There has never been a shortage of work in the Orphans Care Centre and the House of Mercy of the Lviv Archdiocese of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. There always has been continuous children’s noise, support actions for vulnerable social groups, volunteering and educational projects. The war escalated these processes and increased the number of people in need.
Today, the Ukrainian Catholic University’s “Little Stories of a Big War” project will introduce you to the head of the Orphans Care Centre and the House of Mercy, Father Roman Prokopets. In tough times, he managed to sustain all the ongoing charitable processes and activate new ones by organising a shelter for internally displaced persons.
—Father, please share. What was your pre-war service like, and how did it change at the beginning of the invasion?
— The extensive global coronavirus crisis was good preparation for such emergencies. Although, of course, everything changed with the war. In just 1 or 2 days, our volunteers adapted the entire space to host internally displaced persons. We had to close the Anhelyky (‘Little Angels’) children’s space and relocate them to their parents, caretakers, or family-type orphanages. Instead, a centre was opened to welcome women and children arriving from the war zone. Of course, in the beginning, we had a lot of problems. We didn’t have our kitchen, bomb shelters, or places to spend the night. However, thanks to the support of our volunteers, benefactors, and people who called, came, and asked how they could help, we were able to arrange everything quickly.
I understand that this is happening everywhere now. All of this strengthens us as Ukrainians, as a nation. This is the answer to the question of what will happen tomorrow. Tomorrow Ukraine will live on. And it will be strong because we have strong people.
Today I had a phone call from Kyiv, where we are preparing to send a truck with humanitarian aid. A representative of one of the charitable foundations called me and asked if we needed any help. I said, “Stop. I don’t get it. Are you calling to help us from Kyiv to Lviv?” And he told me that their people respond very quickly to needs and bring much more than they require at the time, so they are ready to share. Even the city, which is under explosions, is ready to share with the people of Lviv. For me, this is a powerful, profound testimony that we have already won this war. We are already winners. We may still hear the sounds of explosions today, but I’m sure it won’t be long.
—The room we are in now is filled with icons and beds. Why so?
— This is now the daily life of our Church, when the priest and the Church are close to their community, to their people, ready to respond to the challenges and needs that people face. This is evidence of the Church’s openness to human pain and needs. At one point, we realised that there was not enough space for all the people whom we needed to host. Then we set aside part of the cathedral to make beds and accept larger groups of people.
— How exactly do people get to you? Who are they? Where are they from?
— Since the beginning of the war, the city authorities have developed an algorithm, for a person arriving in Lviv, about how to act and where to turn. After registering in one of the district administrations, everyone is directed to a place where s/he can spend the night, eat, and get a little psychological relief. This is how we help. People stay here for a few days to decide whether to go abroad or whether to look for a place to live in Lviv for a more extended period. We have already received people from Kharkiv, Verkhniodniprovsk, and other cities.
— What needs do these people have? Do they seek spiritual help from the priests?
— When refugees come to our residency, they are met by several people. The person on duty at the reception opens the door, smiles, and invites. This moment of acceptance is an assurance that it is safe here. Then, if necessary, the doctor examines people and provides the assistance required or contacts specialised doctors who are also ready to come and give a consultation. People also talk to psychotherapists who help relieve a little stress.
In the church of St. Nicholas, where we are, on the initiative of His Beatitude Sviatoslav [Shevchuk], there is a prayer during the day. There is always a chaplain. People can talk to him at any time. There is an opportunity to join a common prayer. The presence of a priest helps people to consciously, with trust in God, rethink what happened, to strengthen the idea that this is not the end of life, that Ukraine needs to be rebuilt. Maybe temporarily outside one’s home, outside one’s territory, in another place, but, nevertheless, to build Ukraine.
— What impresses you about the stories of people who come here? Are there moments when you are moved to tears?
— It is impossible to watch someone bleed, or to spoonfeed and sustain a person’s life, realising that you can not heal one’s wound.
Globally – what is happening in Ukraine, Europe, and worldwide? Europe and the world are ready to import tons of humanitarian aid today, but they lack the determination to stop the cause of this disaster. It hurts a lot.
— How do you think Western countries can help us?
— First of all, the truth. Open your eyes and ears and tell where the truth is and where the lie is. This is what I am addressing to all journalists who come to us. I ask them to do it in their countries and on their TV channels due to the fact that Russian propaganda continues to wage a powerful information war. We need a lot of help from conscious journalists who are ready to tell the truth. Closing the sky or not is just one aspect of the current global war. As a Ukrainian nation, we have already won morally. But the question to Europe, to journalists: will you win the information war?
— There are priests who, instead of serving in the church, take up arms and go to war. How do you feel about them? Would you do that yourself?
— I have not heard of such cases. Personally, as a priest, I cannot take up arms. My only weapons are the cross and prayer.
— Great Lent has begun. It was Forgiveness Sunday, and our President said that God would not forgive our enemies for what was happening. Do you think God can forgive that? And do you forgive?
— The Lord is the One who will judge everyone. What has happened now is irreversible. We cannot close our eyes, remain silent, and rejoice at some minimal concessions. A dialogue that will drag on this war for several years is not the answer. There must be a very clear position here: the one who caused our country and millions of people to suffer today, and made the earth tremble because of artillery, must be held accountable for their actions. The question of forgiveness is everyone’s business. Of course, the Lord teaches us to forgive. However, it is hard to forgive. It is a long process. For those directly affected by this war, it is a great wound. It’s like a mine that can explode at any moment. And here, you need a very skilled individual to neutralise that mine of anger, hatred, resentment, and unforgiveness and save the wounded heart from an even bigger wound. And at the same time, the people who are silent and watching what is happening in Ukraine must be held accountable. Their troops came in to seize our lands. They understand what they are doing, and they cannot stay unpunished. Do I feel hatred and unforgiveness? My heart is free of that. I have no fury or hatred, but I am convinced that everyone will be responsible for their actions.
— There is now a support program from Western parishes. Do you receive such aid? What do they say about this situation?
— We see how the whole world empathises with us. People share our pain and our worries and try to help. In our parishes, there are constant calls to go to the square and show their indignation at what is happening in Ukraine. We see how the entire globe is covered with various slogans, blue and yellow flags, and the Ukrainian anthem. We also see huge trucks, tons of aid that people collect and send to Ukraine. We see the commitment to accepting our children and refugees in their parishes and homes. There are lots of phone calls with offers of various help.
— What has this war changed for you personally?
— The war makes us very clear-cut and specific. Yes is yes. No is no. That is it. This is something I’ve been noticing lately. There is no place for uncertainty in war. You need to be constantly collected and clear.
— What about human faith? Has it strengthened or shaken?
— This is a very sinuous phenomenon. And this is normal. Human faith is like a bird that can rise very high or go down. With faith, a person can overcome his fear and pain. The chaplain’s presence, the word of the priest, and his prayers in the church or through social networks support man’s faith. They support both those who are tired or afraid to fly and those who routinely seek solace. Everyone does what is lacking, what is needed, to encourage. And these are all personal expressions of faith.
— During the war, were you overwhelmed by despair or doubt?
— Man’s greatest enemy is fear. When fear comes to your heart, then various questions and doubts begin. Prayer always helps me to solve this. You go to church, seek solitude, an opportunity to talk to God, and through prayer, you receive answers or reassurance, peace.
— It is very challenging for people now to focus on prayer. It seems to me that sometimes people, even when they want to pray, can’t concentrate. What do you advise?
— I pray. Prayer is different. I will share my personal experience. That was probably the first night of February 24-25. I do not remember how many times I started the prayer “Virgin Mary” and fell asleep. That night was probably exceptionally long, and it’s hard to call it sleeping. Notwithstanding that, every time I woke up, I started the prayer “Virgin Mary” again. I know for a fact that I never finished it. Was it a wrong, imperfect prayer? Maybe it was as for peacetime. But in times of stress, when you don’t know how to act and seek answers from the One who knows, it helps. The Lord will hear even such an imperfect prayer and help. It is essential to just pray in any way we can.
— What, besides prayer, helps you to distract from stress? How do you relax?
— I try to be with my family, among friends, comrades, priests, and chaplains. I just try to be among the people who settle here, who share their experiences. In a few days of their stay in our house, they change. It becomes easier and safer for them. They begin to share what is inside, and you realise that you are doing something good, at least for someone. It motivates, inspires, and helps to continue to work and help.
— And what will you do when the war in Ukraine ends?
— I will be grateful. I will thank everyone to whom I simply do not have the strength, time, and opportunity to thank today.… Now I am not in the mood to write any long texts. It’s hard for me to do that right now. I pray every day for those involved in various ways in volunteering and helping Ukraine, our army, and the suffering people. But I really want to thank everyone.
— What do you regret the most now?
— I regret what did not happen in its time. The war showed very well how what we cared about had changed. All their lives, people have accumulated some material goods to live better, have better furniture, and more opportunities. But they did not have time for each other, time to be together, travel, and see the beauty of their homeland. I regret the lost opportunities to do something or to visit somewhere. But to that to which we can not return – it transforms us somehow. God willing, the war will end, and we will use such opportunities to the fullest.
— Very war-affected people come here now. Does this open new horizons for the Church and for you as a priest?
— When the city gave us this room in 2019, the first thing we did was open the gate. One day, I saw an older man sitting and crying in the yard. I approached, started talking to him, and he told me about his despair. His sister and mother were in the hospital, and he was unable to help. We talked for a long time, and that’s when I knew that this house of ours would be called the House of Mercy. Then I remembered the prayer to the Mother of God: “Open the door of mercy to us…” and realised that we would open the full gate of mercy. Since then, we have seen more than once that many people actually find what they are looking for here.
That is why I constantly repeat that this is a place where the needy come, and the one who can help the needy comes. Here is a meeting and union place. And the Lord always brings the right people to the right place. Yesterday at the station, I tried for a long time to settle one question, but it didn’t work out. I was guided to one point where there was an ambulance. And when I went there, I saw medics carrying someone on a stretcher. It turned out that it was one volunteer who had just died. As a priest, I gave absolution to that man. I believe that this is one of those moments when the Lord leads us and crosses the life paths for each person. And our House is also a sign for many people. Here they find a fuller picture of their own lives.
Interviewers: Natalia Starepravo and Petro Didula
March 7, 2022
Translator: Andrii Myroshnychenko
Proofreader: Shari Henning Garland
Media partners of the project: The Ukrainians, Reporters, Espreso.TV.