War and (A Just) Peace in Ukraine

Two years ago, in February 2022, we gathered here in this Basilica for the first time after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began for a moleben, a Byzantine-rite prayer service during which we pled for peace in Ukraine. I remember the church was filled to the last seat, and there was an atmosphere of unreserved solidarity with Ukrainians and righteous anger over Russia’s unprovoked invasion into the territory of a sovereign neighboring nation. The war occupied the headlines in all the media in America and the world. I am sure that many of those who prayed here on that day two years ago were hoping for a quick cessation of the war. The sheer insanity of Russia’s actions, it seemed, would not allow it to last for too long.

Today, two years have passed, and here we are again, still praying for peace in Ukraine. Much has happened in these two years, and much seems to have changed in the world since then. Ukraine no longer dominates media headlines, certainly at least not every day; and I have met people here in America and other countries of the world who were surprised to hear about this war again: is it still such a huge problem? Yes, dear friends: the dire, brutal reality of the Russian-Ukrainian war remains with us. Ukraine is still at war—at war for its very existence. Every day, every hour, every minute—in this very moment!— soldiers are being killed on the front; civilians—women, children, senior persons—die from missiles, bombs, and drones; whole cities, towns, and villages are being razed to the ground. We have learned many terrifying lessons over these two years of war. Numerous war crimes committed by the Russian troops have been uncovered and documented. Ukrainian civilian infrastructure—including hospitals, schools, theaters, churches, and cultural centers—has been systematically targeted by Russian missiles. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin and one of his helpers, accusing them of mass deportations of Ukrainian children into the Russian territory. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed or injured, and the number of refugees and displaced persons exceeds ten million.

With all this destruction and suffering, it is amazing how resilient Ukrainians remain. The words of today’s reading from Second Corinthians can describe this so well. It says:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies (2 Cor 4:8-11).

Ukrainians are not only alive. They are unbroken. I remember how inspired and humbled we were to see this when I was in Ukraine last summer together with Fr. Andrij for an academic conference in Lviv. That Ukrainians’ resilience finds strong support from their international partners and friends is encouraging. The cooperation between Notre Dame and the Ukrainian Catholic University is a precious example of such support. As a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, I would like to say a word of thanks to this university—to its students, faculty, and staff—for all that they have done and are doing to support Ukraine. I say this on behalf of my sisters and brothers in faith in Ukraine and in the diaspora.

That said, I know—alas!—too well that there is regrettably still a significant deficit of knowledge and understanding regarding the conflict’s roots, history, and background in America and around the world. What troubles me most is that churches and ecumenical boardrooms at times seem to have even less a sense of urgency and awareness than political actors concerning these current events in the center of Europe that shatter not only the global political order but the very foundations of Christian morality. Too easily some church leaders and theologians issue calls for peace, dialogue, and compromise without understanding the whole scary truth about this war. This war is not a war about territories, and not just one more local showdown between two countries at loggerheads with each other. It is a war about God-given human dignity and human freedom, a war against tyranny in one of its worst forms in history—in a form that reproduces many features of twentieth-century fascism and totalitarianism. This is a war in which the aggressor publicly, in the plain sight of the whole world, denies its victims the right to exist by claiming that they are not a sovereign nation and by denouncing as a “Nazi” everyone who says that he or she is a Ukrainian, or wants to be a Ukrainian and to speak Ukrainian. Thus, Russia leaves Ukrainians with no other choice but self-defense—self-defense against a neocolonial aggression with clear genocidal tendencies.

So often today I feel reminded of the words of prophet Jeremiah: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). This is why the message that I want to convey today, now directed to every Christian in the world, is the sense of urgency and a call for resilience after two years of this war. The two years of this war have taught Ukrainians to be wary and weary of words—even beautiful words. We need not just unspecified and general calls for peace (that sometimes sound so cheap) but a serious discussion about just war and just peace, about the right to and the limits of self-defense, about the tyrannies and ideologies of the twenty-first century, about human dignity confronting a resurging totalitarianism, and finally about new vicious methods of covering up politics with religion. It is grotesque when contemporary Russia is sometimes presented as a bulwark of religiosity and traditional values. When shall we see at last that, with the Russian Orthodox Church being an active ideological promoter of the war, the very credibility of Christianity is at stake and that the ability to “test the spirits,” according to the first epistle of John, to discern between genuine religious faith and political propaganda disguised as religion, is particularly needed?

And above all we need faith. The faith in Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, the One who shows the way from suffering to ascension. This faith can give us not only hope but also confidence and the strength to act. Precisely as we heard today from the second epistle to Corinthians: “Let light shine out of darkness.” And I conclude by adding: Let us be agents of this divine light—agents of uncompromised truth and peace, peace with strong sinews and peace with justice.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This homily was originally preached at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on February 24, 2024. Fr. Avvakumov wishes to thank his co-minister Fr. Andrij Hlabse, S.J. for celebrating the Byzantine Divine Liturgy on that day and for sharing his thoughts and comments on the homily.

Featured Image: Maidan's Art project posyer by Russetska 2015-4-59 posted by Paintgol; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Yury Avvakumov

Yury Avvakumov is associate professor in the deptartment of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is a priest of the Greco-Catholic (Ukrainian Catholic) Church

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