25 January 2019
The video above shows the very real struggles of Ukraine's elderly poor — and the efforts of Caritas to bring them light and hope. (video: Ivan Chernichkin/CNEWA)
In the current edition of ONE, journalist Mark Raczkiewycz looks at how Caritas Ukraine offers Windows to the World for the country’s elderly poor. He offers further impressions below.
There’s a saying in Ukraine that translates in English as: “Growing old isn’t a blessing.”
There are about 11 million pensioners here, who comprise about a quarter of the population. They eke out a living by relying on their paltry monthly pensions that amount to less than $100; the average monthly nationwide salary is $320. Yet they somehow survive. Statistics show that this segment is the most diligent when it comes to paying their utility bills on time. When I speak to them, they usually say that all their money goes towards buying medicine, paying bills and food. They really don’t have much left after that. They can’t afford to do what they want like go on trips and pursue hobbies in their leisure time. The healthier, more mobile ones help by taking care of grandchildren. Many often supplement their pensions by staying in the workforce. For example, they’ll sell fruits and vegetables from their summer home gardens or work as newspaper vendors near subway stations or hawk honey from their hives, anything they don’t consume.
It’s a necessity — otherwise, they wouldn’t survive. They usually don’t stray from their household budgets so they’re immediately vulnerable to any shocks in the economy like a rise in natural gas prices for heating or consumer inflation.
Their plight is impossible not to notice.
I’ve heard of women working as nannies or house cleaners and men who will moonlight as plumbers or basic repairmen. They’re resourceful in that way, doing whatever they can to make extra money to stay afloat. People joke that the seniors who gather and sit on benches act as the most effective community watchdogs. But that company is valuable for them to avoid being alone.
The more unfortunate really can’t rely on the state, which is why groups like Caritas as well as humanitarian efforts by the Greek Catholic Church are so important.
For the elderly, homecare assistance is more than helping them do things they can’t. Human interaction brightens their day and makes them feel like they’re not abandoned. Otherwise, the world becomes a lonely, cold place. Depression sets in. Dementia as well. I’ve seen how even taking a pet like a cat or dog improves their lives. How house calls by social workers, even for one hour a week makes a difference. The elderly deserve better and should lead more dignified lives.
They actually don’t ask for much, are the least demanding and the most patient. Thank goodness the church and Caritas are there for them.
Read more in the December 2018 edition of ONE.
18 July 2018
The video above shows how some religious sisters in Ukraine are doing more with less, and praying for an increase in vocations. (video: Ivan Chernichkin)
In the June 2018 edition of ONE, writer Mark Raczkiewycz shows how religious sisters in Ukraine are doing more with less and Giving 200 Percent. Here, he offers some additional thoughts.
Doing more with the less is the central theme of the convent story. At the outset, I found the topic for this reporting assignment difficult to wrap my brain around because I had never been exposed to religious sisters beyond cursory encounters at church.
I researched the different orders and the charisms that define them. In Ukraine, some orders are more than 100 years old. They have storied traditions that are rooted in serving both God and vulnerable groups of society. Some are devoted to education, others to health care, and more to well-rounded child development.
In a country of more than 40 million, yet the size of Texas, Ukraine only has about 850 religious sisters serving in different capacities at 21 communities.
They’re clearly not in a position to scale up — and it soon because obvious, over three days of reporting, that they’re overwhelmed.
Sister Natalya Melnyk, who heads the council of superiors of women communities, said the female cohort risks “burnout.”
There’s only so much they can do that is humanly possible.
Their numbers are dwindling so the communities are drawing upon the talents that each sister possesses. Some have two or three degrees of higher learning, including medicine and biological genetics. There are also trained lawyers and psychologists, some of whom have studied abroad in Rome.
While the pool of incoming sisters brings women with richer pedigrees than those who entered convents en masse after the church emerged from underground in 1991, they’re no longer clamoring to join an order.
Various reasons were given for this — and the church is still doing a deep-dive analysis. The main reason, perhaps, is that youth have more choices than in the past. Temporal values like materialism, consumerism, and individualism take precedence over deeper spiritual values — and they aren’t conducive to that lifestyle.
The church is also battling the stereotype that entering a convent is the equivalent of incarceration. It’s simply not attractive to people, so efforts are being taken to change messaging and how people are introduced to the church.
Despite everything, the sisters are optimistic.
“It’s about quality not quantity” now, said Basilian order superior Mother Danyila Vynnyk, quoting a French truism.
To adapt, sisters meet weekly to exchange thoughts on lessons learned — what works and what doesn’t in their communities. This saves time, improves efficiency and avoids duplication of mistakes and waste of human resources.
The church also utilizes outsourcing when possible. Lay people are being used to augment the sister’s work — such as teaching the catechism to children.
And there is well-grounded hope. Aside from the orders that will inevitably die out because they couldn’t sustainably replenish their numbers after the rebuilding phase of the 1990s, other communities could see their numbers swell again, once the new generation brought up in church life grows of age.
Sister Teofania of the Basilian order is one of these. She grew up immersed in church life. Entering a convent seemed like a natural decision to her.
“It will be very interesting to see what will become of this generation,” Sister Nataliya said.
Read more in the current edition of ONE.
3 January 2018
Tags: Ukraine Sisters Ukrainian Catholic
The Rev. Petro Chudyk celebrates the Divine Liturgy in his church in Tarashcha, Ukraine.
(photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
Journalist Mark Raczkiewycz offers a revealing glimpse at the struggling but growing church in Ukraine in the December 2017 edition of ONE. Here, he explains some of the burdens placed on the local priests.
The only way to describe what I saw on three reporting trips within the central Ukrainian Kiev Eparchy is selfless commitment.
Priests at these nascent, under-served parishes live under the same conditions as the parishioners. The parishes often have to go without a proper prayer space, such as a chapel; also usually lacking is recreational space for activities such as catechism classes or tea and coffee after the liturgies.
Priests usually are based in impoverished communities that often cannot afford to donate enough money to cover basic needs for the liturgies: candles, charcoal, bread, and wine.
As a result, clergymen often draw on their own resourcefulness and creativity to service these communities. It is often trial and error. They must exercise wisdom and patience to explain the church, it customs, holidays and prayers. Again, it is often done on a rudimentary level; 70 years of oppressive Communist rule drained much of the spirituality and religious knowledge from the people.
To a certain extent these communities resemble those of the early Christians in the first few centuries of the Church. They pray wherever they can find space and draw on their own strength to build communities.
Parish priests get some administrative support from the curia. They attend networking events where experience and ideas are exchanged among priests to see what works in different communities.
Charity groups such as Caritas and CNEWA help out as well.
For example, CNEWA donated a $15,000 portable wooden chapel to a parish community in Tarashcha, a district town 80 miles south of the nation’s capital of Kiev.
In December, the Catholic charity Caritas provides gifts to needy children on St. Nicholas Day. Priests look for benevolent sponsors to send parishioners to retreats in the Carpathian Mountains in the western part of the country.
And the curia tries to buy at least four properties a year for its clergyman so that they don’t have to rent living or prayer space.
Still, despite a seminary school having opened in 2010, the Kiev Eparchy can’t keep up with demand. As I write this, 10 communities were awaiting a parish priest.
The Eparchy witnessed a surge of parishioner interest in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church during the so-called Revolution of Dignity in 2014 that ousted a corrupt, Moscow-friendly president. The church was one of the first institutions to provide shelter, food and pastoral care to the freezing protesters that winter.
These tumultuous events spurred people to find answers to deep questions about their faith, their future and the country’s survival. They often turn to the church for guidance and solace.
The result is truly an inspiration.
I saw parish priests meet these challenges with an amazing sense of dignity — albeit under adverse conditions. And the people are eager to be a part of it all.
As one priest told me: “Parishes want to help. The church for Greek Catholic believers has a wider meaning than just to come, pray and leave. They want to build a community around a church.”
For an intimates look at the church in Ukraine, watch the short video below. And read more about Planting Seeds, Nurturing Faith in the current edition of our magazine.
5 April 2017
The Rev. Serhiy Kulbaka nearly died during 12 days of captivity. (photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
In the March 2017 edition of ONE, writer Mark Raczkiewycz reports on Ukrainians who have been displaced since the recent war. Below, he offers some additional reflections.
On this reporting trip for CNEWA, two observations left a deep impression on me.
One is the power of the human spirit. It was clear that the violence people saw before having to flee their homes indelibly stays in their memory and the daily stress they face complicates their lives. Yet, they persevere. It’s inspiring to see them fight for their survival without succumbing to self-pity or letting themselves fall into despair. They unite into outreach groups, form communities, and establish support networks. They’re not afraid to ask for help when they need it and try to move on with their lives not knowing what the future has in store for them.
It’s inspiring because it’s easy to get discouraged living in war-ravaged Ukraine, knowing that the country can do little to stop the fighting almost three years into the conflict. I think it’s abundantly clear who can stop the fighting at a moment’s notice.
The Rev. Andriy Nahirnyak, Caritas Ukraine vice president, told me, “people are fatigued, including priests — these are the negative consequences” of the protracted war.
It’s also easy to get discouraged when you see how the government implements evolutionary, and at times, incremental reforms designed to improve the lives of ordinary Ukrainians. For example, only in late January did the relatively new ministry of occupied territories and internally placed persons publish an action plan to more formulate policies in this crucial area to assist 1.7 million refugees.
The fact that average people haven’t benefited from what reforms have been made since February 2014 makes it frustrating. Widespread, top-down corruption is still the nation’s top internal national security threat. It foments cynicism and distrust of government. It erodes the tax base. It diminishes the quality and impact of government services and policies. It essentially is a form of enforced poverty because a few insiders — let’s call them oligarchs — have captured law and policy making through their proxies in parliament and government.
This is what makes Ukrainians stronger in a sense by becoming more self-reliant. Despite all the challenges and obstacles, they trudge forward, not asking much in return.
Another observation was the fallibility of the human spirit. In particular, among priests.
I have seen priests who, like all of us, are vulnerable to feelings of hate and a desire to kill. I’m referring to the Rev. Serhiy Kulbaka, who nearly died during 12 days of captivity and who wanted to shoot his captors upon being released. I’ve spoken to military chaplains who suffer from post-traumatic stress. I heard Father Andriy Naihrnayak say that men of the cloth are being constantly tested by people who turn to the church but who harbor pro-Russian (anti-Ukrainian) views who are also hostile towards the church. Psychologically, priests hear the troubles of refugees during retreats, confession, and during one-on-one meetings. That takes a toll on them.
Priests are the same as anybody else and they also fight temptations of giving up, of losing hope or faith, or in Father Kulbaka’s case, temporarily losing their humanity.
But one of the lessons of the displaced in Ukraine is that humanity often prevails, and the human spirit can and does triumph.
As I noted in my story:
At first [Father Kulbaka] couldn’t find the strength to even pray, let alone “love or bless” someone. He realized his emotions were eating away at him.
“It was a different form of imprisonment,” he says. “So I forced myself to pray.”
“...It was a miracle in a sense. My health started to vastly improve. When I reached this feeling of deliverance, of being in total serenity, my blood pressure and sugar level normalized.”
After recovering at a monastery for three weeks, he traveled to Lviv. Last year, he suffered a stroke, which further debilitated him. Now, having regained much of his strength, he serves a new flock, focusing on displaced families.
“I now harbor no negative emotions towards my captors — I would embrace them if I saw them. I pity them because I understand that their state of being wasn’t normal. I absolutely forgave them. God freed me from all this so I want to give back,” Father Kulbaka explains.
Read more about The Displaced from Ukraine in the current edition of ONE.
26 September 2016
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk has led the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church since 2011.
(photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
In the Autumn 2016 edition of ONE, writer Mark Raczkiewycz profiles Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — and below, offers some additional reflections on their conversation.
After spending a little over 30 minutes interviewing his beatitude, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk — head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — I was reminded of the strong historic continuity which clergymen bring to spiritual service.
Immediately acknowledging that the church’s roots stem from Constantinople, more than a half century before the Great Schism of 1054, Archbishop Sviatoslav carefully chose his words throughout the interview, as if to reinforce the institutional memory that his position embodies.
He didn’t convey his main points in a philosophical or lofty manner.
Archbishop Sviatoslav spoke with an upbeat and excited tone, a sign that he is at ease with his role of serving more than eight million faithful worldwide.
That assuredness keeps him grounded.
Speaking of being raised in an underground Catholic household in Soviet western Ukraine, where he also attended a secret seminary, he said: “I never thought that I would become a priest for the public service. I never thought that one day I would go abroad to study somewhere else outside the limits of the former Soviet Union. I never thought that I would become a bishop and the possibility to become a bishop for the Ukrainians in Argentina. This is an idea from another world.”
Along the way he got a doctorate in moral theology in Rome. He also learned to speak seven languages — our interview was in English, although I am fluent in Ukrainian — and, according to priests in Chicago, where Archbishop Sviatoslav visited earlier this year, the major archbishop is an avid violin player and even sings as a cantor when needed.
Although the majority of the faithful live in western Ukraine, the church in 2005 moved its headquarters from Lviv back to what he called its historic birthplace in Kiev. The Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow protested—and objected again in 2013, when the newly built Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Our Lord was consecrated in Ukraine’s capital, close to the eastern bank of the mighty Dnipro River.
Referring to the war that Russia has waged against Ukraine for three years now, the major archbishop said, “we have to do everything to prevent further escalation of that aggression...We have to stop bloodshed between our nations.” Archbishop Sviatoslav said the church holds weekly prayers on Tuesdays for “our enemies...a prayer for the aggressors and for those who consider us their enemies.”
He said he would be eager to meet with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to share a “message of reconciliation.”
Speaking of the other families of the Eastern churches, he spoke repeatedly about “political correctness,” and conveyed the idea that clergymen have the duty to share with others, their flock and with other people of the cloth, the truth of what is happening in their countries.
Archbishop Sviatoslav certainly does that every chance he gets.
Read more about the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Churches of the East in the Autumn edition of ONE.
6 April 2016
Students eat, study and socialize in a campus dining hall at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
(photo: Petro Zadorozhnyy)
The Spring 2016 edition of ONE takes readers to Ukrainian Catholic University — the only one of its kind in the country. Writer Mark Rachkevych here reflects on what might be called the “UCU difference”:
After spending two full days with a Ukrainian photographer on the three campuses that constitute the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, my colleague said he regretted not attending the educational institution.
I immediately understood why.
He had attended a state-run university in town — UCU’s student body of 1,600 is a drop in the ocean of the city’s student population of 150,000 — where professors lectured and students were told what to write without dialogue or dialectic.
In the two days on campus, we were exposed to what hundreds of thousands of students experience in the more than 500 liberal arts colleges in the U.S. It brought back memories to me and enlightened my colleague.
Unjustifiably criticized by some critics in the U.S. who say that such institutions create a false sense of utopia, the atmosphere at UCU is one of intellectual exploration. Faculty and staff know the students by name. Pupils are in turn encouraged to grow and pursue goals that prize the process through the journey rather than the arrival at the finish line.
Education is enhanced by a rich student life that includes guest speakers, civic and spiritual activities, and extracurricular endeavors. In short, it’s what a university experience should be about so that upon graduation, students are ready to “go forth and set the world on fire,” to quote St. Ignatius.
On a more fundamental level, UCU provides students with a reference point of what is right and wrong, on what is good and evil. This is important in a society that is still healing from the inhumane policies of the Soviet Union that successive post-independence leaders haven’t quite extinguished. If someone grows up thinking that giving a teacher, doctor, or traffic police officer a petty bribe is the norm, they’ll never know that to build an open society, one needs to stop the pervasive practice of graft.
It’s important to instill meritocracy into students; UCU is run on an honor system with a zero tolerance policy regarding plagiarism and bribery.
This is what draws students of all backgrounds and faith to UCU. Here they get treated with dignity and respect. Once they graduate, they enter business, politics or civil society as responsible citizens; they become part of what UCU says is serving the community at large.
Graduates become leaders and role models for others. And people are drawn to them for the responsible way they behave and the examples they set by taking “ownership” of situations.
Take, for example, Anton Kukhliev who attended the university’s leadership summer school.
He came back to his town located 70 kilometers from occupied Donetsk in the war zone and successfully ran for city council on the ticket of a pro-democracy party where Soviet-era paternalism was the norm. He attracted three more candidates to his cause who also won spots in the 26-seat local legislature in October 2015.
These kinds of success stories are inspiring — and a testament that UCU is doing something right for its country and its society.
Read more in Where Change is on the Curriculum in the Spring 2016 edition of ONE.
8 May 2015
After fleeing Eastern Ukraine, this family has taken shelter in a rented house in Izum.
(photo: Ivan Chernichkin)
Journalist Mark Raczkiewycz reports on the plight of families displaced by war in Ukraine in the Spring 2015 edition of ONE. Here, he explains the dread that now hangs over the people.
War will come back to the government-controlled area of Donetsk region this spring, six displaced people predicted during interviews in early March. It’s an inescapable foreboding that was constantly echoed from people who’ve lived through constant shelling, fear and stress once before.
“When Yenakieve became essentially a war zone, everything changed, nobody celebrated holidays, nobody was on the streets, it was very sad,” Ihor Horodilov, 55, told me outside the Svyatohirsk Monastery where he shares a room with six other men. “I didn’t think there would be war. I lived in peace all my life, I didn’t think it would come to this.”
The former bank security guard and others felt that Russian forces won’t stop. They had already taken Debaltseve after the third truce had taken effect in February. The city, with a pre-war population of 25,000, was leveled. It has now fewer than 7,000 residents, 5,000 of whom are estimated to be living underground in basements and improvised bunkers, according to a 6 March statement delivered by John Ging, operations director for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
When Ukrainian forces pulled back from the city and shelling ceased, Barbara Manzi, head of the UN’s OCHA office in Ukraine said that people in Debaltseve were so traumatized that they went “back to sleep in their dungeons believing that the violence would continue.”
In a sense it still does.
Two weeks before we visited Slovyansk to speak to a refugee from Donetsk City, Ukraine’s KGB-successor agency, the SBU, had detained two residents who were part of a network of informers for the separatists.
On the day we set off from Kharkiv, the vehicle of the commander of a special police battalion, Andriy Yanjolenko, exploded in the government-controlled eastern city. He and his spouse were inside the car and both were hospitalized with severe wounds.
Kharkiv and Odesa, both outside the combat zone, have been the scenes of a spate of mysterious bombings that Ukrainian authorities attribute to Russian special forces and their agents in Ukraine. The most powerful attack came on 22 February. An explosion killed four people and wounded 15 when a bomb detonated at the front of a pro-Kiev peaceful march to commemorate last year’s Euromaidan movement.
For these reasons, the atmosphere is tense. A 67-year-old pensioner from Donetsk, as well as the others, say they just want to live in peace regardless of who’s in charge.
“We’re afraid will return to Slovyansk,” said Lidia Usypenko. “If they (Russian forces) come, then let them do it peacefully without fighting.”
Read more in “Casualties of War” in the Spring edition of ONE.