WYD 2023: Russians and Ukrainians participate without crossing paths


On the stage in the Garden of the Empire Square in the Belém district of Lisbon , Mariia, 31, Natalia, 33, and Oksana, 28, sing a patriotic song in Ukrainian, holding the blue and yellow flag, in the admiring silence of the assembly.

They come from Ternopil, in the western part of their country devastated by the war imposed by Russia since February 24, 2022.

The three young women are among the approximately 300 young Ukrainians – 15 of whom met the pope on August 3 – participating in the World Youth Days (WYD) with the support of L’Œuvre d’Orient, a French Catholic charity.

In the midst of the pilgrims, the Ukrainian flag acts like a magnet. Many rush to take a photo, shouting “Slava Ukraïni!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”).

“We are warmly welcomed by everyone here, after a very long journey,” said Mariia.

“When the people hear us speaking Ukrainian, they come to us.”

The young woman travelled to Lisbon to “rebuild unity” with all the young Catholics from around the world, a unity that “constitutes the strength of Ukrainians.

“In our prayers, we constantly carry our families, our friends who remained in Ukraine,” she continued.

“We pray for all the young people who went to battle to defend our lives.”

“God will lead us to victory,” she asserts, with the cold gaze of those who are going through the worst.

While their city of origin is far from the frontlines, Natalia wants to be able to testify about her life disrupted by the Russian invasion and the “horrors” caused by the war.

“We receive internally displaced people, and we are bombed. We pray for our safety and raise our cries to Heaven,” said the young Ukrainian who participates in the World Youth Day to “encounter the living God again,” far from the death sown by the war.

“I want to return to Ukraine animated by this spirit of encounter,” Natalia said.

Reminding that Ukraine’s fight concerns all of Europe

In Lisbon, the 300 Ukrainians regularly carry out actions aimed at ‘not letting the world forget the evil that Russia has brought’.

“We must constantly remind the world that if Ukraine were not fighting on the front lines,” this evil could spread to “all of Europe,” Natalia said.

Standing beside the young people for whom he is responsible, the Greek-Catholic Father Roman Demush, with his black beard and penetrating gaze, echoes the young woman’s words.

“Speaking about the war, about those who suffer, is not a political question,” he declares, as if addressing potential critics. “It’s a matter of life.”

It is safe to say that the priest is protecting his young people. When asked about the presence of a group of young Russian Catholics at the World Youth Day, the young women let Father Demush respond on their behalf.

“It is essential not to add more suffering to our young people,” he said firmly.

Fear of the pilgrims’ reactions

A few hours earlier, a few kilometres from Belém, on the square in front of the Church of Our Lady of Mercy, a rare calm reigns during these World Youth Day events.

You have to pass through the first door of the building and have a keen eye to spot the information panel, recounting the history of this Manueline-style church.

The explanations are written in Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, and… Russian.

This is where the catechises are given for the 16 young people who came from Russia.

Although they all come from Moscow, only a small dozen are of Russian nationality, with the rest being foreign students. Here, the national flag is not displayed.

“We had it up on the first day,” said Vera, who asked to not be quoted under her real name.

“Most people reacted positively, treated us like human beings and not like Russians might be treated these days. But some had very negative reactions, and now we hesitate to display it.”

As a sign of the tension within the group, two young people cancelled their trip at the last moment, fearing reactions from other pilgrims.

Others did not obtain the necessary authorization from the Russian authorities. The war is never explicitly mentioned; it is a taboo subject. They barely talk about a “difficult situation.”

“Faith is the last thing that keeps us going,” confided another Russian pilgrim of Ukrainian origin, some of whose family still lives in Ukraine.

“We crossed paths with the Ukrainian pilgrims, but we didn’t dare to approach them; we were afraid of their reaction,” the young woman said.

“Still, I would like to try to talk to them.”

All “members of the universal Church”

Despite their fears, Vera does not regret having come to Lisbon.

“As young Catholics, it is also our mission to heal wounds through dialogue and encounter,” she said.

“We must build bridges for the future. Without taking major actions, we pray for peace as members of the universal Church.”

This attempt at outreach finds no response from the Ukrainian side, which indirectly opposes it.

“Let’s not worsen the wounds of the young Ukrainians,” said Father Demush.

“First and foremost, these young Russians must take a position and name the evil. If they do not, they endorse the abuses committed by their army.”

Such a public declaration could lead to legal action against the Russians upon their return, due to the repression carried out by Vladimir Putin’s regime, which has tightened its control over the media since the beginning of the war.

  • Matthieu Lasserre is a journalist at La Croix.
  • First published in La Croix. Republished with permission.
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