Vatican City, Mar 2, 2022 / 03:34 am (CNA).
Pope Francis expressed gratitude to the Polish people on Wednesday for their generosity in welcoming Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.
“I cordially greet all Poles. You were the first to support Ukraine by opening your borders, your hearts and the doors of your homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war,” Pope Francis said in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall on March 2.
“You are generously offering them everything they need so that they can live in dignity, despite the drama of the moment. I am deeply grateful to you and I bless you from my heart!”
In an emotional moment, Pope Francis pointed out that one of the readers at his live-streamed general audience was from Ukraine and that his parents were hiding in a bomb shelter near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
The reader was Father Marek Viktor Gongalo, a Franciscan friar who is a professor of canon law at the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome.
“This speaker is Ukrainian and his parents are at this moment in underground shelters to defend themselves from bombs in a place near Kyiv. And he continues to do his duty here with us,” the pope explained.
“Accompanying him, we accompany all the Ukrainian people who are suffering from the bombings, the families and the many elderly people who are suffering. We carry this people in our hearts. And thank you for your work.”
Pope Francis has called for March 2, Ash Wednesday, to be a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.
The pope has described March 2, the first day of the liturgical season of Lent, as “a day to be close to the sufferings of the Ukrainian people, to feel that we are all brothers and sisters, and to implore God for the end of the war.”
“Today we enter the time of Lent. Our prayer and fasting will be a plea for peace in Ukraine, remembering that world peace always begins with our personal conversion, following Christ. God bless you,” Pope Francis said on Wednesday.
Almost half a million people have crossed the Polish border from Ukraine, a country with a population of 44 million, seeking refuge from the Russian military advance on their country, which began on Feb. 24.
Catholic organizations in Poland are helping tens of thousands of refugees, providing them with beds, housing, psychological support, food, and clothing.
The Polish bishops’ conference has urged Catholics in the country to open “homes, hostels, diocesan and parish retreat houses, and all places where help can be provided to people in need.”
Russian forces have moved to encircle Kyiv, where multiple blasts were reported early Wednesday morning, and troops are laying siege to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
More than 453,000 people have fled to Poland to Ukraine in the past six days, according to Poland’s border guard agency. On March 1 alone, 98,000 people crossed the border into Poland.
The United Nations refugee agency has predicted that more than four million people could eventually be forced to leave Ukraine, according to the New York Times.
Poland, a Central European country with a population of 38 million, shares a 332-mile border with Ukraine.
A collection for Ukraine was held in churches across Poland on Sunday, Feb. 27, and a further collection will take place on Ash Wednesday, March 2.
The Church’s support is being channeled mainly through Caritas Poland, the country’s largest charity, and diocesan branches of Caritas.
Last week, Caritas Poland made an initial donation of 100,000 Polish złotys (around $24,000) in emergency aid. The funds have been transferred to Caritas Ukraine, overseen by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Caritas-Spes, operated by Ukraine’s Latin Rite Catholic Church.
The most urgent needs include food and hygiene supplies, as well as mattresses, sleeping bags, blankets, and mobile kitchens. Polish Catholic dioceses are organizing transport for refugees and in-kind donations.
The order is establishing medical aid centers in several Polish cities, as well as at the train stations in Przemyśl and nearby Rzeszów, where there is a constant stream of new arrivals.
Pope Francis has a long-standing connection with Ukraine. During a visit to the Ukrainian Catholic community in Rome in 2018, he recalled that a Ukrainian bishop in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires had taught him when he was 12 years old how to be an altar server at Eastern Rite liturgies and read the Ukrainian alphabet.
During his Angelus address last Sunday, Pope Francis called for humanitarian corridors to be opened in Ukraine and other parts of the world where there is violence, such as Yemen, Syria, and Ethiopia.
“With a heart broken by what is happening in Ukraine … I repeat: put down your weapons! God is with the peacemakers, not with those who use violence,” Pope Francis said.
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