Ukrainian Catholic University Students Find Strength in Their Faith and National Heritage During War

Young scholars seek God amid national trial as they study to work toward a better world.

Prayer services are held on the UCU campus every week on Tuesday evenings. All students are invited. They sing songs in candlelight.
Prayer services are held on the UCU campus every week on Tuesday evenings. All students are invited. They sing songs in candlelight. (photo: Courtesy of Nick Koeppel and UCU)

At 2 am on March 9, Kateryna Drobyna was studying in her dorm room at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine, when she heard air-raid alarms go off. As she has done frequently while her country has been at war with Russia, Drobyna, 17, sought safety in the basement for four hours. 

That night, Russian forces fired missiles across Ukraine that, according to a Reuters report, killed nine civilians, including several in the region of Lviv, a city of 720,000 located about 45 miles east of Ukraine’s border with Poland. 

“In some way we are accustomed to the war,” said Drobyna, a first-year liberal arts student from Ukraine’s west-central Vinnytska region. “We are not accustomed, of course, to the deaths of innocent people, explosions and things like that, but I think personally I am accustomed to the air alarms, etc., because my reaction to the air alarm now is quite different from what it was a year ago.”

As they attend their classes and try to carry on with normal life during tragic and uncertain times in their country, Drobyna and four other Ukrainian students at the university were asked, as Holy Week approached, about the impact the war has had on them, their faith, their hopes for the future and how they’re coping. As students, they are exempt from mandatory military service but shared sympathy and support for Ukraine’s soldiers.

Even though the war, which began on Feb. 24, 2022, has now continued through two Lenten and Easter seasons, Maria-Olesia Tarasova, 20, said that “hope and faith are simmering deep inside me.” As she lives in anticipation of the victory of good over evil in the war, Tarasova, a second-year sociology student from Lviv who seeks a career helping people whose voices aren’t heard, also awaited the glory of Easter to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, when Ukrainians greet each other by saying, “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!”


UCU students
Clockwise from top left: Yuliia Konovalyk, Oleksiy Kavyn, Anastasiia Kniazhytska and Maria-Olesia Tarasova have found strength in their faith.(Photo: Coutesy of subjects)

Carrying on Despite Challenges

The same night Drobyna heard the alarms, Anastasiia Kniazhytska, who lives in the same dorm, said she didn’t hear them, possibly because the speaker system in her room wasn’t working.

Also a 17-year-old liberal arts student, Kniazhytska is from Kyiv. Through all the tumult that previously included frequent utility outages, she said she tries to stay in the moment.

“I try to think of my current state as much as I can and not about what could possibly go on in the future, as it might not always be stable and things might not always turn out the way that I want them to,” Kniazhytska said. 

The war has changed her hopes and dreams, though she still wants to eventually earn a doctorate degree in history.

“I don’t really feel restricted right now in a lot of ways,” she said. “Of course, there are some ways that I want things to go differently, but at the end of the day, there is nothing I can really do about the changes to make it better all of a sudden. There are small things I can do to bring me closer to the future I want to see so I try to focus on them, and I try not to think of other problems.” 

The war has disrupted Yuliia Konovalyk’s memories of her childhood and the beauty of nature in her country.

“Not long ago, when I looked out from my window on my native land and my city, I felt that those images from my past now are empty and destroyed because they seem to me like images from my long past which will never come back to me,” said Konovalyk, 17, a first-year liberal arts student from Lviv who is interested in film directing and acting.

Nature still provides a calming effect in the form of spring rains, said Oleksiy Kavyn, 17, a first-year student interested in the law from Lviv.

“Despite the air alarms and despite this horrible news that comes from the eastern provinces,” says Kavyn, “it’s very horrible, but the weather is really nice this week, and it allows you to relax a bit.” 

Kavyn doesn’t yet know how he’ll use his law degree, but he said he’s interested in working in some way with the European Court of Human Rights. 

Trying to continue living as she did before the war has helped Drobyna. “It also makes us closer to our victory,” she said, adding that she sees other Ukrainians doing the same. 

“I have seen happy people who continue living and continue doing what they did before, continue laughing and just continuing to be happy people,” said Drobyna, adding she also finds strength in the example of ancestors who fought for the country during different eras. 


Support From Faith, Culture and Literature 

Another source of strength is Ukrainian art and literature of the past and present, Kniazhytska said.

“I think that we as a nation keep coming back to our history and keep sort of reinventing it and rethinking certain parts of it,” she said. “That, in a way, makes us feel better about our situation right now. I think this would be relatable for a lot of people.” 

Ukrainians are also reading on social media the poetry of Ukrainian soldiers who are fighting at the war’s frontlines, said Konovalyk, who learned about the poetry from a family friend serving in the military in Luhansk. 

Through difficult times, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has played a prominent role in Ukraine, Tarasova said. “It has been persecuted by Nazis, by Russians back in the last century,” she said. “A lot of priests died; a lot of just ordinary people were killed for their faith, for example.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, from which the Ukrainian Catholic University derives its ecclesiastical features, is the largest Eastern Rite Catholic sui juris particular Church in full communion with the Holy See. 

Along with her friends, community, family and Christian bloggers who post about Ukraine, Tarasova has found support from priests. 

Before the war, she knew about God but said her faith wasn’t very strong. “The war was the moment when I realized that I needed to grow spiritually — because before war I was like, a dreamy Christian, that you know, ‘everything is good, so God is good; everything is happy,’” Tarasova said. “Now, it’s like a true connection with God; and you need to rebuild everything, so it’s a challenge.”

Scripture passages, including Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, provide inspiration. “It gives me hope that one day [the war will be] over,” she said. “I know it. It’s hard to believe it keeps me going; and some spiritual directors and some talks with them and my friends who are also spiritual are a great help.” 


Conversations With God

Konovalyk also has hope for the end of the war and finds relief and reassurance from sharing her worries, thoughts and questions with God at night, she said. 

“I need to stand still and not pay too much attention to those terrible events like this war, because it won’t last forever,” she said. “All wars come to their end eventually, and this work will come to its end as well. We don’t need to quit; that’s the main goal.” 

When the war started, Kniazhytska was exploring other religions and Christian denominations, but blogs she read that focused on the end of the world didn’t bring her peace. 

“Personally, I found that very anxiety-inducing,” she said. “It scared me away from Christianity at first. It was very unexpected because the reason I wanted to learn more about faith was to bring myself closer to faith and ended up doing the opposite of what I was told, not what I sought out myself.”

Kniazhytska said she has realized her faith is “not about being a perfect person; it’s not about doing everything perfectly,” she said. “It’s not about never sinning. It’s about having a relationship with God. It’s about taking my time to really build up that relationship.”

As she learns more about Catholicism and Christianity, Kniazhytska has begun praying a daily Rosary. “I’m rediscovering all the things I wasn’t [exposed to] as a kid,” she said. “I decided to stay in the Greek Catholic Church I was baptized in originally as a child,” she said. 

Drobyna never doubted God when the war started.

“I was speaking with God,” said Drobyna, who was raised in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church but now is attending the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, from which her university derives its ecclesiastical features. “It wasn’t even prayer; it was communication, a conversation with God. I was trying to tell him everything I feel, and it was really a helpful thing for me, because when I was talking to him, I was feeling not alone. Someone is here to help me.” 

When she came to the university where prayer is a regular part of life, Drobyna discovered the Church. “When people are together and they’re praying, when they are talking with God, it’s an incredible thing,” she said. “It’s something that helped me so much. When a lot of people gather together and we have the prayer of Taizé, when we are praying for the heroes of Ukraine and we gather together and just pray to God to help those people who are in the occupied territories, for our soldiers, for our defenders, you feel like you are with those people who are fighting for you who are now in very difficult situations. You feel that you are helping them, and it helps you not to feel yourself useless at some point.” 

During his nightly prayer for Ukrainian soldiers, Kavyn seeks God’s providence for them. 

Raised in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, he said he is still discovering the faith for himself. Kavyn attends Mass at Lviv’s historic Sts. Peter and Paul Garrison Church, where military chaplain priests provide pastoral care to soldiers and their loved ones. Many soldiers’ funerals are held at the church, he said. 

“There are always situations in which you realize there is nothing except God and his power,” Kavyn said. “When there are alarms and you are extremely afraid of what is going to happen, you understand that there can be help,” he said. “God, I think, is the only shoulder I can put myself on when there’s a rocket attack or another horrible action during the wartime.”