Finding belief in God in a time of war

Finding belief in God in a time of war A destroyed church is pictured following a Russian attack in the village of Bohorodychne, Donetsk region, Ukraine, February 13. Photo: OSV News/Vladyslav Musiienko, Reuters

Last weekend saw the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and it’s depressing to see that peace doesn’t seem to be anywhere close. 

On Witness (RTÉ Radio 1, Friday) Ksenia Trofymchuk from a Protestant theological college in Ukraine pointed out that Ukrainians were somewhat used to war since earlier Russian incursions in 2014. Yes, the war had disrupted theology studies especially since February 2022. 

She told how the challenges of war had brough people of various Christian faiths more together – she was involved in cooperation with Catholic and Orthodox communities. 

Suffering was particularly bad in the frontline areas and not everyone could leave. Many clergy stayed behind to look after their people, offering humanitarian help and shelter in churches, despite the dangers they faced. 

They try to protect and preserve what they can, as well as documenting losses. She saw that some Protestants had pacifist views before but had then eventually had joined the army. 

Fr Vasyl Kornitsky came to Ireland around 11 years ago, but his Ukrainian congregation in Ireland had risen from about 15,000 to around 80,000 in the last two years. He was glad to be able to minister to them in his Donnycarney parish. 

He stressed how war and evil create divisions and separations. Many of the refugees he dealt were still traumatised. He found that, among the refugees, people who had didn’t attend church at home were now practicing, and some were attending Confession for the first time. 

They were finding something solid in their belief in God. War, he said, changes people’s priorities. 

The welcome and support Ukrainian refugees found in Ireland was the theme of all episodes of Nationwide (RTÉ One) last week. Many were integrating well, even saving small schools from closure by adding to the pupil numbers and enhancing local communities in many ways, like participating in Tidy Towns initiatives, setting up new businesses.  

The Wednesday programme for example focused on welcoming efforts in Donegal and Cavan, with many local volunteers teaching English to the newcomers, but also learning from Ukrainian culture. 

On Sunday (BBC Radio 4) Edward Stourton spoke to Protestant pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko, head of the ‘Chaplains’ Battalion’, who supported troops on the frontline. 

He said he had never cried so much as he had done in the last two years. From Evangelical Bishop Ivan Rusyn we heard again of churches being used as refuge support centres and the importance of faith communities in the identity of Ukraine. 

Speaking of churches, the buildings at least, they figured large in Monty Don’s Spanish Gardens (BBC Two, Friday). Many of the gorgeous gardens visited were originally monastery gardens. 

One had striking plant structures weaving in and out of the old ruins, while the original cloisters were still intact. Of course, I’d prefer if these institutions were still thriving as centres of faith and prayer, but that’s history and new generations must find creative ways to keep faith practices alive and renewed. 

One of the standout locations was El Escorial in Madrid, built by King Philip II, who brought plants from all over the Spanish Empire. His palace was surrounded by beautiful roses; he wanted them to be like a heavenly cloud for the palace to be seated on. 

Monty got privileged access to one private garden – he wasn’t even allowed to be specific about where it was located. Because of its history there were Christian and Arabic influences in the garden styles, here and elsewhere. 

He pointed out an Islamic style garden pathway with a mini-canal flowing through in rills – all leading to … a crucifix. He saw it as fusion rather than contradiction. If religious differences can co-exist in a garden, it’s a pity they can’t do so in civic discourse and in the political world. 

In that world, a few items on the upcoming referenda are worth listening back to. On The Anton Savage Show (Newstalk, Sunday) Senator Michael McDowell said of the Catholic Bishops’ statement that none of their legal reasoning was wrong – “it’s correct”. He was confident the referendum proposals would be defeated. 

On This Week (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) there was a reasoned debate between Professor Louise Crowley of UCC and former barrister Maria Steen, while Saturday with Colm Ó Mongáin (RTE Radio 1) devoted over 40 minutes to detailed discussion. 

Some say ‘If in doubt, leave it out’. I say ‘If in doubt, find out!’