Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, is pictured in a recent photo at the apostolic nunciature in Kyiv, Ukraine. CNS photo/courtesy Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas

Pope Francis' ambassador: Staying in Ukraine during war a 'big, big grace' amid fears, frustrations

By  Gina Christian, OSV News
  • July 4, 2023

LVIV, Ukraine -- As Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine hit the 493-day mark June 30, OSV News sat down with Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, papal nuncio to Ukraine, to discuss his experiences of the war. Based in Kyiv, Visvaldas was visiting Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv for a conference and commencement exercises.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

OSV News: Having remained in Ukraine throughout this phase of the war — which began in 2014 with Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and the staging of separatist activities in Ukraine's east — how would you sum up your experiences so far?

Archbishop Kulbokas: I'm very thankful to God for having had this grace of staying in Ukraine. Spiritually, it has been a big, big grace. I would underscore that it was both a very difficult experience, but also a very intense and a very, very spiritually deep experience. Every moment, especially during the first weeks of this full-scale aggression, we were feeling the solidarity of all the world.

I was feeling it physically, especially when we found some time to try to sleep. We were in the corridors; we were choosing places that we considered would be more secure, in case there was a missile hitting our house. So in the morning, when I opened my eyes, the first experience was this energy, this love coming from all the world to Ukraine.

During that period, especially in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol (and other) regions — the regions that were suffering the most in that moment —I was feeling accompanied by so many people, by their prayers, their solidarity.

The experience was very intense, because you never knew what would happen the following second, the following minute. My prayer changed. I felt myself, and I continue to feel myself, in a different world — a new life, a different life.

OSV News: What do you recall specifically about the first days of the full-scale invasion?

Archbishop Kulbokas: We could physically feel when the war was approaching. That very first day (of the full-scale invasion), Feb. 24, 2022, we were hearing the shootings. The Russian groups were already present in Kyiv. I was 100 per cent sure that Kyiv would be occupied, so I was organizing everything in order to live under occupation. We changed all of our work (processes) for that kind of situation — and then, happily, it didn't arrive. I wanted to see for how long my presence would be effective for humanitarian reasons, and if not, maybe move out. But it was clear that it was much easier to remain than to go, because afterwards it would be impossible to go back.

In terms of work, it was actually much more difficult staying in Kyiv, because we had no time for anything. There were a lot of calls of solidarity, a lot of contacts. We were evaluating what to do, speaking with superiors. ... I remember that in the very first days, I was unable to follow the (war) situation. I had no time to follow the news.

Then the month of March started and we were hearing the artillery — constantly hearing incoming (fire), and Ukrainian artillery responding. In our small church community, we were also doing physical exercises in order to be prepared if the house is hit by debris — how to react in 20 seconds, what we should do in 30 seconds, when we should already be outside. I would say it was military preparation on how to act.

OSV News: What is daily life like for you now? Are you and your staff still on high alert for attacks?

Archbishop Kulbokas: Now it's less intense; we are already used to it. But we have three religious sisters in the north, and a week ago, when a missile was passing, one of them said, "Ah, this missile was different. And then I checked two hours later on the internet, and saw that it was a different missile. We were used to Iskanders, Kalibrs and Kinzhals. The sister said, "No, it was a different one," and I learned it was an X101. From the sound and the vibration of this missile, which was passing not far away, she understood it was a different model. So our religious sisters are now experts in weapons. It's our life. Incredible.

Life is much easier now in Kyiv, but I know that life in areas like Kherson or Mykolaiv (is not). People are constantly under shelling, without water, without energy supplies, without food. When they receive bread and water, they are so happy. What can I say about those living the the occupied territories? It's a tremendously (difficult) situation.

Every morning when we celebrate our holy Mass, we pray with them. We ask them to pray also for us, because their suffering is a part of our prayer.

We also pray for Fr. Ivan Levytskyy and Fr. Bohdan Geleta (both kidnapped by Russian forces in November 2022). We don't know anything about their whereabouts. We don't have any information; we just continue to pray for them.

OSV News: What are some of the challenges you're now facing in your ministry in Ukraine?

Archbishop Kulbokas: We have a lot of frustration because humanitarian corridors were impossible to organize in order to evacuate people or bring them food and water. We didn't manage to receive permission from the Russian military authorities. Jesus says in the Gospel to give food, give water, visit prisoners, give clothes to the ones who have nothing, but we are unable to do this (due to Russia's actions). It's a big tragedy.

What is also shocking is that not all the churches are united in condemning this war. That's a big problem, because I would say all religions, and also people without religion, should be at least morally united (against Russia's war).

So I see this lack of human unity among the churches of the world, and that means what we are doing is not enough. Maybe we are too diplomatic, speaking in our dialogues, because the results are very negative.

OSV News: As a Lithuanian national, whose nation was part of the former Soviet Union, how do you view the authoritarian Putin regime's war against Ukraine?

Archbishop Kulbokas: I myself was born when Lithuania was still in the Soviet Union, so I have this experience. I was 13 or 14 when, as I imagine Russians are now, I was believing what the Soviet government was saying — that we were the best country in the world, we were the only ones wanting peace and all the world was trying to destroy the Soviet Union. We believed it because the propaganda was so strong. ... My mother told me what her experience was in former times, before the Soviet Union came, so this has helped me to understand the consequences of such a world.

It's not only politics; it's a kind of aggression which damages all lives, not only some. And now, the consequences are much, much larger and much, much deeper, so it's much easier to understand what Ukrainians are fearing (from Russia).

Ukrainians just want to live with their families. They know that their country has problems, but most of all, they want to live and organize their own country.

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