On the front line with Ukrainian military chaplains

They cannot bear arms, but they are an essential part of the armed forces: they are the military chaplains of Ukraine. After years of volunteering in eastern Ukraine, they were finally has obtained official recognition. In March, Ukraine passed a law that legalizes the work of military chaplains and makes them officers. This means that chaplains are now under contract with the state and are members of the military.

“This law is a way to decommunize our institutions so that the state responds to the needs of the people,” said Father Andriy Zelinskyy, “It is a very democratic tradition based on the Ukrainian constitution.”

Zelinskyy is among those who worked on the law. He is a military chaplain and deputy head of the military chaplaincy department of the Patriarchal Curia of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As part of his job, he oversees 40 full-time chaplains and more than 100 volunteer priests who travel to the front lines regularly. In addition, Zelinskyy is the head of the supervisory board of “The Ukrainian Veterans Fundwhich helps soldiers and their families.

“Before this law, military chaplains were volunteers, which meant no one was responsible for their lives,” Zelinskyy said. “So if chaplains were injured, army personnel were under no obligation to help them. These issues required a legal solution.

Zelinskyy talks about his own experience: he had been serving soldiers since 2006. In 2014, when the war in Donbass started, he becomes the first military chaplain of the anti-terrorist operation zone. With the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, Zelinskyy ministered to all trouble spots, including Mariupol, Shyrokine, Pavlopil, and Donetsk. Some of these areas were nearly wiped out by the Russians during their 2022 invasion.

“Now Ukrainian society understands what a military chaplain is,” he said, “but in 2014 very few knew what it meant.”

OFFICIALIZE THE CHAPLAINS

Since chaplains were volunteers at that time, they had more freedom to move in and out of military hotspots. However, this also meant that they were unprotected and had no official status or salary. Some chaplains were hired as bookkeepers or other positions simply so they could stay with a military unit and provide them with spiritual services.

“Ukrainian society is post-Soviet, so many policy makers found it difficult to understand how religious institutions could be present in the military,” Zelinskyy said, “It’s funny because the church is part of the civil society The state responds to people’s needs, so if people think faith is important to them, then the state must create the conditions to exercise that need.

The expert refers to international practices given that in many democratic and secular states military chaplaincy has already existed for centuries. The new Ukrainian law follows these traditions and respects NATO standards.

The law introduces a special chaplaincy service within the Ministry of Defense, which investigates military personnel to determine their religious affiliation. The service then creates a certain number of mandates which are distributed among the different religious organizations according to the number of soldiers belonging to them. This is where churches and other spiritual institutions step in. They seek volunteers within their own organizations and prepare them spiritually. Later, these volunteers sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense and become members of the military chaplaincy. Finally, service management assigns chaplains to specific units.

This, according to Zelinskyy, profoundly changes the way chaplains work.

“We are going through a transformation because we are getting a new institute in our country, a new profession,” the expert said. “All of this takes time. Unfortunately, the implementation of the law takes place during the large-scale invasion of Russia. War is not the best context for launching new institutes, but it can also be a opportunity to find new people In his church, the priority is to work with seminary students so that they consider becoming chaplains in the future.

“It is important to differentiate our overall concept of military chaplaincy from that of Russia,” continued Zelinskyy, “In Russia, chaplaincy started much earlier than in Ukraine, but there it was transformed into an institute of political propaganda.This is a dangerous practice because the chaplain must only serve the well-being of the soldiers and their spiritual and religious needs.

“We are talking about a personal vocation, and it is a very beautiful vocation. In the front line, there is always a human being, and you can feel like a defender of this humanity. You are also a warrior, but you are armed with love for those you serve.

He cautions against seeing chaplains as party influencers or pro-government manipulators. Rather, chaplains are there to help soldiers heal spiritually and come back from war better men and women.

“The main job of the military chaplain is to save humanity from our warriors,” he added, “Victory for us is not only to drive the aggressor from our land, but also to create a society where a person feels their own freedom and dignity, and where a human being remains a human being.

A CHAPLAIN’S JOB

“Worship is only a small part of our duties,” the priest continued. It is one of four areas of work for military chaplains and the only one that is provided based on soldiers’ religious affiliation. For example, Christian chaplains must find and bring in imams to perform rituals for Muslim soldiers because they cannot perform them. Other duties are universal and apply to all service members, regardless of religion.

“A military chaplain should focus on ethical and educational activities,” Zelinskyy explained. “For example, when we observe the violence of Russian soldiers in the occupied territories of Ukraine, we understand that their humanity is in danger. Ukrainian soldiers are different. We have values ​​and we approach military duties in a civilized manner.

Chaplains also build bridges between the military and civil society and care for the families of veterans. And finally, chaplains consult with Army leaders on matters related to religion and spiritual well-being in the unit.

“Not everyone can be a military chaplain. It’s a tough service, and it requires mobility and a full-time commitment to the unit because you have to grow with it,” Zelinskyy said. “We are talking about a personal vocation, and it is a very beautiful vocation. In the front line, there is always a human being, and you can feel like a defender of this humanity. You are also a warrior, but you are armed with love for those you serve.

“Observing the beauty when you are on the front line is crucial: feeling the sunrise after the bombings or enjoying a cup of coffee when you can,” he continued, “Pain, violence and hate makes us stand up for ourselves, rejecting those feelings and crippling our humanity. I know what it is like to be a chaplain in a unit where there is a constant loss of life. As a chaplain, you live among the soldiers, and then they’re gone, and they take a part of you with them. It’s a very painful experience.”

Zelinskyy said it was crucial to recognize this vulnerability. At his church, priests gather at an annual gathering for military chaplains where they also talk with psychological experts. Chaplains attend pilgrimages together and seek support from each other and church leaders.

“We live in a society with a high demand for religion, and extreme stress and war only reinforce this,” added the expert, “I am surprised that it has taken so long to create the institute of religion. chaplaincy in Ukraine because it is very natural for our mentality. I believe that the Ukrainian army will always have a space for the human, so it will always need someone to protect this humanity.

There are at least 100 military chaplains serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, although the number could be much higher as it does not include volunteers and those who joined recently. At least three chaplains have been killed on the front line as of this writing.

Anna Romandach is an award-winning Ukrainian journalist.

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