It is February 24, 2022, at 5:36 AM in the morning. The city is called Fastiv, and it is located approximately 60 kilometers away from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Father Michał Romaniw, a Dominican friar from Ukraine, who has been running the house of St. Martin de Porres for street children and various other charity projects in Ukraine since 2005, vividly remembers that date. “That was when the shelling began,” he says.

Determination to stand against evil and a heart of gold

His voice is calm and confident, radiating competence. It becomes immediately evident that you are conversing with an experienced and dedicated individual. Within minutes of speaking to Fr. Michał, it becomes apparent that carefree smiles, fun, and jokes have no place in the conversation. In a situation where long-range missiles are demolishing civilian neighborhoods, there is no room for humor.

There are no surprises here. Fr. Romaniw has been organizing charitable aid for many years. His first initiative in Ukraine was establishing a shelter for Ukrainian children facing difficult circumstances in 2005. Since then, his charitable operations have significantly expanded. That’s why he was prepared when the Russian artillery initiated its barbaric war. While most Ukrainians, like the rest of the world, did not believe in the winter of 2022 that an unprovoked, full-scale war of aggression was possible in contemporary Europe, the organizations led by Michał Romaniw were ready for the worst, and unfortunately, the worst did happen.

In the photo from the left: wife of the Polish ambassador to Ukraine Monika Kapa-Cichocka, Michał Kurtyka, father Michał Romaniw.

Even then, essential supplies such as food and other necessities for surviving in harsh conditions were diligently collected. – We were aware of what could happen. We gathered supplies. In fact, we are continuing our work with the same efficiency as before the war – says Fr. Romaniw.

The first major initiative, initiated after the war began, involved finding shelter for children who were evacuated from Mariupol, a city that no longer exists. Despite the challenging circumstances, the operations of the organizations led by the Dominican friar persisted. The extensive charity work carried out during peacetime facilitated the establishment of suitable working standards and methods, which became even more crucial during the war. That’s why Fr. Romaniw asserts that his current efforts “are not drastically different from what he did before the conflict”. They are simply more intense, effective, and, most importantly, essential.

However, the conditions have become considerably more difficult, extremely difficult, in fact. Nevertheless, Fr. Romaniw remains resolute and unwavering. – Fear exists during war, but so does hope. Adrenaline surges, but fulfilling one’s duty is of utmost importance – he states.

More than just the will to survive – the will to fight for values

Fr. Michał, being a direct witness and one of the catalysts of this phenomenon, offers a detailed account of the remarkable national unity within Ukrainian society in the face of the threat. This “Ukrainian unity”, marked by the dissolution of internal divisions, has fostered genuine solidarity among individuals who are always willing to support one another. Each day, Fr. Romaniw can rely on the dedication of over one hundred volunteers who gather, store, distribute, and provide care for essential supplies like food, clothing, and drinking water. This endeavor extends beyond mere relief efforts and improving living conditions – it often involves saving lives. The unity among the public is not only necessary for defending the country but also the wellspring of numerous noble acts, with people forsaking selfishness to support one another.

The shortest way Fr. Romaniw describes his operations in Ukraine is through the Latin word “recreatio,” which translates to “reconstruction” or “restoration” (also used in theology). He perceives it as the “creation of a secure space for people to come together.”

In the photo from the right: Father Michał Romaniw, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Ukraine Bartosz Cichocki, Michał Kurtyka.

Achieving this goal necessitates organizational work and, in a sense, a cultural endeavor, bringing people together under the St. Martin de Porres Foundation and orchestrating their efforts. The “reconstruction” represents an aspiration to return to a state of safety, which can only be achieved after the definitive end of the war. Nonetheless, Fr. Romaniw already contemplates establishing a foundation that will facilitate the further growth of the community and organically foster improved future social relations in Ukraine. He was prepared even before the first shots were fired, and he continues to contemplate the future, devising long-term plans and objectives.

In extremis: how to save others when you are in danger, too

Fastiv, being close to Kyiv, was one of the regions that came under attack first. Consequently, a massive exodus took place as people fled Fastiv to safeguard their lives. However, Fr. Romaniw chose to remain behind to care for those who, due to various circumstances, were unable to leave. – I stayed in Fastiv because it was necessary at the time – he states. This decision entailed directly risking his own life, which, considering the circumstances we are discussing, can be considered nothing short of heroic. Yet, when asked if he sees himself as a hero, his response is brief – The real heroes are our soldiers. They are the ones who inspire us.

The world rightfully acknowledges the high morale of the Ukrainian people, which finds validation in the Cossack myth, and this remains true for both those on the front lines and the civilian population. Medals, awards, and distinctions are far from anyone’s mind. Instead, people are simply acting, fighting, and working together. Just as the generals lead combat operations, Fr. Romaniw organizes social aid, striving to improve the living conditions for as many individuals as possible.

Since 2005, Fr. Romaniw’s operations have continuously expanded. Currently, there are several dozen community and aid centers, the Home for Street Children remains active, kindergartens are open, and buildings have been repurposed to provide shelter for civilians. The parish of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, along with the associated St. Martin’s Foundation, serves as the “headquarters” for these initiatives. This organizational structure has established one of the largest aid systems in this region of Europe, which continues to operate efficiently regardless of the circumstances.

During our conversation, Fr. Romaniw informed me that a truck had just arrived from Italy, carrying essential supplies. Aid has been arriving from various European countries, with a significant portion coming from Poland due to Fr. Romaniw’s geographical proximity and connections. Both non-governmental organizations, state authorities, and citizens have contributed. Upon arrival, the supplies are stored and further distributed. It could be said that Ukrainian unity has fostered European unity in this regard.

o. Michał Romaniw
Father Michał Romaniw

The conflict breeds a need to unite in the end

Fr. Michał Romaniw, as a Catholic priest belonging to the Dominican Order, operates within the predominantly Orthodox country of Ukraine, which encompasses both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. It is worth noting that the Russian patriarch, Kirill, has openly and strongly supported the aggression of Vladimir Putin, publicly endorsing him. We all remember his statement: “Russia has never attacked anyone…”. The question arises: how should the Ukrainian Orthodox Church respond to this delicate situation? Fr. Romaniw emphasizes the urgent need for absolution and reconciliation. However, we should not deceive ourselves into expecting any changes within the Russian Orthodox Church without a corresponding change in the Russian government. It is evident that the Russian Orthodox Church aligns itself with the desires of President Putin, a man who faces accusations of war crimes and has exerted control not only over the country but also over the Orthodox Church.

While the unity of the Ukrainian people was rapidly achieved, the reconciliation between the Ukrainian and Russian churches and nations may take many generations. Nonetheless, these efforts are ongoing, happening in the here and now. During our initial phone conversation, when I asked Fr. Romaniw about the situation, he shared a statement that has stayed with me: “We are under fire.” I was calling from Warsaw, a place of relative safety. It gave me pause…

It is crucial to acknowledge that aid is coming from Poland and across Europe. While Fr. Romaniw’s operations do not involve supplying the Ukrainian army with F-16 fighter planes, we must recognize that amidst the predominant focus on military aid in the global media, it is equally vital to provide clothing, food, and shelter to the war’s victims. This noble effort is precisely what the parish of Fr. Romaniw, along with all his centers and organizations, is undertaking. One can demonstrate heroism on the front lines while defending lives, but supporting or saving lives elsewhere is equally significant. The residents of numerous regions in Ukraine, not just Fastiv near Kyiv, owe their warm meals, clothing, shelter, water, and, most importantly, hope to Michał Romaniw, which continually strengthens them.

Restoring the meaning of “Never again!”

During the Orange Revolution and the Maidan protests, Ukrainian society emphatically expressed its desire to be part of Western culture. This aspiration, which can be seen as a primary reason for the war, has likely not gone unnoticed by the autocratic dictator Putin, who may well be familiar with the words of Zbigniew Brzeziński, a Polish strategist and advisor to US presidents (and the father of the current US ambassador in Poland), who stated, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be.” However, it is likely that Putin interpreted these words literally or acted out of cowardice.

The Western culture, which cherishes Christianity as a significant tradition, has managed to reject violence and staunchly oppose the killing of innocent people. Every individual’s life is considered valuable. This stands in stark contrast to Russia’s actions, which involve the killing and raping of civilians, sending masses of unprepared recruits directly to the front lines, executing their own soldiers, and destroying critical infrastructure. Their attacks extend beyond military targets, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians as well.

However, individuals like Fr. Michał Romaniw demonstrate that violence can be confronted with human solidarity, respect for freedom, and love. People come together to share not just proverbial but tangible support, including bread, from Poland and across Europe. Fr. Romaniw and his volunteers tirelessly deliver aid to those who have been profoundly affected by the painful weight of history.

Maciej Skomorowski