As we think of what Pope Francis calls the ‘massacre in Ukraine’, the part of scripture which come to my mind is the story of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus’ flight into Egypt (Mat. 2:13-23). The sad war in Ukraine has forced thousands of people, especially women and children, to become refugees in a number of European countries and some of them are hosted in the houses and parishes of the Circumscriptions in Europe. Our confreres in Europe have put themselves at their service with the knowledge that in offering help to refugees to survive and sort out their lives they are being faithful to our Spiritan charism. The Rule of Life insists on this kind of apostolate: “we give preference to an apostolate that takes us to those oppressed and most disadvantaged, as a group or as individuals” (SRL 12); and “we consider the following to be especially important tasks for our times: work with refugees, with immigrants and with those who are on the margins of society” (SRL 18.1).
Confronted with the words of Jesus which have become a reality: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me” our confreres simply cannot but remain indifferent, given the utter sense of sadness and helplessness of the Ukrainian refugees.
Spiritans at the service of Ukrainian refugees
Poland: The Church is actively involved in providing assistance to refugees. All Spiritan communities have joined in the collections organised by the Church’s Caritas agencies. Several Spiritan communities have offered rooms for refugees. In the provincial house in Bydgoszcz they have already welcomed mothers with children from war zones. 12 women and 14 children live in the seminary where they receive daily hot meals, spiritual guidance and necessary medical assistance. They have also been provided with free SIM cards for their phones to keep in touch with their families.
A woman from Jytomyr recounts: “We stayed until the last minute. We didn’t want to run away, but when we saw with our own eyes the bombing of the city, I packed everything we needed in one hour and ran away with my two daughters. Only with the clothes we were wearing and nothing else. There were no goods left in the shops; no bread or canned food. My husband and mother stayed behind”.
The TV is always on in their common room. These Ukrainian women are terrified of what is happening in their country. Every day they receive information from their families. They trust in God and that with God’s help they will return home. They explain to the children why they left so quickly.
Another woman comes from the vicinity of Jytomyr. She had no intention of leaving her house, but when bombs fell in the next street, she realized that her life was in danger. “The explosions blew out all the windows, bomb fragments were flying everywhere. My daughter is 13 years old” says the mother. “When the attack happened, she was out of the house. She was so scared that she couldn’t cry or talk. She just covered her mouth with her hand and cuddled in my arms. Now we live here in the seminary building in Bydgoszcz”.
Yet another Ukrainian woman said “I am surprised that people here are so understanding; they welcome us and offer us everything we need”. Then with some tears in her eyes she says “After all, I want to go home.”
It remains uncertain how long the refugees will stay in Poland; it could take several months or even years.
Portugal: The province offered the former Spiritan Seminary of Silva-Barcelos, which is now a Spiritan Spirituality Centre (Centro de Espiritualidade Espiritano [CESM]), as a refugee haven. Fr. Eduardo Miranda Ferreira, the Director, defines this seminary as a first port where the refugees are received before they are hosted by individual families. The seminary has 50 rooms with two beds in each. On 17 March they received the first sixty-nine Ukrainian refugees and on 20 March they received twenty-five refugees. On Friday 25 March another ninety refugees arrived, precisely on the day of the Consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The majority are women and children.
Besides house and board, the refugees also need all kinds of assistance, including spiritual assistance. We have provided 10 places at Torre d’Aguilha.
Britain: Members of the British Province, both at individual and community levels, have been involved in activities that serve to express solidarity and respond to needs of the refugees from Ukraine.
In Parishes administered by Spiritans: At St Paul’s Dover, the parish youth group led two important events last weekend; a rosary walk and a fund-raising coffee event to support the people of Ukraine. Over £1000 was fundraised. Rooms were also prepared to welcome refugees expected to arrive. A similar wonderful spirit was displayed at the Parish in Garston, where food items, medicines, clothes, bedding as well as monetary donations were collected and sent directly to Ukraine. All Saints and English Martyrs Hassop had a spontaneous weekend collection which raised £500.00. At Our Lady and St Cuthbert’s Church Maybole, Galloway Diocese in Scotland, there was a special collection for Ukraine refugees. The parish’s primary school also had a day of prayer for peace in Ukraine. Mary Immaculate and St Peter’s, New Barnet had a prayer vigil for Ukraine. It featured prayers and testimonies from those who had ties with Ukraine. They also had songs and music from Ukraine. The Parish has also slated the Masses for the weekend of 2nd/3rd April for taking a second collection for Ukraine. There are also on-going arrangements to sort out suitable facilities in the parish centre to be able to welcome and accommodate a refugee family. At the parishes of Sacred Heart Tunstall and St Joseph’s Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent there will be a second collection on Sunday, 3rd April for the people of Ukraine.
In Schools where Spiritans are Chaplains: Nicholas Breakspear Catholic School, St Albans, had two collections of materials which were sent in two shipments: one to the Romanian border with Ukraine and the other to the Polish border. They are currently doing a third collection of materials. They have also made badges with the Ukrainian flag which are sold at £1 each to raise funds to support Ukraine. There was a fund raising to support an orphanage in Poland which is welcoming Ukrainians at St Michael’s Catholic Grammar School in London. They have also held assemblies and prayer sessions for peace in Ukraine.
Projects: The Spiritan Revive Project, which is a registered charity dedicated to supporting refugees and people seeking asylum, has been kept busy with the support of refugees arriving from Ukraine. Service to refugees arriving from Ukraine has been threefold. They have been providing professional advice and helping to signpost them to appropriate points where they could find the needed help. This, for example, will also include, passing them to other sister charities for special assistance. Secondly, they have been helping the children of the refugees arriving from Ukraine to get places in schools. Finally, they have been working towards reuniting refugees with their families. This is an essential service because, given the circumstances, many have lost contact with their families.
At Individual level: Fr. Anthony Gittins, one of our confreres overseas, based in Chicago, sent £500 to L’Arche in Ukraine.
Though much could still be done, these commendable efforts are true to our Spiritan charism of identifying with the poor and vulnerable. Our thoughts and prayers will always be with them wherever they may be found.
Switzerland: The province has been asked to make available their former junior seminary in St. Gingolph; they are now preparing it towards welcoming refugees from Ukraine. Small rooms for families, rooms for teaching and playing (there are many children), sleeping rooms, meeting halls and kitchen and refectory for about hundred people. In partnership with social affairs of Valais, the spiritans shall see how to welcome these young families from Ukraine.
Ireland: The Irish Province has offered four apartments, containing ten bedrooms in total, in Kimmage to the Irish Red Cross for Ukrainian refugees. The photo is Shanahan House, Block B, the ground floor of which has been offered to the Red Cross.
Belgium: The Gentinnes community has welcomed 8 Ukrainian people, 3 adults and 5 children (from 3 to 12 years old).
They are provided with furnished rooms, food, and assistance with administrative procedures. Communication would be difficult without translations through smartphones. All, including the younger ones, have smartphones which are used a lot, not only for games but also for distance learning.
The community share the same dining room and the same kitchen with them.
In addition, the community has set up and opened a room “for the use of Ukrainians”, not only “theirs” but also those from the village and even from surrounding villages. At present, thirty people meet there. In an annex, there is also a small depository for clothes, shoes and toys. They have the key to this room and manage it. It is a meeting place for them, where they organise basic French courses, two or three times a week, with the help of volunteers from the village.
The local television channel Canal Zoom came to make a short film about this reception.
The community also participates in the reflection and organisation of the services offered by the local authority for all the refugees received; we expect about a hundred.
Their arrival makes a big impact on the average age of the community.
Rome – At the Generalate: the Generalate community received a request from the diocese of Rome to host some refugees from Ukraine and given the fact that we have had some refugees hosted at our Generalate in the past we gave a positive response. We are still waiting for Caritas to send us some.