Ukraine’s top army chaplain speaks about state of the war at Fordham: ‘Evil must be called evil’
News from the front line was not good last week as Andriy Zelinskyy, S.J., the Ukraine army’s chief chaplain, spoke to an audience of primarily R.O.T.C. student-cadets at Fordham University: A mercenary army recently restocked with “recruits” from Russian prisons was closing a circle around Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, while in Washington a growing number of U.S. Congress members expressed skepticism about what they called the Biden administration’s “blank check” approach to support for Ukraine.
After speaking to the cadets on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx on March 2, Father Zelinskyy said Ukrainians understand that there is more than one active front to defend in this 21st century European war. “We know there are presidential elections coming up,” he said, pointing out that Russia, the United States and Ukraine will all host elections in 2024. The fight for U.S. and European public opinion may matter as much as the battle for Bakhmut, Kherson or Zaporizhzhia.
Father Zelinskyy’s message to Fordham’s ROTC cadets and to U.S. Army chaplains was simple: Fight for the truth to be known about the war in Ukraine.
Commenting on rising sentiment that Ukraine may have no choice but to accept some loss of territory in joining negotiations for peace, he said, “If you’re ready to sacrifice thousands of Ukrainians, then let’s make peace, OK. But this is not a peace. Peace requires justice.”
He said that in Ukraine, “we fight for truth, we fight for life, we fight for survival.” He wondered how negotiations could begin when the Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s “plan” for Ukraine means “there’s no Ukraine and no Ukrainian nation; they have to be Russian, and all those who are against that have to be exterminated.” He pointed out that Russia has already established re-education and “filtration” camps for the common people it pulls out of Ukraine.
Related: Two Jesuits report from the Ukraine front and ‘Do not forget us’: Catholics in Ukraine mark a year of war
Father Zelinskyy was on a hastily arranged four-day respite from the war in a visit to New York to speak to Fordham’s cadets and other R.O.T.C. students from the New York area. On March 3 he made another presentation to cadets at West Point.
His message to these young people, and to the professional U.S. Army chaplains also on hand at Fordham’s Keating Hall, was simple: Fight for the truth to be known about the war.
“Evil must be called evil,” he told the cadets, marveling at some of the atrocities he has seen perpetrated by Russian troops at the front, in communities they have occupied and in the air above Mariupol, when a theater full of noncombatants, mostly families with children, was deliberately targeted by Russian pilots.
“Things are happening on a scale which I could not imagine,” Father Zelinskyy said.
Vladimir Putin’s “plan” for Ukraine means “there’s no Ukraine and no Ukrainian nation; they have to be Russian, and all those who are against that have to be exterminated.”
He asked, “How are humans capable of such things in the 21st century, after crying out loud, ‘Never again’? Goodness; something’s wrong. We missed something at a certain point, and we didn’t notice how we missed it. So the threat remains. This was possible once; it can be possible again.”
As a political scientist, he has been intensely contemplating the alleged war crimes and other acts of cruelty attributed to Russian soldiers. “This is the first time that we have the empirical evidence of the damage an authoritarian state can do to a human person,” he said.
“[They are] so unfree as to be afraid to be human. That’s how I see them: so afraid of their humanity that they become instruments.”
And, speaking after his talk with the students, he pronounced himself astonished by “the attitude of the Russians to the Russian soldiers.” Not only do they appear to have little regard for the lives of the common soldier, throwing poorly equipped and poorly trained conscripts into combat at Bakhmut, for example, but he said that Russian officers show even less regard for their soldiers after they are killed.
He said in some instances the Russian army is not transporting the bodies of their war dead home, but incinerating them where they fell. “They just burn them, which means their relatives won’t know where their husbands, sons and fathers were killed.”
Andriy Zelinskyy, S.J.: The war on Ukraine is “a global threat; it’s a threat to humanity, to our history, to our civilization…. that’s the reason why I’m asking not to give up on truth.”
Father Zelinskyy said he gets very emotional talking about such deeds because “I never expected human civilization to reach this point during my lifetime.” But he argued that it is important to not turn away from the ugliness that the war has produced, but to confront it.
“This is a global threat; it’s a threat to humanity, to our history, to our civilization…. that’s the reason why I’m asking not to give up on truth. For as long as we are ready to seek the truth, we will be able to [resolve] any challenges. We will get through and get out of this conflict.
“But if we try to pacify the truth,” he said, “to try to say, ‘Okay, let’s forget about the pain, about the suffering and let’s construct something that’s important [for serving] our interests and our comfort,’ then tomorrow, we’re going to live in a very scary place. This war is against humanity, foremost.”
It was a theme he frequently turned to while speaking to the cadets: “Don’t give up on the truth,” he told them. “Don’t give up on justice, on what’s really good. Don’t stop contemplating the beauty of the human heart. Stay human. That’s our responsibility.”
In addition to his work as chief military chaplain for the Ukraine army, where he is essentially helping construct an army-wide chaplaincy program on the fly, Father Zelinskyy is an author, university lecturer and advisor for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.
Of his primary trade, he said, “Military chaplaincy is a very humble ministry.
“It’s not about commanding great forces. It’s not about tactical or strategic achievements. It’s about a very humble, but very protective mission:” reflecting a person’s humanity back to them under extraordinary circumstances. On the battlefield, he said, a person’s best or worst qualities are revealed.
“You can touch a human heart in a very special situation, very specific context. And… in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of combat, you can be a witness to something greater.”
He added that Jesuit spirituality has been formative in his approach to the task of military chaplaincy. “St. Ignatius saw the human soul as a battlefield, finding the enemy and uncovering his tactics,” he said. “Military chaplains are called to be warriors of spirit.”
With reporting from O’Hare Fellow Christopher Parker.
Correction (March 7): An earlier version of this report contained a misspelling of Father Zelinskyy's name.