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"The soldiers are experiencing a very different reality"

Pastoral care and character guidance training in challenging times: the editorial team at “Ethics and Armed Forces” discussed this topic in September 2022 with the two Catholic military chaplains Dr. Petro Stanko and Iurii Kuliievych. Both come from Ukraine. Here they talk about supporting the troops at home and on NATO’s eastern flank, about insecurity caused by the war, and about the Ukrainian desire for freedom.

Dr. Petro Stanko: On April 1, 2015, I joined the Engineer Training Center in Ingolstadt as a military chaplain. As a theology student in Eichstätt, I had already accompanied the Ukrainian military bishop on his visits to Germany as an interpreter, so I had become familiar with the military chaplaincy over several years.

Iurii Kuliievych: I knew my confrere Petro Stanko from when I was a student in Eichstätt. He recommended that I become a military chaplain. So I joined the military chaplaincy in 2017, then in 2021 I was appointed military chaplain at Roth – like my confrere with special roots and a special identity as a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

P.S.: For me, the military chaplaincy makes a meaningful contribution, which is desired and supported by the state, and it is also a privilege to provide pastoral assistance to citizens in uniform. Part of the concept of Innere Führung (leadership development and civic education) is to teach soldiers what their uniform represents and what they are protecting. This requires spiritual and character guidance as well as political, historical and cultural education. After all, soldiering always involves existential issues – violence, wounding, one’s own death and the death of the enemy.

I.K.: It is important for soldiers to know that the military chaplaincy is an independent institution within the German armed forces. They can come to us with problems that are troubling them, and will always find an open door and an open ear. Whether you are a Catholic or not doesn’t matter. It’s about providing pastoral care for everyone who needs it.

In my barracks, the company sergeant majors (Kompaniefeldwebel) often send the young recruits to me – they know from experience that this works. The crucial thing is that someone listens to them. To work things out, you need time. As military chaplains, we can offer this oasis of time. To have a chapel or a quiet room, to know that you can have a conversation anytime during duty hours, I think that is essential for people who are dealing with the existential issues I mentioned – especially in the current circumstances. Of course, I have to break the ice. But sometimes it is enough to go to the mess hall, sit down and ask: How are you doing right now?

P.S.: I agree with that. Meetings and encounters also take place in the office, but the chaplains get to know people outside. There is no other way. There are so many different angles and possibilities when you are open to meeting people and not sitting in the office – we might show up wearing the collar during a military training exercise. To show a spirit of togetherness and so as not disturb operations, we often wear our protective clothing, which looks like the soldiers’ battle dress, but has special epaulettes with a cross that identifies us as chaplains.

Some soldiers find their way to us even though they are not members of the church, perhaps because a wedding is coming up or there has been a bereavement in the family.

I.K.: Our offerings also include family weekends, work weeks, pilgrimages and leisure activities – so there are plenty of opportunities to get to know people and their families. Of course, there are also those who come from Christian homes and want to know how they can practice their faith at the base, whether there is a church …

P.S.: … and those who never had anything to do with the church and are now coming into contact with a priest for the first time. Some of them start by venting their frustration about the abuse scandals and whatever other criticisms they have of the church. Finally, we have the opportunity to meet soldiers in the classroom through character guidance training (Lebenskundlicher Unterricht, LKU), which is mandatory. That is a challenge for both sides. As military chaplains, we have to make the classes varied and interesting; the soldiers listen, ask questions, and realize that they can talk to us. But they can also be critical and demanding. You can’t just tell them anything in LKU or preach anything you like in the church service – our clientele is often more critical and direct than a civilian congregation.

I.K.: That’s why it is important to remain credible. LKU is always about existential questions, and ultimately also about making it clear to soldiers that they have to decide for themselves! When I started in 2017, the zebis teaching portal was a blessing as it provided me with good material covering the required topics on the curriculum. It helped me get the soldiers interested in the topic and work through it with them – they’re not supposed to find it boring! Sometimes they arrive in the morning tired out. As a chaplain, I must not overburden them in such situations. I have to be responsive to them.

P.S.: Character guidance training (LKU) is an important part of our work, also for the future; we know that more and more people are leaving the church and receive less and less ethical guidance at home. In my opinion, LKU is also the most difficult subject. Why is that? You have adults sitting there, who have individual needs and expectations. I recently covered the topic of hostility. You need methods, ways to get started, short videos to explain aspects of the topic and stimulate discussion. The zebis materials are helpful, but so are the magazines and publications provided by the Catholic Military Bishop’s Office. Of course, one has to be selective.

I.K.: I discovered how important what we do is when I accompanied the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission in Rukla/Lithuania. I once described this time as a “paradise for pastoral care”. I experienced the people there to be one family, each with their different qualities, everyone unique. There were so many questions!

P.S.: I was in Rukla when Russia invaded Ukraine. I had arrived with a new sub-contingent at the end of January. On the flight there, the soldiers were still saying: “Ah, the priest is among us, nothing will happen to us.” But I immediately noticed how sensitive and attentive they were to the news, even before the Russian army attacked. They also asked me very specific questions because they knew I was from Ukraine. On the morning of February 24, 2022, the soldiers had horror written all over their faces. They saw the images of tanks rolling and houses being destroyed, and suddenly all their sense of security was gone. Security – that could have been their own house, their own well-being, and now they could see that all it took was one missile and everything was destroyed. They talked a lot with their families over the phone: Do you have to go to war now? I have never been asked so many questions as a chaplain. When I preached in the service, for example on the question of why we humans are still waging wars in the 21st century, it was very quiet in our “little church”. The soldiers were so upset and concerned. As a chaplain, you realized: I am in the right place at the right time to answer questions, but also to calm people down. Then they can reflect: Who am I? Where am I going? Is this still my job?

I.K.: In other words: Would I be willing to take up arms in a foreign country to defend my values? Not just with words, but with deeds! You had taken an oath to do something, and suddenly it became serious.

P.S.: We have to consider that soldiers have been doing their job in Germany for the past 70 years without being confronted with a war like this in the middle of Europe. And suddenly they are sitting in Rukla, far away from their family and from home, and they see civilians, but also their peers in uniform, being killed; not only Ukrainians, but also the Russian soldiers, who like them have all sworn an oath to their country. And you could see that the Lithuanian troops in particular were even more concerned, because they have a different history with Russia.

I.K.: Some of the Baltic states have an ethnic Russian population of more than 20%. They were afraid that now the “Russian world” was coming to them too, and the same thing would happen to them as was happening in Ukraine.

P.S.: I think, at least, that some of the superiors really became aware for the first time of how important it is for soldiers to receive professional support. Troop psychologists and chaplains – in short, the so-called psychosocial network – have taken their role very seriously, and are looking after people. In the beginning, the NATO reinforcements in Rukla, including the Germans, were housed in tents. No exercises took place for fear of an escalation. We organized movie nights …

I.K.: … or a Bible breakfast …

P.S.: … and campfires, so that the soldiers felt: There are people who care about us, who I can go to if I feel anxious, or if I feel bad.

I think that if NATO’S eastern flank is strengthened, we will have to do even more to provide historical, political, cultural and also character guidance support. The soldiers are experiencing a very different reality, they are encountering refugees or hearing how parents have sacrificed themselves for their children in the affected areas. This will raise many questions, and we will need ways to discuss and explain: What are our values? What are we defending? What does it mean to be in an alliance?

Our guiding principles for the military chaplaincy state that our task is not to prepare soldiers for combat, but to make them understand what they are there for, what values they stand for – and what war does. But it is time to stop thinking of the war in Ukraine as a distant war. It affects all of us.

I.K.: I see it the same way. We must now prepare ourselves pastorally. And regain an awareness of what the inviolable human dignity enshrined in the Basic Law means to us. I understand that people here in Germany are concerned about their well-being and comfort. Everyone is entitled to their point of view, that is democracy. But as Christians, we say with Paul: If we do not believe in the resurrection, then all is in vain. It is the same with our values: If we do not stand by them and bear witness to them, they are in vain.

P.S.: In any case we are very grateful for the great solidarity shown by the many thousands of volunteers from the public who are supporting Ukraine. Among them are servicemen and women with their families, in their free time. German officers, for example, have told me that on their own initiative they went to the Polish border to pick up wives and children of Ukrainian fellow soldiers whom they knew from training programs. However, I would like to see a little more understanding of Ukraine’s history and experiences from some Western Europeans. People in Europe dream of a reconciliation with Russia, as was achieved after the Second World War between the so-called “hereditary enemies” Germany and France. Perhaps the French historian and Orthodox theologian Antoine Arjakovsky has real prophetic intuition. In his book about Russia’s current war against Ukraine, published in 2015, he claims that peace in Europe in the 21st century will now depend on reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia – like in the 20th century, when peace in Europe depended on reconciliation between Germany and France. Russia, however, as a post-Soviet state, still pursues old ideals and ideologies. To this day, many crimes and misdeeds from the communist era remain unresolved. For example, it is still unclear how many officers were killed in Katyn, Poland, in 1939, and who the perpetrators were. So there has been no comprehensive coming to terms with the past, yet this is an essential basis for reconciliation. “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness” was the very apt title of Pope John Paul II’s message for the celebration of World Peace Day on January 1, 2002. In Russia, however, we are seeing instead a revival of the Stalin cult …

We Ukrainians know all too well what it means to live without freedom, and to first hear about disasters like Chernobyl only from the Western media. Our parents and grandparents suffered a lot during those times, and resistance rose up as a result. Today, the desire for freedom and an orientation toward Western values and ideals are paramount. As the former head of our church, the late Cardinal Husar, said on the Maidan in 2013: “The state is not afraid of hungry people; it can feed them. It is afraid of free people; it can only kill them!”

I.K.: As a child, we were not even allowed to sing Christmas carols in school. But to this day we still draw strength from our tradition, our faith, and Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian soldiers fight out of love for their homeland, out of conviction. They can take everything away from you, but no-one can take away your faith.

Recorded by Rüdiger Frank in September 2022.

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Dr. Petro Stanko (left) is Catholic military chaplain in Ingolstadt.
Iurii Kuliievych is Catholic military chaplain in Roth. Both are from Ukraine.

Photo: KS/Doreen Bierdel