One year on from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the papal representative in the country, tells Vatican Media about the suffering and hopes of the Ukrainian people.
By Svitlana Dukhovych
Friday marks the first anniversary of the Russian aggression against Ukraine: on 24 February, one year ago, Europe found itself at war, a war that has brought devastation and suffering, and separated many families – but at the same time, has showed the courage of the Ukrainian people, while not being able to stifle their hope of being able to live on their own land in peace and freedom.
The continuing conflict has led to many peace initiatives around the world. In Ukraine, at the Marian Shrine of Berdychiv, the country’s Latin bishops are taking part in a prayer vigil that will also see the participation of the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas. The papal representative has chosen, since the beginning of the war, to remain in the country to share the suffering of the Ukrainian people and to bear witness to the closeness of the Pope and the entire Church.
Archbishop Kulbokas spoke with Vatican News about the significance of this anniversary.
Interview with Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas
Vatican News: Your Excellency, why is it important to commemorate this date with prayer?
Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas: Because prayer, I would explain it this way: Last Sunday we had a very important celebration in the Greek Catholic cathedral in Kyiv: the episcopal consecration of an auxiliary bishop for Kyiv was celebrated. The Gospel spoke of brotherhood… Jesus our Lord said: ‘What you did to one of the least of my brethren, you did to me: you clothed me, quenched my thirst, fed me, and visited me when I was in prison.’ This Gospel – which in itself should be clear, and perhaps in most regions is clear, because when you have the will, you succeed in giving drink, giving food, clothing, visiting – here, however, during this war, unfortunately in many situations you do not succeed.
For example, last March, with the blessing also of the Holy Father Francis, I tried to go to Mariupol to evacuate people, to bring water, bread… I did not have the possibility, I did not have permission. Cardinal Krajewski in April tried to do the same thing, he could not. Now our priests, men and women religious, volunteers are trying to bring aid to the regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Bakhmut, Kharkiv, and many of them end up under bombardment, as happened to Cardinal Krajewski himself last September, or to the priest wounded in the Kharkiv region a month ago, or to a nun who was also wounded. You cannot bring water, you cannot bring bread. And then again, our Greek-Catholic priests taken prisoner last November, they were two Redemptorist priests working in Berdyansk, we are unable to visit them.
It is a very strong contrast: in these conditions of war we are not able to realise the Gospel. At least not in all situations and not in all regions.
Prayer for peace at the Marian shrine in Berdychiv
That is why the need for prayer becomes even stronger…
Yes, the prayer we will make will be a supplication to the Lord and to the Mother of God: Grant to us to return to the world created by God, because the world we are living in now was created by violence, aggression, war, but it is not God’s world.
Another very important aspect we find if we re-read history. I re-read again a few days ago the history of Kyiv Rus’…. The Rus’ of Kyiv – so this same Kyiv in which I now find myself – already in the 11th century, around the year 1037, was entrusted as a state, as a principality, to the protection of the Virgin Mary. The principality of Kyiv in human history, in the history of Christianity is among the oldest entities, among the oldest states to be entrusted to the protection of Our Lady.
Therefore, when last year the Holy Father Francis, in union with all the bishops of the world, re-consecrated Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, it was an act in which the consecration, as far as Ukraine is concerned, to the Virgin Mary was renewed. And so, again, on 24 February there will be a prayer to the Virgin Mary, knowing that we have already entrusted Ukraine several times to her protection, so we will turn to her as her children.
So why the prayer? Because we see very clearly that in such an intense year of war, no other solution can be found, so only the divine miracle remains, only prayer remains, and this is our main spiritual weapon, indeed it is the effective one. And we have full confidence – I have full confidence – in the protection of the Virgin Mary.
Has the perception of your mission as nuncio changed during this year of war?
Certainly there are various aspects, but I would like to emphasise one in particular, the spiritual aspect.
First of all, being here, we never know what we will experience in the next moment: whether a meeting will take place, whether we will have light, whether we will have a telephone connection, or whether a missile or a drone will arrive… For this reason, it is a constant looking towards God, it is a very intense spiritual hope for which I am very grateful to the Lord, because it is a gift.
For myself, I see the fullness of what I understand as the mission of an apostolic nuncio: on the one hand, to continue to represent the Holy Father and the Church, and on the other hand, to also personally experience a continuous and very intense spiritual challenge.
On 28 December, during the general audience, Pope Francis met some Ukrainian women: wives, mothers, daughters, sisters of Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner by the Russian army. We know that you had previously met them in the nunciature in Kyiv. During this year the Apostolic Nunciature has supported many similar initiatives. Which ones can we recall?
Yes, there were several moments that remained very close to my heart. I would mention perhaps two in particular.
One is a meeting I had with the wives of two soldiers I met in the nunciature in May: those were the days when the defenders of Mariupol were handing themselves over as hostages. One of the ladies had already lost her husband, unfortunately; the other was in contact with her husband at those very minutes. And I have seen what it feels like when the telephone connection is cut off: the line goes dead and the woman does not know whether she has already lost her husband for good at that moment or whether he is still alive. Then, a few minutes later, the line comes back and she cries because the one she thought might be dead is still alive. It is a continuous trauma, every second.
Then there is another aspect that I have experienced many times: the groups, the associations of mothers, wives, sometimes sisters or even brothers, who on many occasions have told me: ‘We don’t know whether he is alive or not, whether he is injured or not. We cannot visit, we cannot know where he is, we cannot know if he has warm clothes for the cold winter months.’ It is constant not knowing, and it is torture.
All these testimonies remain etched in my mind and I carry them in prayer, especially in the Mass, in the daily rosary.
From so many parts of Ukraine, one hears that people are tired of the war. Do you get this same feeling? What can Catholics around the world do to help the Ukrainian people at this time? Have the needs changed since the first half of the year?
It is clear that fatigue is being felt at all levels, because it has been a very busy year. I saw the statistics a few days ago: 150,000 homes destroyed. These are not just figures, because every destruction causes not only pain, not only loss, but also hardship, because for example: in Mykolaïv and Kherson, what do people need? Precisely, necessities [but] they also need undergarments, because there is not enough clean water to wash them. The volunteers and the priests tell me that when they bring bread, the people start to eat there on the spot, as soon as they receive it, and the same goes for water and thermal clothing – like the thermal shirts that Cardinal Krajewski has also brought several times…
There is also fatigue in the Kharkiv region, where there are so many houses without windows and so many people live in basements. Or in Bakhmut, where people come out of the shelters to get food brought by Caritas volunteers and then run back to hide in the shelters.
The needs have also increased, and by a lot, compared to the beginning, because now, in addition to the need for food, there is also a lack of heating, and already so many organisations, so many benefactors have donated generators or stoves.
And then, there are other even more pressing needs: in many places there is a great demand for psychologists who can advise family members on how to deal with the psychological traumas they have suffered either directly or with family members or soldiers returning from the front; and then there are the wounded.
Then there is the great urgency of the children. There are many organisations that would be happy, where possible, to offer Ukrainian children a home in the countries around Ukraine, where the children can stay for a few weeks in a quiet place, without constantly living with the stress of war.
Pope Francis with Ukrainians at the General Audience of 22 February
Pope Francis has kept Ukraine close to his heart this whole year, manifesting his solidarity, his closeness to the people affected by this terrible tragedy, in practically every celebration or audience. What impressions have these words left in you and in the people you have approached?
Above all, I would like to emphasize what both government representatives and representatives of other Churches tell me: Unfortunately, not all religious leaders are expressing and demonstrating this closeness to the suffering people. Whereas in Pope Francis this is evident, since you need only take in your hands that volume published last December, called The Encyclical on Ukraine. And it is just one volume of Pope Francis’ speeches made in the last ten, eleven months. Not to mention Pope Francis’ letter addressed to all Ukrainians, on 25 November: that letter expresses two very important aspects: one is the great warmth, the great closeness to the suffering: everyone has perceived this.
Then, as you will also have perceived in Rome and elsewhere, it sometimes happens that the symbolism or the terms used are not understood in the same way in different countries, and this happens even more so in Ukraine where the war is experienced directly. That letter was very important and clearly demonstrated the Holy Father’s perception. The comparisons used: even that beautiful comparison with the cold that the Holy Family endured in Bethlehem, and now the Ukrainian people are suffering the same cold. So many comparisons used in that letter were received as oxygen, because it is a very clear text.
This was also said to me by the leaders of other Churches (I am not talking about Catholics here, but also the leaders of other Churches), the diplomats, and also the government representatives, because they appreciated the clarity and the great warmth that was in that letter. It is as if it were the key to many other interventions. The Holy Father offered the hermeneutics for many other shorter texts. I am also very grateful to him, personally: very grateful.