LVIV, Ukraine — A statue of the soldier-turned-priest St. Ignatius of Loyola looked out over the Sunday worshipers at Lviv’s Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church. In the center of the nave, a uniformed woman lit a candle, said a silent prayer, crossed herself, and hurried out.
Since 2010, the garrison church has been run by the military chaplains of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to minister to the country’s soldiers and their families.
Icons of Jesus in the Byzantine style surveyed the room on a blue and yellow background, hanging over shell casings from the eight years of fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“God and Ukraine Above All,” read the text below his visage. Row upon row of images depicting fallen Ukrainian soldiers adorned the walls on posters along the left aisle of the church.
“The military chaplains and troops have been in the war more than eight years,” said Father Taras Mikhalchuk, rector of the Garrison Church and chairman of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Center of Military Chaplaincy.
“We know what it means to be under a great artillery barrage,” he told The Times of Israel.
“All of our priests help our army, and they are not afraid,” he declared. “They are one monolith at the front, and they know what to do.”
Despite the wartime atmosphere, most parishioners were focused not on the soldier-priest St. Ignatius, but the golden statue of Jesus on the cross suspended above them, as if searching for solidarity in suffering.
Unlike Russia’s invasion 2014, this time civilians were being slaughtered by Russian bombing of civilian areas, said Mikhalchuk, who has been a military chaplain for 15 years.
“At that time, it was the military men dying. Now peaceful citizens and children are dying, and to be silent would be a crime right now,” he said from his small office on the second floor of the church, a half-hour before he was scheduled to deliver Mass.
As we spoke, young priests hurried in and out of the room. They grabbed sandwiches, changed in and out of their cassocks, and threw on coats and backpacks to head into the city.
Beyond leading eight Masses throughout the day, the priests were providing pastoral care to soldiers and their loved ones around the clock.
“We are always with them,” Mikhalchuk said. “We are contacting them, we are praying with them.”
The chaplains have two main tasks right now as they care for Ukraine’s troops, said Mikhalchuk.
“We are in contact with the wives, the children, and can get the soldiers medicine and whatever else they need,” he said, noting that civilian women had tried to reach the front themselves to deliver supplies to loved ones.
“We are also helping many refugees whose husband or father is on the front line, in Mariupol, Kharkiv, and other towns.”
Soldiers often call his cellphone directly to tell him that their family has fled to Lviv.
“Today, my friend from Mariupol called me to tell me his family is in Lviv, not far from here,” said the priest. “We went to meet them, to give them a flat.”
He pulled up a photograph of soldiers on the front lines sent to him only hours before, showing a rosary hanging from the inside of an armored vehicle. “They were saying they are grateful that we sent them a rosary, that we protect them.”
The chaplains at the Garrison Church are also using their network to help supply the troops. “We have a lack of first aid for soldiers, lack of clothes. That’s why we are contacting abroad, and trying to get them to send those supplies here.”
“We feel that many Catholic parish priests around the world help because they are calling, they are trying to give shoes they buy in Europe, in the USA,” said Mikhalchuk.
In his homily that morning, Mikhalchuk spoke about Ukraine’s soldiers at the front.
“I tell people that our soldiers do not feel aggression,” he said. “Our soldiers feel love. Love to their family, their native land, their native country. And love does not have fear. We stand strong because our soldiers love their land, and love their country Ukraine.”
This kind of unapologetic nationalism might sound surprising to some familiar only with Catholic clergy in North America and Western Europe, but eastern Catholic churches tend to be closely bound with national identity and culture.
Our soldiers feel love. Love to their family, their native land, their native country. And love does not have fear.
“I said today that soldiers at the front feel that people here are praying, and I was saying that we have to pray as a mother prays for her children,” said the priest.
Mikhalchuk stressed that Pope Francis is praying and acting to stop the war.
During his Angelus address in the Vatican that day, Francis said he would do everything he could to end the fighting, and dispatched two cardinals to Ukraine to assist in humanitarian efforts.
“Even though this is Christians against Christians, we still understand we have to fight for our freedom, our rights, our truth,” said the priest, before adding, “and I wonder if they are good Christians on the other side if they are occupiers.”
Back down among the worshipers, Mikhalchuk apologized and excused himself, explaining he had to get back to work.
As he walked back toward his office, he stopped, turned, and said pointedly, “I wish we had the air defense system that Israel has.”