Fr. Alexander Laschuk is a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto and Judicial Vicar of the Archdiocese of Toronto. He is also Director of Eastern Christian Studies at the University of St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.
I was on a train to visit a parish in Sarnia when Russia invaded Ukraine and the war began. I spent the remaining hours of that slow ride texting my family while we watched the news together, separated by distance at the worst possible time. The kids stayed home from school the next day for some family time, so they could process everything. I finally returned to Toronto and we all went to an obviously last minute, but well attended, demonstration at Nathan Phillips Square. My family in Ukraine is on the Russian side of the country. You expect the worst at first.
These two weeks have seemed like months and the world watches in horror as civilians are killed every day. Ukrainians spend every night in bomb shelters, and some cities are without water, electricity and gas for heat. When I awake in the middle of the night (morning in Ukraine), I check my phone – any urgent messages from friends who have finally accepted invitations to come to Toronto? Is anyone I know dead?
I, like a million other Canadians, share ties of blood to Ukraine. My infant father came to Canada in the fall of 1953, the end of a long process of displacement that began with the Soviet invasion of Galicia in September 1939. Today on Facebook and Twitter we see many of those scenes from the Second World War repeating themselves: mass destruction, millions of refugees fleeing and death. As Pope Francis has said, “Rivers of blood and tears are flowing in Ukraine. It is not merely a military operation, but a war, which sows death, destruction and misery.” (March 6, 2022)
We are watching the unfolding of one of the great population displacements of modern history. And we, as people blessed to live in a peaceful and wealthy country like Canada, are witnessing that crisis. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ lets us know what will be on the “final exam” on judgement day. Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless? During this time of Lent, when we engage in activities such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we are called to remember the people of Ukraine. The Archdiocese of Toronto has begun a call for financial support for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, both in directly supporting agencies on the ground in Ukraine, but also in preparing to welcome the many refugees who are already beginning to arrive from that ravaged country.
The Book of Isaiah, in its seventh chapter, prophesies the coming of Christ: “the virgin shall conceive and bear a child, and his name shall be Emmanuel (God with us)” (Is 7:14). That phrase “God is with us” is sung in the Byzantine Churches of the East at the Great Compline service sung on great feast days, such as Christmas. In 2014, when the government of then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych opened fire on civilians on the Kyiv maidan, those protesting took “God is with us” as their call.
Today, as the bombs fall on Kyiv, we can continue to sing “God is with us.” We see Him with us in those welcoming the masses of refugees in Slovakia, Hungry, Moldova and Poland. We see Him present with His people in those priests celebrating the Sacred and Divine Liturgy in bomb shelters. We see Him present with those, sheltering as air raid sirens wail, praying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Indeed, it is the continued, innumerable works of mercy done by so many people that shows the power of faith and God’s presence in places of darkness. His Beatitude Sviatoslav, the father and head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, has called Kyiv the “New Jerusalem,” since it has suddenly become a focal point for the prayer of the entire world.
This Lent, please consider helping the people of Ukraine. Be informed: seek the truth by consulting reliable news services and announcements that come from the local Church. Help the people of Ukraine with your prayers and offer fasting to rid the world of this diabolical war. Offer those suffering your almsgiving, whether to help those in Ukraine, or in countries where they are arriving as refugees. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)
You can learn more about the Archdiocese of Toronto’s call for humanitarian relief here: www.archtoronto.org/en/outreach/news/archdiocesan/pray-for-ukraine/