“Turn away from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34, 14)
While humanity is torn between omission and indifference, or seeking entertainment at soccer matches, one country is suffering the horrors of war: Ukraine. The failure of diplomacy and democratic institutions shows that this conflict can still last a long time. Governments are incapable of proposing a truce and, through dialogue, ending this senseless war. The media, it seems, has got used to the misfortune of others and no longer broaches the subject as at the beginning of the invasion. The few initiatives to seek peace are risky. And the disastrous effects of this war, such as inflation, the energy crisis, and the increase in poverty, affect all nations.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian people are suffering as never before. In the past, there was a thriving nation, producing food, with strong tourism and a people proud of its history, tradition and possibilities for the future. Today, only sadness and difficulty. Despite everything, even though the country is devastated, the population remains united and hopeful (Psalm 29, 11). Millions migrated to neighboring countries, but the majority remained in Ukraine. The men have been called to battle, and the women stay behind, looking after their families and the few goods they still have left.
In the face of this desolate scenario, there are still committed people, fighting for their own subsistence and for the survival of others. It is charity that shines in the midst of chaos: it is Jesus who presents himself as true consolation and protection. In Ukraine, the Society of St Vincent de Paul has some Conferences which, despite the immense difficulties, insist on taking the friendly Vincentian hand to those in need. Besides the SSVP, the Vincentian Family is present, and so together we try to offer some hope to those most in need (John 16, 33), while the politicians are slow to find a solution to this shameful conflict.
The Council General International, on behalf of the whole Confederation, has signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with Depaul International to provide 200 meals a day to poor Ukrainians in the city of Kharkiv. Our Conferences, with few resources, also do what they can, distributing food, clothes, medicine and other material goods. The more the winter intensifies, the more the problems are magnified, since the generation of electricity, to heat homes, only exists for a few hours a day. The worst affected are the elderly, the disabled and children.
On 7 and 8 December, on neutral ground (Hungary), the Council General International received a delegation of four Ukrainian SSVP ladies. Brother Adrian Abel (England), president of CIAD (Commission for International Aid & Development), accompanied me on this journey. The original idea was that I could travel to Ukraine, but for security reasons this solution was chosen (meeting in Hungary), which brought many challenges for the four Vincentian ladies. As the airspace is blocked because of the war, there are no flights in the Ukraine, so the delegation travelled by train and car to meet us.
To preserve our Vincentians from any situation, we will keep all of them anonymous. Their journey was not easy. For example, one of the four participants managed to arrive at the meeting point in Hungary 32 hours after leaving home, very tired. We cannot thank these brave consecrated women enough for their immense gesture of charity.
After they have spent four hours waiting to cross the border into Hungary, we met in a hotel (we will keep the location confidential) where our meetings took place. Several testimonies of life, faith and overcoming left me speechless. One of them moved me a lot: one sister confided the joy of being able to have a “hot and dignified” bath, because she hadn’t had that in Ukraine for a long time. Another sister recounted the “simple things in life”, like going to a coffee shop, accessing the internet or going for a walk in a shopping mall, things that are quite rare today in Ukraine. The moments we enjoyed together in Hungary were moments, for them, of “a quick return to normal life”, at least for the duration of our meeting. We enjoyed meals together and prayed as a family.
During these work meetings, we were able to learn about the actions being carried out by the SSVP of Ukraine in some places, which despite the constant bombardments, are alleviating the suffering of the most needy. After hearing all this report, we presented the Ukrainian Conferences with a board containing the relic of Blessed Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam. With strong emotion, I said that “Ozanam will end this war, and this will be one more miracle of his”. The picture with the relic is to go on pilgrimage through the country. We also gave books and formation material produced by the Council General.
One of the younger lady members, a professional photographer, showed us pictures of the horrors of war, especially buildings hit by missiles, vehicles destroyed by gunfire and whole towns destroyed. She herself risked losing her life while making these photographic records. Another sister said that she is with her husband serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and she lives a constant tension without knowing if her husband will return home. Others sisters are unemployed and also suffer severe restrictions. The impoverishment of the country is total, and many Vincentians are also in a state of penury. It is urgent that we achieve peace: we need peacemakers (Matthew 5, 9).
During those days I could see that freedom is one of the most important values for humanity, if not the greatest. Without freedom, life is incomplete. Imagine life without religious freedom, without political freedom, without freedom of speech, without freedom of thought. In the case of the people of Ukraine, imagine life without the freedom to come and go, without the freedom to enjoy the most basic human rights, such as the right to life, property, education, health, work and opportunities in the future. One sister stressed herself thus: “We will overcome these adversities. Nothing and nobody can stop us”.
These and other stories will remain in my memory. As President General, I have expressed the solidarity of SSVP worldwide with the Ukrainian people. We urgently plead for this purposeless war to end immediately. We urge Presidents Putin and Zelenskyy to sit down at a negotiating table to establish for peace, so necessary, so urgent, not only for the people of Ukraine and above all for all humanity (James 3, 18).
Finally, I would like to ask that in this Advent season the Vincentian Conferences pray the Holy Rosary for Ukraine, asking God that this conflict will end urgently, that the political authorities will be touched by the mantle of Our Lady, and that all those involved will seek a solution to this war. May Our Lady Queen of Peace protect us!
Brother Renato Lima de Oliveira
16th President General International