WASHINGTON — On a day when the world saw the heart-rending images of Russia launching a brutal invasion of Ukraine, people gathered at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington Feb. 24.
They stood in solidarity, and kneeled in prayer, for that embattled country and its people.
Father Peter Galadza, a Ukrainian Catholic priest, led the prayer service and noted the great hope that the people of Ukraine felt when the country gained independence in 1991, after experiencing the “scars of intergenerational trauma” of numerous occupations and regime changes over the past century.
Having that freedom for more than three decades, he said, “makes this present moment so much more painful.”
“We just did not imagine everything we read about in the history books, everything our parents told us about their experiences, every tear they had shed. … We thought that was over, a thing of the past. Yet today it’s being revisited upon us again,” the priest said.
Then Father Galadza began to cry slightly, and he continued, “So what do we do? We do what our parents have done for centuries. We come to Mary.”
That evening prayer service, held as a cold, misty rain fell outside, was called a “Molében to the Mother of God,” an intercessory prayer service that Eastern churches hold, and on this night, they sought the help of Mary, who among her titles is venerated by Catholics as the Queen of Peace.
An icon of the Holy Family, with Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus, was placed in front of the sanctuary, flanked by flickering candles.
Earlier, the priest thanked those who joined the prayer service. The crowd of about 60 people included Ukrainian Catholics who attend Divine Liturgies at that shrine, families with young children, students from the neighboring Catholic University of America, senior citizens and people of other faiths.
“I can’t tell you what a consolation it is to have people from the broader community (here). You don’t know what it means. Knowing somebody cares makes all the difference in the world,” the priest said.
Father Galadza, a Canadian priest who is a visiting professor teaching liturgy at Catholic University, encouraged people to do whatever they can to support Ukraine and its citizens, such as mobilizing prayer vigils, joining protests and providing humanitarian aid.
The prayer service, offered in Ukrainian and English, was all sung in chants, that at times seemed sorrowful and in other times seemed hopeful.
The priest prayed that God would help the people of Ukraine find the strength and wisdom to bear this cross and also to experience the hope of the resurrected Christ.
“The Lord who has risen from the dead, that Lord wants to give us strength, wisdom and fortitude to do God’s will,” Father Galadza said. “It’s our task today to do whatever we can to carry the name of Jesus the risen Lord in our hearts.”
Earlier that afternoon, Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory posted a tweet: “We turn to the Mother of God, Our Lady Queen of Peace, & ask her to protect the people of Ukraine & strengthen people who continue to seek & pursue a diplomatic halt to this latest tragedy of war.”
The cardinal also echoed Pope Francis’ recent call to mark Ash Wednesday, March 2, as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.
Throughout the day Feb. 24, people came to pray at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family.
Before the prayer service, Emma Jensen, a Catholic University politics major from Texas, came to the shrine to pray after seeing the images of the invasion of Ukraine on television.
“I think you just want to do something. … I thought I could place roses in front of Mary, and she could help out,” said Jensen, who noted she is seeking a degree in peace and mediation.
Among those attending the prayer service was Kathryn Yanik, director of life issues for the Washington Archdiocese, whose maternal grandparents fled Ukraine as young adults during World War II in the middle of the night. They left behind their family members and their personal belongings.
Yanik, who was married in a Ukrainian Catholic church, was joined at the prayer service by her husband, Robert.
Asked why she came to the evening prayer service, Yanik told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington: “When we feel powerless, when we feel we can’t have an impact, through God all things are possible.”
“Right now, prayer is going to be our primary source of solidarity, to be with the people (of Ukraine) who are suffering and afraid,” she said.
The events in Ukraine hit close to home for Andrew Bihun and his wife, Lesia, of Silver Spring, Maryland, who attended the prayer service and are parishioners at the shrine. He worked at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine from 1995 to 1999.
“When we’re watching it (the invasion) on TV, we know all those places,” said Lesia Bihun, who said that as she watched and listened to the news, “I broke down. You know the people there.”
She added, “As soon as we saw the notice from the church (about the prayer service), we just came to pray.”
The couple sings in the choir at the Ukrainian Catholic shrine, and Lesia said she knew all the words that they sang at the prayer service that evening, because they sang those same prayers when they were refugees.
She was born in Poland after her parents fled Ukraine, and her husband’s parents fled the country with him when he was an infant during World War II.
In a phone interview the morning of Feb. 24, Father Robert Hitchens, who is the pastor at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine, said that about 470 of the shrine’s parishioners living in the Washington area have family ties and roots in Ukraine.
“Everyone is obviously very upset. I’m sure people did not sleep last night,” he said.
The priest added, “Our hopes and our prayers are for peace and a true conversion of hearts, that people live as sisters and brothers in harmony.”
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.