Those who were able to left. The rest sleep in underground shelters to the sound of air raid sirens. This is life in Odessa, where only prayer sustains the people.
At least for now, the city of Odessa, located on the coast of the Black Sea, in southern Ukraine, has been spared the worst of the war’s violence, but the conflict marks every moment of people’s lives, says local Catholic bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk.
“We are always hearing air raid warnings and from time-to-time shooting. It’s very unsettling but at the moment, thank God, the city is relatively calm. We are sleeping in a basement shelter, but during the day we are here and can freely pray and work”, he told ACN.
One of his first priorities was to ensure that vulnerable children were taken to safety. “We’ve organised a place 280km (174 miles) away which previously was just for children, but today is a place for refugees. Some children, and young families with children, are living there. We are looking after these people.”
In this situation, priests have taken on other roles that go beyond being shepherds of souls. “The presence of priests in churches is of great importance to people. Priests celebrate holy masses, organise prayers, and strengthen the spirit. In addition to that, there are food packages, other essentials, and hot meals. The cellars under the churches are open and always available for people to take refuge”, bishop Stanislav said to ACN.
Nobody is entering Odessa, not even refugees from Crimea or other territories, because the city is not safe. Many of those with financial means have left for safer places, either in the west of Ukraine, or in neighbouring countries, giving the city an eerie feeling. But those who remain stand together.
“There is unity in the city, great unity among believers, and ecumenically. The war has made us very united, not just Catholics, but also people of other confessions and cultures. Today we have great unity in the city”, explained bishop Stanislav.
“And, of course, I am very grateful for all the support and solidarity”, continues the bishop. “I would especially like to thank Aid to the Church in Need. It was the first organisation which asked me: ‘What should we do? How can we help?’ Thank you for this readiness to help.”
In the face of this war, people are turning to prayer and praying not only for peace and security, but also for those who have been killed in the conflict. “We pray daily for peace. It’s important to us to pray for everyone, but especially for those who have died. Every day we celebrate a Mass with a requiem for all those who have died, including the fallen soldiers and all war victims.”
ACN is providing an emergency package of more than £1 million (€1.3 million). Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, international executive president of ACN, said the money will go to priests and religious who work across the country in parishes, or with refugees, orphans and the elderly. The charity is also asking for prayers for peace in Ukraine.