Military chaplains: God in the trenches of Ukraine
Since April, Ukraine’s eastern provinces have experienced continual military confrontation between its government, and pro-Russian separatists and Russian forces, and more than 3,200 have been killed in the conflict.
Accompanying the soldiers at the front are priests – both Catholic and Orthodox – as well as Protestant chaplains.
Vasyl Derkach, 23, recently returned to Lviv, in Ukraine's west, to recover after his rotation in Ukraine's military in the eastern conflict zone.
“Can you imagine, I have slept for seven days on clean sheets? I did not sleep on sheets for five months,” Vasyl told CNA in a recent interview. “Have you ever really thanked God for sleeping in a warm bed?”
“In my team, no one believed in God. I asked my friend with whom I always stayed on the post: 'Do you believe in God?' He told me, 'No, I have faith in myself.' But when he was wounded, the first thing which he said to me in the hospital, was 'Vasyl, I prayed! Can you believe me, I prayed?!'”
“At war there are no atheists. When they start to shoot, everyone begins to make the sign of the cross,” Vasyl says.
Before joining the military, Vasyl had been a miner, and then edited a local newspaper for the miners. He belongs to an evangelical community called “The Embassy of God.” He explained that he attends church at the community “because there I really met the living God, I realized that God is the true miracle. My parents are still not believers.”
Vasyl did not take part in the Maidan protests in Kyiv, which led to a change of government in the nation, drawing it closer to the West and straining its relations with Russia.
When did he arrive in Kyiv, he stood in a pool of blood shortly after the shooting of many activists.
“I joined the military for patriotic reasons: I was mobilized, and I knew that I had to defend my land. I don’t want to go back to that hell, but I do not regret that I was there. My church taught me: 'all who take the sword will perish by the sword.'”
Many Ukrainian soldiers, Vasyl said, turned to drink.
“Guys reduced stress with vodka ... I don’t drink at all, that’s why the situation was very difficult for my psyche. Sometimes I dream that I am killing somebody, or somebody has killed me. Even now I can’t stay alone – depression comes ... there is such an atmosphere, if you don’t drink, you will be crazy. I prayed.”
“You sit in a trench and pray, and nothing more can be done.”
Ukraine's soldiers have been assisted by chaplains from the numerous Christian confessions in the country: Ukrainian Greek Catholics; Roman Catholics; Ukrainian Orthodox – both Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates; and Protestant communities.
“There is no one ecumenical center for military chaplains for Ukraine's armed forces. We don't have any legislation which allows priests to work in conflict zones,” explained Fr. Lubomyr Yavorskiy, of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church's office, which organizes military chaplains.
“There is no official cooperation with the Orthodox in the case of military pastoral care,” he said.
“For now, everyone is going alone, as we work in an undeclared war. There have been instances in which the Greek Catholic priests asked the Orthodox bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate to help in the liberation of prisoners, and it did help. But there has been no further cooperation.”
“There exists a kind of wall between us, when at the front we meet priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate,” said Fr. Yavorskiy.
“A military doctor upbraided me once for being a Greek Catholic priest. I responded, 'While at war, let us both call God our Father, rather than focusing on the divide between Catholic and Orthodox.'”
Since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, there have been 31 Ukrainian Greek Catholic chaplains serving in the area as military chaplains. An official of the Roman Catholic Church estimated that there had been around 20 military chaplains from his rite.
As part of the Byzantine tradition, Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests can marry – which creates a 'double danger' for them when working in the conflict zone.
A cleric of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church told CNA under condition of anonymity that the Church has been warned by the nation's military that the prize for the killing or capture of priest chaplains are doubled among the pro-Russian rebels.
Mihailo Ivanyak, CSsR, spent two weeks as a chaplain in eastern Ukraine. He surmised: “They (the pro-Russian forces) are just afraid of the Word. Of priests in the army smoothing conflicts!”
In a Sept. 10 appeal, the synod of bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church wrote that “we especially call for responsible action from those whom the Lord has given authority, to take the necessary decisions at the political level in order to restore peace and security in Europe.”
Since April, pro-Russian separatists have seized control of territory around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, after Russia annexed Crimea the month prior.
A ceasefire was signed Sept. 5, and there is now a buffer zone between the two sides. Russian troops have been operating in Ukraine, but NATO announced Sept. 24 that it had observed “significant” withdrawals of Russian troops from Ukrainian land.
In an effort to appease the rebels, Ukraine's parliament last week passed a bill increasing autonomy in the eastern portion of the country.
Vasyl reflected on the harsh conditions of being at war.
“It is easy to say that you are not afraid to die, when you sit in church or your kitchen. But when you are at war, you would like to live very much. Being at war was the first time I started to appreciate the value of life.”
“I would like to leave here. I protected this country for five months, and every day in that time I could have died, but I don’t want to live here. I regret, because my family, my mom, my church, are here. I met God here, but I really don’t want to back to that hell.”