Fragments from a War Diary, Part #97
This evening I visited the Arch-cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually known just as the Latin Cathedral, in the Old Town in the centre of Lviv. Outside the front door there was a soldier keeping guard with an AK-74 assault rifle and laser sighting. The assault rifle had a wooden finish. The 5.45mm round taken by the AK-74 makes it a more reliable and accurate weapon than the AK-47, more appropriate for urban and close protection use. A series of black SUV’s had blocked off the street and the square in front of the cathedral.
Ukraine has a long Roman Catholic history that stems back to the influence of the Greek Catholic Church, and the Latin Cathedral dates from the fourteenth century when a church was first consecrated on this ground. The interior of the cathedral is a sumptuous display of Baroque and Neo-gothic architecture, and it is one of the finest and most intricately designed Catholic cathedrals I have ever seen, possibly on a par with the Abbey at Einsiedeln which dates to the ninth century. It is a blizzard of ornate stain glass windows, a booming hammer beam roof and intricate carvings, together with the most extraordinary frescoes celebrating the Christian tradition. In the Ukrainian Catholic tradition, although churches have seats, some people prefer to stand, showing some cultural overlap with the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is also normal for women to cover their heads.
I also met a foreign soldier this afternoon who had travelled from across the world with mountains of heavy kit in a three-day nonstop voyage including bravely traversing the border with a vehicle with essential supplies for civilian and military purposes in the face of apparently hostile questioning from the border guards. Foreigners are often used for the purposes of driving vehicles across borders because they are less likely to be subject to unusual and inexplicable delays for unusual and inexplicable purposes. This is one very important role the international community can maintain in Ukraine: keeping the local administration straight. Foreigners will not pay bribes (or they absolutely should not do so) and local officials will not generally ask for bribes from foreigners. So each member of the international community in our own way is adding to the culture of stamping down upon corruption that Ukraine so desperately needs to embrace if she is to join the Euro-Atlantic community of nations.
That heroic and courageous soldier is soon to proceed to the front line to place himself in harm’s way and thereby fight against the Russian aggression which we in the West are fighting with our hearts and our souls. It is always my privilege to meet such people and I wished him all God’s speed and asked him to stay safe - or at least alive. He said he would do his best.
This afternoon it was also my privilege to meet a well-intentioned and determined set of individuals whose goal is much the same as my own in Ukraine, namely to construct an umbrella organisation that coordinates the activities both of the volunteer community and the various international NGO’s that operate in Ukraine, providing legal, administrative and other advice; assistance with grant applications; and a variety of other functions and assistance that the NGO community in Ukraine so desperately needs if it is to develop into a more cohesive and mature international community presence that can serve Ukraine and her people effectively over what is inevitably going to be a long war with a protracted period of stalemate both over this coming winter and in all likelihood over the next years.
These decent people know Ukraine well and understand the challenges of providing effective international assistance to the country. They have the wisdom and courage to understand that many of the ways in which the international NGO sector has hitherto operated in Ukraine ought to change so that the increasingly limited resources available for humanitarian and other operations in Ukrainian military theatre can be more effectively spent. They are in the early stages of a start-up operation and they have not asked me to publicise their cause but suffice it to say that I am extremely sympathetic to what they are doing and I look forward to working with them, one way or another, into the future.
It is always pleasing to find and work with like-minded well-intentioned people in our struggle not just against Russian aggression but for Ukrainian civilisation and indeed for European values of peace, territorial integrity on the European continent, respect for international law and acknowledgment that the borders of Europe are now set and they cannot be unilaterally amended by acts of aggression on the part of any country’s military. Borders henceforth can only be changed by mutual peaceable agreement: something that is an important lesson for another part of the European polity at the current juncture, namely the Western Balkans. Russian interference in the Western Balkans will not be tolerated by the Euro-Atlantic institutions any more than it will be tolerated in Ukraine.
I strolled home from Church just as Mass began, not wanting to intrude upon the prayers and grieving of the congregation virtually all of whose members I know have suffered so much amidst this chaotic and cruel war. I could see the pain on the faces of those standing or sitting silently in prayer, thinking of the dead; of those missing; or of friends and relatives who have fled abroad, and who they do not know if or when they will ever see again. My views upon religion are private, and I never convey them in public. But what I can say is that faced with such suffering and despair, the institutions of religion may provide comfort and solace for the bereaved and those in mental agony and for that all Ukraine’s religious institutions ought to be admired and supported. Religion is playing a huge part in helping Ukraine’s people get by on a daily basis in this interminable and ghastly conflict.
As I walked home, I spotted some drunks roaring in a bar; some girls taking photos of each other in front of the town hall; an amputee soldier begging; and people supping coffee outside a branch of “Lviv Croissant”, a coffee shop that has taken Ukraine by storm. It was a beautiful evening with clear but cold skies as the sun descended over the horizon. In Lviv everything seems normal and pleasant - but it’s not, as that soldier with the AK-74 with a collimator sight on a weaver rail, standing sternly outside the Latin Cathedral, abruptly reminded me.