ROME – As more cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus are being registered in Ukraine, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has said that he will lend ecclesial properties as hospitals if the need should arise.
During a livestreamed March 22 Mass, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, referred to a photo he had seen of a doctor whose face bore wounds from hours of wearing a protective mask to impede contraction of the coronavirus.
Telling healthcare workers that they are “on the front line” in the global outbreak, he noted that it is the doctors, nurses and volunteers “who in this moment are giving your own health and your own lives to save the health and lives of the sick.”
“Your Church is with you,” he said, noting that just like the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, the Greek Catholic Church would open its churches, monasteries and seminaries as hospitals.
During the 2014 uprising, mass protests led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and sparked the present conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the country’s eastern region after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Hundreds died during the protests, and both the Greek and Latin Catholic rites teamed up to assist those who were injured as well as those suffering a humanitarian crisis in the country’s east.
“If it is necessary the internal space of the church will become a hospital, and together with you we will save human lives,” Shevchuk said, telling doctors that, “You must teach us how to do it. We are capable of learning fast and of learning well, to save together with you the life of a person who is dying.”
Like many other countries, Ukraine is on a tight lockdown as it tries to stop the spread of the coronavirus. According to Johns Hopkins, Ukraine currently has an estimated total of 156 cases with 5 deaths and one recovery.
Most of the country’s cases, 38, are in the western Chernivtsi region, and 31 are in the capitol city of Kyiv. The wider Kyiv region has 22 cases, while the rest are spread out throughout the country, with a few scattered throughout Ukraine’s embattled eastern regions.
In total, there were an estimated 480,446 total confirmed cases worldwide as of Thursday morning, with 21,571 deaths and 115,850 recoveries. Italy currently holds the lead for coronavirus fatalities, with 7,503 as of March 25.
In Ukraine, restaurants, bars and shops are all shut, and the government has also closed public institutions and limited transportation both within and outside of the country.
However, a handful of protesters are currently disobeying the orders to demand that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was sworn in last year, reverse a decision to name representatives from the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which are at the heart of the fighting, to a new advisory council tasked with finding peaceful solutions to the conflict.
While at first the protest drew crowds with up to 500 people, many have since left over fears of either contracting or spreading the coronavirus. Roughly a dozen people are still camped out in front of the presidential office.
A longtime friend of Pope Francis from his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Shevchuk in his sermon urged authorities to halt major political decisions until the COVID-19 crisis is over.
“I turn to our authorities on different levels. Today you are living a difficult moment. You must make difficult decisions, at times unpopular, you must create centers for the crisis which respond rapidly to the new challenges,” he said, adding that “you know that your Church is with you.”
“At the same time, I urge you to declare political quarantine in Ukraine,” he said, explaining that this would mean postponing “decisions that can create social tensions.” He also invited politicians to not be tempted to go after political opponents by exploiting the quarantine measures.
“Faced with the mortal danger, let us leave all the things that divide us. Let us unite to serve the people!” he said.
With liturgical services also suspended during the crisis, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine has, like many others around the world, begun livestreaming Masses and urging faithful to participate in liturgical and prayer campaigns through social media.
In a recent interview with Vatican News, Schevchuk said that every day at noon local time the bishops and priests read scripture and pray for the health of the people and for an end to the coronavirus.
Echoing several statements made by Pope Francis himself, as well as a forceful letter penned by one of Francis’s personal secretaries, Shevchuk also urged priests to be close to the elderly and those who are suffering, being unafraid to visit them to offer the sacraments.
On Wednesday, March 25, which he declared a day of prayer and fasting in Ukraine, Shevchuk joined Pope Francis and several other heads of Christian churches, including Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, in praying the Our Father at noon.
Praising the pope’s ecumenical response to the coronavirus outbreak, he stressed that “there is no Christian who does not pray to our Father.”
“Today, all Ukrainians living in Ukraine and scattered around the world prayed together as one child to Heavenly Father,” he said, praying that God would have mercy on Ukraine and would “save it from illness and death, turn away from us this coming evil.”
He also encouraged members of the Greek Catholic Church to join Pope Francis in an evening prayer service March 27, during which the pope will give the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing, which goes out to the city and to the world.
Typically, only offered at Christmas and Easter, the blessing for those who receive it offers a plenary indulgence, meaning the full remission of the temporal consequences of sin. The event will be livestreamed on the Vatican Media Youtube channel, as well as on Facebook and television.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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