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War is personal for local Ukrainian Church


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SAN DIEGO — Millions around the world have expressed their solidarity with the Ukrainian people, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February.

But, for one community in San Diego — St. John the Baptizer Ukrainian Catholic Church — the invasion hits especially close to home.

The sister of its pastor, Father Yurii Sas, fled from Ukraine to the Czech Republic to escape the war; meanwhile, relatives of various parishioners have found safe haven in Poland, Italy and Romania. One parishioner’s son, currently serving in the Ukrainian military, was taken prisoner by Russian forces. The tabernacle on the altar of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, bears a plaque identifying it as a gift from St. John the Baptizer Parish.

“Still, I can’t believe that this has happened,” Father Sas told The Southern Cross, reflecting on the “horrible” situation in Ukraine.

Luke Miller, whose maternal grandparents fled Soviet-occupied Ukraine and became founding members of St. John the Baptizer Parish, described recent atrocities, like the destruction of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, as “acts of terrorism” unleashed upon “primarily innocent, non-military targets.”

“It’s very difficult to see that from here (in San Diego) and not being able to do much,” said Miller, 36, who has kept in contact with Ukraine-based relatives via Facebook Messenger.

Still, the parish has been doing what it can.

Miller shared that his parish has collected clothing, blankets, baby food, medical supplies, and non-lethal military equipment like helmets and flak jackets to send to Ukraine. It has also raised funds for Ukrainian military chaplains, who are distributing supplies among the troops, and for refugee centers in Poland.

Beyond helping Ukrainians abroad, the parish is also preparing for the wave of Ukrainian refugees who are expected to arrive in the United States, he said. It has already begun taking stock of which parishioners have extra rooms available to house refugee families.

Both Father Sas and Miller appreciate how people around the world, as well as in the local community, have stood with Ukraine.

“Everyone supports Ukraine because they can see where is evil,” Father Sas said.

Miller said the outpouring of support in San Diego has been “overwhelming,” with many people promising prayers or asking what material assistance they can provide.

Msgr. Dennis Mikulanis, diocesan vicar for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, told The Southern Cross, “I think it is more important now than ever for all of us to reach out in solidarity with our Ukrainian Catholic brothers and sisters and let them know of our prayers, concern and support, not only for those in Ukraine but especially for those here in San Diego.”

“We can’t just stand by and watch,” he added. “Just as Jesus couldn’t carry the weight of His own cross by Himself and needed Simon of Cyrene to help Him, we now have to be Simon to help our Ukrainian brothers and sisters bear their cross.”

Bishop Robert McElroy visited the parish on March 6 and preached the homily for its Sunday liturgy, which is currently celebrated at 10:30 a.m. in the chapel at St. Augustine High School.

St. John the Baptizer Parish isn’t part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego. Rather, it is one of several Eastern-rite Catholic parishes in the San Diego area, each of which answer to their own bishops and follow their own liturgical traditions, while remaining in full communion with the pope. Specifically, it is part of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is based in Kyiv, and its diocese is headquartered in Chicago.

Because Christianity came to Ukraine from Constantinople, not Rome, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church uses the Byzantine-rite liturgy. It’s the same Divine Liturgy, the term that Eastern Catholics use for the Mass, that is celebrated at Holy Angels Byzantine Catholic Parish in San Diego, as well as at Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches worldwide.

Leavened bread is used for the Eucharist, and the liturgy is celebrated with the priest and the people facing the same direction.

“It’s absolutely different, but the meaning is the same,” Father Sas said, explaining that the Byzantine rite and the Roman rite are different approaches to offering the same sacrifice.

As a bi-ritual priest, Father Sas has faculties to celebrate the sacraments in both rites.

Msgr. Mikulanis recalled having attended many Ukrainian Catholic liturgies while studying in Rome.

“The beauty of the chants, the use of incense, the dignity of the celebration was otherworldly and really helped to sanctify the Lord’s Day,” he recalled. “I would just stand there and let the Holy Spirit sink in. It helped give me a greater appreciation for the deep spirituality of Eastern Christianity, both Catholic and Orthodox.”

At St. John the Baptizer, Sunday liturgies are about 90 minutes long and are entirely chanted, without the accompaniment of musical instruments. They are celebrated in a combination of Ukrainian and English.

Founded on March 13, 1960, the parish is currently composed of about 50 families.

Miller said those parishioners represent “a healthy mix” of people who were born in the United States and raised in the Ukrainian Catholic tradition, as well as recent immigrants from Ukraine.

The parish expects to break ground on a new church this fall and hopes to be worshiping inside that church by Easter of 2023, said Miller, who is chair of the parish’s building committee.

The church and parish hall, which will measure 4,200 square feet in total, will be located at 9308 Carlton Oaks Drive in Santee. The new location will provide the community with much needed space for when the expected influx of Ukrainian refugees arrives.

“In addition to being a church, there’s a humanitarian crisis and we need to be there for these people,” Miller said.

For him, it’s “somewhat providential” that the parish’s new church and the refugees will both be here around the same time.

“We will be prepared when they come,” he said, “and there will be a home for them.”

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