Thousands gather to honor martyrs old and new in Ukraine
STRADCH, Ukraine • Thousands gathered at a beloved pilgrimage site in Ukraine to honor martyrs slain in Soviet times, while mourning soldiers killed in Russia's current full-scale invasion of their land.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the global Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, was the principal celebrant at a June 26 Divine Liturgy on the grounds of Stradch, a Marian spiritual center in the Lviv region with a rich history of religious devotion.
The liturgy marked the date in 1941 when Father Mykola Konrad, pastor of Stradch's church, and layman Volodymyr Pryima, the parish's cantor, were shot by retreating Soviet troops as they returned from bringing holy Communion to a sick woman in the village. Both Father Konrad and Pryima, who are buried at Stradch, were among the 30 martyrs beatified by St. John Paul II during his 2001 pastoral visit to Ukraine.
Several armed Ukrainian ground patrol troops and local police officers guarded the annual pilgrimage, which had been canceled last year due to Russia's invasion.
Archbishop Shevchuk – who was joined by close to half of Ukraine's Catholic bishops, as well as Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S. – said he wished to "thank God and the Ukrainian army that we have this day, that we are alive, that we can come together here today."
He lauded "the men and women who fight with their blood, and who fight this very moment" to repel Russia's aggression, which began in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and the fomenting of separatist activities in the country's Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
From 2014-2021, an estimated 14,200-14,400 Ukrainians, both soldiers and civilians, were killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, investigators have documented approximately 80,000 war crimes committed by Russia. In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children's rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation and transfer of close to 19,400 children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.
Ukraine has filed charges of genocide by Russia with the International Court of Justice – and has called to add charges of ecocide, given the June 6 destruction of Ukraine's Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in Kherson, which drained one of the world's largest capacity reservoirs and caused catastrophic environmental damage. The nonprofit Institute for the Study of War, based in Washington, assessed that Russia was likely behind the attack.
Addressing a group of bereaved Ukrainian military families – many of whom wept throughout the liturgy – Archbishop Shevchuk said, "Your tears are our tears. … We are crying for fallen heroes who died for Ukraine, (and for) the gift of freedom to pray."
Following holy Communion, the families in turn presented the archbishop with several black kerchiefs symbolizing their grief.
Reflecting on the deaths of Father Konrad and Pryima, Archbishop Shevchuk said while perhaps their attackers "thought they were brave … it was vice versa. The martyr is the victor, the one who wins, who overcomes with the strength of God."
A martyr is "a witness to Christ's resurrection," said Archbishop Shevchuk. "This kingdom of God is among us. … The Lord is ready to give us all strength (needed) to overcome the enemy. God calls us to do the impossible in him.
At the same time, "God calls us to personal effort to secure our freedom, our victory," he said. "So please ask yourselves before the face of God, and before the face of the fallen soldiers, 'What have I done and what am I doing every day for Ukraine to achieve victory? … Where does God call me to be? What do I do to reveal the power of God in the victory of Ukraine?'"
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.