Sisters in Ukraine: Choosing life in the midst of war
Sister Teodora Shulak, Superior General of the Redemptorist sisters, shares her reflections and her interior struggles in the face of Russia's ongoing war in her home country, Ukraine.
“The spiritual component of every person is very sensitive. Obviously, in a war there are numerous and varied interior experiences, many conflicting emotions and feelings, in a way that at times, especially at the beginning of the war, made it difficult to pray”, admits Sister Teodora Shulak, a Ukrainian religious sister who was elected Superior General of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer in October 2022.
Her women’s congregation has been active in Ukraine since 1998, and the Ukrainian province has five communities with 26 religious. They help the Redemptorist priests in the parishes, working with young people and children, giving catechesis, and organizing summer camps, pilgrimages, and retreats.
Surviving in and with Jesus
The war has sorely tried the lives of these women religious, who are all under 50 years old. “It seemed to us”, continues Sister Teodora, “that we had been abandoned to ourselves, with our feelings of fear, anger, and pain. At times we were frightened by the feeling that hatred had managed to worm itself into our hearts. Sometimes I experienced almost a sort of split: on the one hand, during community prayer, I would thank and praise God, and then, back in my room, I would experience the most conflicting emotions that I could not manage. One day I realized that this separation was not Christian and had nothing to do with our God: Jesus rose with His wounds; He knows what it means to bear these wounds and experience pain until death. I understood that I could survive this tragedy only in Him and with Him”.
This interior journey led the religious sister to entrust all her painful emotions and feelings to God, confiding the prayer she tearfully addressed. “Lord, I belong to you!”, she would pray almost screaming. “You created us for life and we are persecuted by death. You called us to become living hope for so many people, and we ourselves are covered by the shadow of death and fear”.
The experience of interior life taught the missionary to remain in silence after praying, in order to give God time to respond to her request. “I said, ‘I will wait, as long as it takes, but do not leave me alone in all that I am living’”, she recalls.
Need for discernment
The war requires constant discernment, not only for the interior but also for the pastoral life. Sister Teodora, who was Provincial Superior of the Redemptorist Sisters in Ukraine from 2013 until October 2022, recounts that after the Russian invasion, they found themselves rethinking their work so as to better serve the Church and the people in the new situation. Already in March, some 10 religious who spoke German and/or English went abroad (Germany, Austria, Ireland) to help out in the Catholic facilities that had welcomed Ukrainian refugees. For more than six months, they helped their compatriots compile documents, visited the sick and wounded in hospitals, and helped the children of refugees in local schools.
Another aspect of their work is psychological assistance to victims of war. Various sisters who had obtained specializations in psychology and psychotherapy decided to take additional specialized courses so as to be able to help people overcome their grief and trauma. “In some of our convents”, explains the missionary, “we also welcomed refugees, and among these was also a Tatar Muslim family. Their baby was born while they were staying with the sisters. And then they published a very touching post on Facebook about the fact that they never would have thought that they would be able to experience this relationship between Christians and Muslims so closely”.
Mission in Chernihiv
The Missionary Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer also have a community in Chernihiv, the capital of the region of the same name, in northern Ukraine.
In the first months of war, the sisters were unable to continue their mission in Chernihiv. They were forced to leave the city which had been surrounded and bombed by Russian soldiers. When they returned in April, they found devastation. Sister Teodora, who was specialized in psychotherapy, also went. “We went to visit the people in the places that had been most heavily hit”, she shares. “People had lost their loved ones, their homes, everything. By dialoguing and listening, we were able to help them overcome some of the depression and panic attacks. These people are truly in need of knowing that someone is close to them, someone who can offer hope and faith when they waver”.
The missionary adds that although anger is a natural response to the injustice and suffering experienced, it is important not to allow anger to become the predominant emotion and that the people know how to choose life even in small gestures, the way one woman she met in Chernihiv did. This woman planted a wonderful garden around her house, which had been completely destroyed by bombs. The woman said to the young religious sisters, “I focus on the smallest things in life. Look at this small plant that just sprouted from the earth. It will grow and it will live”. Sister Teodora says that for her, this was a witness of what it means to choose life.