for combat. All the statues and monuments outside were covered in sandbags to protect them. But the remarkable thing was that, despite the threats on churches, despite the air-raid sirens, despite being at war, the people still came out in great numbers to celebrate Easter Sunday. “Christ is risen!” they proclaimed at the end of the beautiful three-hour liturgy.
Afterward, in the church gardens, I asked Msgr. Harrington what his reflections were on concluding this mission. “What I’ve seen here is utterly devastating,” he said. “You see that evil does have its day. Christ is crucified again here in Ukraine. But in the end, we know that the Kingdom has already won. Peace will prevail.”
Colm Flynn’s report on the Pontifical Mission Societies trip to Ukraine will be broadcast this Friday, April 29, on EWTN News In Depth.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
If you would like to support the work of Msgr. Harrington and the Pontifical Mission Societies, please visit Missio.org.
- ukraine crisis