WOONSOCKET — “Memory eternal! Rest everlasting!”
These words were chanted in the traditional Ukrainian Byzantine style in honor of all the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed in the Ukraine war during a prayer service held at St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church in Woonsocket on Friday, February 24.
The event, which began at 6 p.m., was organized by the parish, together with a group of local members of the Knights of Columbus and was dedicated to the intention of bringing an end to the war in Ukraine.
For Father Mykhaylo Dosyak, the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel parish, the event was both a profoundly spiritual as well as a deeply personal one. Father Dosyak, a native of Ukraine, migrated to the United States 22 years ago. Nonetheless, many of his family members, including his siblings, nieces and nephews, remained.
In a speech given at the end of the service, Father Dosyak recalled how on the night the war began, he called his sister and advised her to leave Ukraine and find safe shelter in Poland. Unfortunately, this led to the dividing of their family, since the Polish authorities did not allow Father Dosyak’s brother-in-law entry into the country.
Father Dosyak connected the political implications of the recent events in Ukraine with the spiritual implications of the Christian life. “We start our Lent, and we need to become peacemakers. We need to forgive. We need to do almsgiving. … We will pray and ask God that all the killing will be stopped, so somehow God will have mercy on us, the soldiers will go home to their families, and we will have peace in Ukraine,” he said.
The first part of the prayer service consisted of the Knights of Columbus leading the congregation in praying the Rosary. During the event, Father Roman Golemba, a retired priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford (under whose jurisdiction lies St. Michael’s Parish) and the former pastor of the parish, was also present, offering the Sacrament of Confession to those in attendance.
The praying of the Rosary was followed by a Panakhyda service, a traditional prayer service within the Byzantine tradition. The service was led by Father Dosyak, Father Golemba and Father John Kiley, the director of the Office of Ecumenical Relations for the Diocese of Providence, who attended the Mass and the prayer service. Father Kiley is a native of Woonsocket and has worked closely with the local Ukrainian Christian community in organizing various ecumenical events.
For the past nine years, there have been a series of military conflicts between Russia and Ukraine. The Russian government claims that, as a result of these conflicts, a series of anti-Russian movements and organizations have formed which pose a threat to Russian national security, and thus see their military intervention in Ukraine as a way to suppress such groups.
Many, however, cast doubt on the sincerity of these concerns, noting how President Putin has expressed a desire for Russia and Ukraine — which share a common religion, a similar language and a similar culture — to reunite as one nation. Many Ukrainian citizens thus see the presence of the Russian military in their nation as a threat to their national security.
There is a strong religious element to this conflict as well.
In 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the chief bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, acknowledged the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches as its own self-governing branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodox Christians in Ukraine had previously been considered under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kiril, the Patriarch of Moscow and head of the Russian church, interpreted this decision as Patriarch Bartholomew overstepping his authority, and subsequently excommunicated him. This has led to larger divisions within the Orthodox church.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, these religious tensions have only worsened, with many Ukrainians seeing those ecclesial communities with connections to the Russian religious establishment as being a conduit for increased Russian political influence in Ukraine, while many Russians see those churches not under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow as being allied with Ukrainian political interests.
Many non-Orthodox religions, including many Catholics living in Ukraine, have been caught in the crosshairs of these tensions.
Father Dosyak, in an interview with the Rhode Island Catholic, recalled the story of a group of Ukrainian Catholic priests taken prisoner by Russian soldiers, who tortured them in an attempt to pressure them into converting to Russian Orthodoxy.
After the service, State Deputy of the Knights of Columbus David Bebyn delivered a short speech in which he described the work of the Knights in raising aid for the people of Ukraine during their struggle. Over the course of the past year, the Knights of Columbus worldwide have raised more than $20 million to provide aid for the refugees of the war. Working together with members of the Knights of Columbus in Poland, the American Knights have been able to provide food, clothing and daily necessities for those attempting to escape Ukraine.
“The Knights of Columbus have made a commitment to carry this through to the end,” Bebyn said.
Bebyn went on to speak of the attempts on the part of Knights of Columbus to raise money to help Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq displaced by the destruction of many Christian communities by ISIS, and how the Knights organized to help Syrian Iraqi and Christians rebuild their communities after the defeat of ISIS.
“We hope to see the same thing happen in Ukraine, and that this terrible war be over. And until that happens, we are here to stand,” Bebyn continued.
Father Dosyak, when speaking with the Rhode Island Catholic, repeated similar sentiments, noting how attempts to bring an end to the war in Ukraine have both a local as well as an international element to them. He called to mind how Metropolitan Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, helped to organize an effort to set up a website in which prayers for the end of the war in Ukraine could be shown worldwide 24/7. He also notes how many Ukrainian Catholic parishes in America frequently raise money and supplies to send to Ukraine to rebuild churches destroyed by the war.
The service ended with Father Dosyak and Father Golemba leading the congregation in the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem as well as “God Bless America,” followed by a short ceremony in which the pastor blessed those present with holy oil.
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