Ukrainian Catholic priest hosts talk at Saint Vincent Basilica

By Sean Callahan, News Editor

On Feb. 24, at 3 a.m. (UTC time zone), President Vladimir Putin of Russia authorized what he called a ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine, the southern neighbor of Russia. Not long after, Russian soldiers and military vehicles–having congregated on the Ukrainian border for over a month prior to the attack–crossed into Ukrainian territory from multiple directions. Many world leaders and news outlets, including BBC.com, have agreed that the conflict is an invasion. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a largely Russian-backed area of Ukraine, and a war between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has continued since then.

Putin has made several justifications for the ongoing invasion, including a desire to ‘demilitarize’ and ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine, and wanting to ensure Ukraine does not join NATO (National Atlantic Treaty Organization), a military alliance currently established among 28 European and two North American countries. The invasion has received condemnation from numerous countries and world leaders, including the United States.

Military and foreign policy analysts agree that Russia is meeting fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces and continues to make little progress as of Mar. 20, but whether this trend will continue is to be determined. As of Mar. 18, USA Today reports that well over 3 million Ukrainian refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries, such as Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. Heavy artillery bombardments of Ukrainian cities are also a common report among correspondents covering the conflict.

Fr. Oleh Seremchuk, a Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic priest and native of Ukraine, who now resides in the United States, led a prayer service at 7 p.m. on Mar. 15 in the Saint Vincent Basilica. The SVC community was invited to hear Seremchuk’s testimony.

Hundreds of people attended, including off-campus visitors and SVC students, seminarians, staff and faculty.

The prayer service ended by 7:30 p.m., and Seremchuk then recounted his experience at the beginning of the Russian invasion to the attendees and described what has happened since then.

Seremchuk was quick to clarify that conflict between Russia and Ukraine was not unheard of, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the battles around this area that have continued. But he emphasized that an invasion of this scale had not been witnessed before. The destruction was unprecedented and jarring.

“Russia said they were aiming for military targets, military bases. That is not true,” Seremchuk said. “They are bombing houses, hospitals, schools, orphanages. They have been doing this for twenty days.”

Seremchuk emphasized the losses many Ukranians have suffered, including the millions who have fled the country. He mentioned the destruction of hundreds of apartment buildings and homes within the first few days of the invasion. Ukrainian civilians are still in peril, including children, many of whom are unable to flee the country due to bombings or the nearby presence of Russian forces.

“For more than two weeks, some of them have had to go without food, without water. They cannot even go outside to see the sun,” Seremchuk said.

He recounted stories including that of an unarmed man who had gone out on the street for a walk and was killed by a Russian tank. Seremchuk explained that the constant violence feels pointless to him, even regarding the goals of Russian leaders. He does not understand how unity can occur between Russia and Ukraine when Russia’s military is killing the Ukrainian people.

Seremchuk also has mixed feelings regarding being in the United States. His parish, home and many people important to him are still in Ukraine.

“Someone once said to me, ‘it’s good for you because you’re far away from Ukraine. You’re safe here.’ But some of my family is still in Ukraine. My wife’s two sisters and her family are in Ukraine,” Seremchuk said.

He has a personal connection among the Ukrainians defending the country, too.

“My brother is fighting in the war in the army. Sometimes all I hear from him is one text, ‘I’m okay,’ and that’s it. That has to be enough,” Seremchuk said.

Despite the chaos in his homeland, Seremchuk is also hopeful about Ukraine resistance. Other countries estimated Ukraine would last two to three days, but almost three weeks have passed, and major cities such as the capital, Kyiv, are still far from Russian control.

“There has been a lot of resistance, and it is not just from soldiers. It is from regular people fighting back, trying to protect their country, their land and their families,” Seremchuk said.

Seremchuk urged the attendees to pray for Ukraine, for an end to the destruction and for the recovery and safety of all Ukrainian people, including refugees, multiple times throughout the talk. Monetary donations for Ukraine were also encouraged by the Basilica priests.

On Mar. 10, Dr. Jeff Mallory, Executive Vice President, sent out an email detailing efforts—spearheaded by the Education Department—carried out by various campus organizations and clubs to collect donated items for Ukrainian refugees. On Mar. 17, Mallory updated the email, thanking the SVC community and citing “overwhelming” donations. Toiletries, personal hygiene items and non-perishable foods are the highest priority as of Mar. 20.

Physical donations should be dropped off at the Fred Rogers Center between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and they will continue to be accepted until Mar. 28. Monetary donations–used to purchase items still needed–can be sent to the Education Department of SVC. Email joan.roach@stvincent.edu or contact the Education Department for inquiries or more information regarding the donations.

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