“The war has radically changed my life and will continue to change it”, says Sister Svitlana Matsiuk of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit. Before the war, the sister had started her studies in Rome. Last January, she returned to Ukraine and was due to continue her studies in September. Now she doesn’t know whether she will be able to. Before the war, her community lived in Khmelnytskyj, the administrative centre of the region with the same name, where they have been present since 1995. Now they have had to move to the small town of Matkivtsi where they are the guests of the Friars Minor Conventual and where they are able to help those fleeing from the hardest hit areas.
The war has not upset just the exterior life of the sisters: “I have changed from both the psychological and the spiritual perspective”, says the missionary sister. “This situation has raised some questions about my relationship with God and my life of faith”. On 24 February, Sister Svitlana was with her sisters in a small town near Vinnytsia where they were awoken in the morning by the din of explosions. After the first moment of perplexity, “Maybe it is an accident”, came the shock and the questions: “How is this possible?”, “Is this really happening?”. “The terrible suffering” that these questions raised is still there and becomes sharper when Sister Svitlana meets and listens to those who have stared death in the face: the wounded soldiers she visited in the military hospital and the refugees who saw people die during their journey. “Listening to them raises many questions to God, and among these, questions on the nature of evil. Before the war I knew that evil existed, but it did not touch our life as it does now. This is another reality in which God is also present, who suffers and is crucified… And God answered me with a question: ‘Do you want to enter into this reality with me?’. I do not want to run away from this, creating illusory worlds for myself. Rather, I want to enter it, to be there to do as much good as possible”.
In Matkivtsi, the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit carry out their service to the needy at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, along with the Friars Minor Conventual. During the first weeks of the war, they organized shelters for the people who were fleeing. With time, the flux of internally displaced people decreased, and the sisters thus decided to establish a small humanitarian aid centre. They distribute clothing, food and medicine to the refugees and also offer them their time, listening to them. “For them, it is important to know that they can come here and that they will be helped and listened to”, says Sister Svitlana. “And in this situation where evil is highly visible, it is very important to know that there is also a lot of good”.
The rhythm of community prayer has changed. The times change according to urgent tasks. “However, my personal prayer has become more intense. Sometimes I wake up at night and I pray. And the prayer becomes a cry: ‘Please do something!’. It is no longer praying or asking, it is wresting help from God.
Her sister, Sister Victoria, also speaks about a similar experience of prayer. At the beginning of the war, she was in Greece where she had been serving at the Jesuit Refugee Service since 2019. “In the first week, I just cried, read the news, called my friends and family in Ukraine and prayed day and night. I told them to write to me if they found themselves in a critical situation. One of my friends lived in one of the small towns in the region of Kyiv, which at the start of the war were occupied by the Russian military. For a while, she hid with her family in a basement and they did not know if they should flee or stay. She constantly asked me to pray. And I asked God: ‘Save them, help them flee, make them invisible’. When they were able to escape, I felt relieved”. In those moments, the need to pray became like the need to breathe. So she decided to return to Ukraine. Her sisters in Khmelnytskyj were against it because there was the risk of bombings throughout the country. “But I come from Crimea and I have already lost my homeland once. This is why I decided to return to Ukraine. I want to share with my people their fears, suffering and also their faith”, says the sister, confiding that she was surprised to see how many prayers are said and how many celebrations take place at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Matkivtsi. The displaced people who arrive often ask the sisters to pray with them or to pray for their loved ones who stayed behind in the hardest hit areas. “These last two months”, Sister Svitlana adds, “were also for us an intense time of evangelization, of witness that God is present here. My experience of God in the past gives me confidence that even if we will undergo great trials and suffering, and even if the price to pay will be very high, so too will be the reward. My experience tells me that God never plays with us and that if he allows something like this, it means that He knows that we will be able to overcome all this, and that He will carry us in his arms through all of this”.