Ukrainian priest says mass, then heads to war & More News


Father Vitalii Kester, outside St. Mykolai the Miracle Worker after a Sunday morning Mass for a handful of parishioners in the eastern Ukrainian village of Kostiantynivka on July 3.
Father Vitalii Kester, outdoors St. Mykolai the Miracle Worker after a Sunday morning Mass for a handful of parishioners within the japanese Ukrainian village of Kostiantynivka on July 3. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — Father Vitalii Kester’s Sunday routine isn’t what it used to be, earlier than war drove most of his congregation away and he began sporting Army pants beneath his robes and splitting his day between one Mass at church and one other with troopers on the battlefields of japanese Ukraine.

But on this July Sunday, the sabbath began out as usually as life may be for a war-zone priest main a front-line church. Kester, 46, greeted the trickle of parishioners coming for the ten o’clock service at St. Mykolai the Miracle Worker, a log church topped with onion-shaped domes. The sound of artillery is sort of fixed on this principally deserted metropolis 11 miles from the closest Russian troops.

“Glory to Jesus Christ,” he stated to Igor Ryzenko, including, “Do you have any fuel containers I can borrow?” as a result of scrounging gasoline and water has additionally change into regular right here.

“I think so. Let me look at home,” stated Ryzenko, a fighter in a neighborhood militia.

Rural rhythms upended by war on the highway to Ukraine’s entrance strains

Inside, Kester started to say the Mass for a crowd of simply half a dozen, nothing shut to the 20 or 30 who would have been there earlier than two-thirds of town fled to security. In the midst of their “Hallelujahs,” a distant explosion sounded that, not like many of the booms, induced a number of of them to lookup.

Residents right here have discovered the distinction between outgoing Ukrainian artillery fireplace and an incoming Russian strike. Something had hit shut, as was evident by the plume of smoke rising a half-mile or so north of the church.

Kester didn’t pause. The daylight fell throughout his robes in stripes as a result of boards have been nailed over the home windows, not to defend the church from the Russians who’re steadily closing in in town, however from the Russian-sympathizing neighbors who already encompass them.

“Some people would break in,” Ryzenko stated after the service. He stated he helped construct the Greek Catholic church a number of years in the past, regardless of a petition opposing building by native Russian Orthodox clergymen who dismissed the rival denomination as a “cult.”

The stress displays a bigger cut up between Christian factions that has led many to accuse the church buildings nonetheless affiliated with Moscow as siding with Russia in its combat to take over the complete japanese Donbas area. In this closely Russian-speaking a part of the nation, attending a Ukrainian church can really feel like worshiping behind enemy strains.

“I have never set foot in a Russian Orthodox church and never will,” stated Ryzenko, who has the Ukrainian trident image tattooed on his biceps. “I know the lies and propaganda they spread.”

Of those that have remained in Kostiantynivka, many are the “waiters,” Kester stated, those that will likely be joyful to welcome the international troops.

He took off his embroidered gold gown and left the church in an olive drab cassock, marking his shift from parish priest to military chaplain. He was making ready to take the sacrament to the troops.

“There are two wars going on here now,” he stated. “The fight for our land and the fight for the soul.”

Kester made a cease as his home, the place he and his spouse, Natalia, ate a fast lunch of sandwiches and low. (Greek Catholic clergymen may be married.) She tries to go together with him on his Sunday journeys to the entrance — “It is easier to go than to not know that he is okay” — however at this time she had to keep behind to accumulate water.

After days of dry faucets, a muddy trickle had begun operating the evening earlier than. The couple was filling the tub and each container they may discover whereas the system was useful.

“Without electricity, we can manage, but without water, it’s going to be a catastrophe,” Natalia stated. The couple have been decided to keep by means of 4 months of war, however she is watching the Russians strategy. Referring to a city 24 miles away, she stated, “If they take Avdiivka, that will be our last call to leave.”

Kester gathered the package he wants to have a good time Mass in a fight unit: the flask of wine, Communion bread, a wooden-handled brush to sprinkle holy water. Also physique armor and a helmet.

He has been a priest since 2005 and a navy chaplain since 2015. In one among his first engagements, he was with troops preventing for management of the Donetsk airport. On a shelf, he retains a statue of Jesus that was nicked by bullets in that battle.

“I blessed the soldiers going in and coming out, but they wouldn’t let me into the airport itself,” he stated. “A chaplain’s job is to reassure them, not give them someone else to worry about.”

He tailors his preaching and his counseling to a variety of troopers on the entrance, those that are fierce nationalists and people who simply wanted a job, the believers and the nonbelievers.

His expertise with religious dynamics in wartime tells him that “many more of them will be believers by the end.”

Kester loaded his Renault wagon and set off on the semi-ruined roads of the japanese entrance, a crucifix swinging wildly from his rearview mirror as he swerved round shell craters and roadblocks. Ukrainian navy authorities requested that the exact location of the unit he was heading for this week not be revealed. It was a mechanized regiment that had been concerned within the preventing round Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, each front-line cities which have fallen to the Russians in latest days.

“We’ve been praying for God to protect us,” stated Oksana Vorobiova, a medic, greeting Kester like an outdated good friend. “How are you? How is your flu?”

“I’m okay now,” he stated. “My knees are bothering me a bit.”

“Hello, Father,” stated Mykhailo Skorbach, an ambulance driver. “Since you blessed our vehicle at Easter, we have had no accidents. Only some dents.”

Four service members arrived to assist arrange a wood desk beneath a tree, out of view of Russian concentrating on drones, and put together it as an altar.

Kester pulled his brilliant vestment over his navy cassock, and Skorbach positioned a brand-new inexperienced helmet on the desk beside the candle. A Ukrainian good friend shipped it from the United States. “Will you bless my new helmet, Father?”

And, with the odor of frying onions drifting over from the large iron camp range, the priest raised his hand and commenced his second Sunday mass.


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