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  • Writer's pictureJohn Mortensen

Friendship and Ukraine

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

My friendship with Thomas Aquinas began at the International Theological Institute in Austria, in the Kartause Gaming. I learned to talk with St. Thomas as I studied: just as he had small chats with St. Paul, Our Lord, and the saints while he was studying, asking them what they meant by their writings, and receiving guidance and inspirations from them. I learned that study is something you do with friends: you share something great, and that is what makes you friends.

The very first person I met on entering my dorm room in the Kartause Gaming was Yuriy Kolasa: a large, manly Ukrainian with a joyful personality and a beautiful singing voice. He had a small family, and I was a young graduate student. We studied together in the Kartause, and as happens when you spend a lot of time with people, we became good friends, or rather, family.

I met my future spouse at the Kartause on that same day. While studying at the ITI we watched the Kolasa family grow and flourish, and they watched our relationship blossom into a marriage and a family. My wife and I visited Yuriy and his wife Iryna in Ukraine, where they hosted us by giving us their own apartment while they stayed with relatives.

Several years later, Yuriy was called to the Byzantine Catholic priesthood. One of the most profound experiences in my life was the moment, right after his ordination, when he gave me his first priestly blessing. Aquinas defines Charity as "friendship with God," and the Lord himself has two commandments: love God, love your neighbor. Be friends with God. Be friends with your neighbor. And the common good, the thing you share, is God. It seemed to me that the aim of life was friendship: friendship with God, and through that, friendship with the person next to you.

Fr. Yuriy and his family lived and worked in Ukraine, developing a marriage preparation program that was so effective that even the Ukrainian government asked him to develop a secular version. Then, Fr. Yuriy was asked to return to Austria, and is now the Vicar General in charge of all the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church in Austria.

When the war broke out last week, I asked Fr. Yuriy how we could help. He wrote back saying that their priests and Byzantine communities in Austria are overwhelmed with the terrible tragedy unfolding in Ukraine and the rest of Europe right now. I was prepared to offer to host refugees in our home, flying them to the US and taking care of their necessities, finding work, etc. But the need there is much more urgent, and my ideas about helping in a week or two are not enough: there are people piling out of trains, walking across borders, and requiring food and medicine right now. People are flooding into the communities that Fr. Yuriy is in charge of in Austria, and he needs to be able to offer them something today.

Thanks to our time in Austria, we made many good friends in Europe, and these friends need our help. Every day the readings at mass are telling me to help people now: this is the fast that I desire… sheltering the oppressed and the homeless (Isa. 58); nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor‘s life is at stake (Lv. 19).

And so… we are going to start with this small fundraising effort. And then we are going to connect with real people and share their stories, and get them in touch with you, because what people need more than money is other people. People need friends. For this effort we are working on a website to connect people with each other. And then, if the need arises, we will organize efforts to welcome these new friends into our homes.

Today is the anniversary of the day that St. Thomas attained the fulfillment of that friendship he had been cultivating through his whole life of study. Help us start this work of friendship with Ukraine. Please share this post, and donate to help our friends help the people in front of them.

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