Father Vyacheslav Grynevych vividly remembers the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine one year ago.
The Catholic priest woke up to a phone call: “Father, wake up because the war has started.”
“I understood that my life would never be the same as before,” Grynevych said.
As the executive director of the Catholic charity Caritas-Spes, Grynevych soon found himself coordinating humanitarian efforts from a basement bomb shelter in Kyiv, also taking in 36 other people, mostly children, and their pets within the first week of the war.
In the past year, Grynevych and his team at Caritas Internationalis have worked tirelessly to provide food, shelter, protection, and health and psychological support to 3 million people within war-torn Ukraine.
A few days ahead of the Ukraine war anniversary, the Catholic priest was able to speak one on one with Pope Francis at his Vatican residence to share with the pope updates on the Church’s humanitarian efforts on the ground.
Grynevych presented Pope Francis with a cross made out of broken glass and rubble from destroyed buildings in Kyiv in an emotional moment during their meeting.
“I wanted to share with him the stories, the places that we see, the eyes of people,” Grynevych said.
In an interview with CNA in Rome on Feb. 22, the priest shared that he saw how much the pope was pained to hear about the experience of Ukrainians during the last year of war.
“He [Pope Francis] listened and then he said, ‘Please tell everybody that I try to do everything that I can do, everything that I can do.’ And he repeated this a few times.”
“Every day has become a station of the holy cross,” the priest said.
Sewing broken hearts back together
Caritas-Spes, operated by Ukraine’s Latin rite Catholic Church, is one of two organizations affiliated with Caritas Internationalis in Ukraine. The other, Caritas Ukraine, is overseen by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, to which the majority of Ukrainian Catholics belong.
Tetiana Stawnychy, the president of Caritas Ukraine, told CNA that the anniversary of the invasion marks a moment when “the lives of millions of people just changed overnight.”
Stawnychy shared the story of a woman who was displaced twice by the war: “She said, ‘The second time my heart just broke apart.’”
The woman initially came to Caritas to receive help and humanitarian assistance. Later she returned and began to volunteer, eventually becoming a part of the staff.
While sharing her story, the woman told Stawnychy: “‘You know, every time I help somebody, it’s like another piece of my heart gets sewn back together.’”
Together Caritas Spes and Caritas Ukraine have provided 3.7 million food and nonfood items; 1.5 million water, sanitation, and hygiene items; and 192,000 health services, as well as cash assistance to 107,600 people and shelter to 637,000 in the past year.
Stawnychy, who made an effort to personally visit nearly all of Caritas Ukraine’s 42 aid centers across the country, said that she has seen how creating pathways for solidarity between people has been “a healing and transformative process.”
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“It’s hard in Ukraine to be constantly living in the trauma,” she said. “You have to find a way to stay faithful, to be responding to what you see. And at the same time, find that it doesn’t also destroy you. So how do you find that resilience? Again, the way we found it is by continuing to help people and that’s really what gives us life. And I see that everywhere. It’s this continuing to act in love in the midst of war and destruction,” Stawnychy said.
“War rips at the core of what it means to be human because it rips at relationships and it creates distrust because it is an attack,” she said. “And then I feel like the work that the Church does and the work that humanitarian aid is doing or can do has the possibility to repair that, to heal it, to touch that which was created by war and to give somebody a sense out of that inner safe place, of that security by reestablishing love and relationship.”
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.