Cardinal Dolan Meets War Refugees in Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia


Cardinal Dolan led a New York Church delegation to visit and express solidarity with Ukrainian refugees, including those displaced in their native land and in the bordering countries of Poland and Slovakia.

Nearly 12 million Ukrainians have fled their own country or been displaced internally since the Russian military invasion of their homeland began Feb. 24, according to the United Nations.

In Ukraine May 2, the day before the New York delegation returned home, Cardinal Dolan said, “We didn’t know for sure if we’d be able to get here. But thanks be to God, we were able to leave Poland yesterday and come to Ukraine.”

The cardinal delivered his message in a short video posted to Twitter and other social media channels, as he had been doing for the length of his trip to Eastern Europe, which began April 29. 

He stressed the cooperation between organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and Caritas International at a staging area on a seminary campus in Lviv where, he said, water, clothing and medicines are gathered for transport to those in need in Ukraine. 

Directly addressing those back home, the cardinal said, “One of the reasons we came is to thank you for your generosity, and now you see where it’s going. So keep it up, we need it.”

The cardinal, who is chairman of CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association), led a delegation that included Auxiliary Bishop John S. Bonnici, a board member of Aid to the Church in Need; Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, president of CNEWA; and Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities. Others traveling with the group included Michael La Civita, CNEWA’s communications director, and Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the archdiocese.   

“If you really want to see the Church, come here to Krakow,” Cardinal Dolan tweeted April 30. “And you’ll see hundreds and hundreds…of agonizing Ukrainian refugees who are being embraced and loved and welcome and fed and healed and housed and sheltered and schooled by the people here.”

The people to whom he was referring include those from parishes of the Archdiocese of Krakow who distribute food as refugees arrive on trains. “The Knights of Malta, Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Caritas International, the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in need—you name it, they’re here. And this is the Church. This is where the Church is, right now.”

On May 1, the cardinal tweeted, “What a day it’s been here in Slovakia.” He explained he was there on behalf of the people who are helping and seeing the people who need help, and thanking those “for the inspiration they’re giving the world in welcoming the refugees.” 

The cardinal shared a story of a woman he and his contingent met who had been in a desperate situation in Ukraine, “literally bombs going off all over her, running with her children out of her bombed out apartment.”

She asked herself where she could go and answered she knew she should go to the church because it’s a sanctuary and she’s always at home there. Eventually she will return home with the help of the church, “but in the meantime they want to take care of them tenderly, graciously and lovingly,” the cardinal said.

Bishop Bonnici told CNY by email May 2 that the delegation encountered many ordinary people answering the call to assist Ukrainian refugees.  

“A young man named Oscar told me that he made his way to the train station at the Polish-Ukrainian border immediately after the arrival of the first trainloads of refugees,” the bishop said. “Over 15,000 a day made their way through the station every day. Oscar did whatever he could to be of assistance. From moving supplies to serving food to cleaning rooms—he did it all. He has been there every day from the start.”   

When the bishop asked Oscar why he continues to return every day to help, Oscar said, “I just want to do something good for these people when so many bad things are happening in their life.”

Bishop Bonnici said, “Almost everyone we met strongly believes that Christian love is the answer to evil in our world.”

The bishop said the visit “has allowed me to better appreciate the real story of the Ukraine war, its impact on regular people, collateral damage and the beautiful ability of the people to come together in a time of need.”

“Personally, watching the Church in action has been inspiring. Seeing first hand how the generous donations of so many good people is truly helping men, women and children in a desperate time has reinforced my belief in the good of persons seeking to love their God and neighbor as Christ taught.”

Msgr. Sullivan, in an email interview, told CNY that he was heartenened by the “non-bureaucratic response” delivered by the dedicated staff and generous volunteers of Caritas International,  which “created a family-like welcome experience for refugees fleeing devastating conditions in their country.”

“Mothers and children met warm and caring individuals who welcomed them into their new neighborhoods and communities, as they dealt with the chaos and uncertainty of the Russian invasion.”

One poignant memory of the trip, Msgr. Sullivan said, was his encounter with a young law student named Kate at a center of mercy and welcome in Lviv, Ukraine. She had been forced to flee when Russian troops occupied her home. 

“She had no choice but to leave,” Msgr. Sullivan said. “Despite the suffering and disruption, Kate’s spirit was far from broken.  She was helping other refugees at the center, and was planning on returning home as soon as conditions permitted. She was an incredible witness to resiliency and determination in the human spirit.”

Msgr. Vaccari, in a statement emailed to CNY, said, “Originally, we were supposed to travel to Egypt. But soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine — and reports flooded our news about the displacement of millions — the Cardinal suggested we travel instead to Ukraine and some of its neighbors to:

“1. Stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, whose people have suffered at the hands of Russian aggression. 

“2. Express our loving admiration and gratitude to the generosity of the Poles and Slovaks, who have received Ukrainian refugees in their homes and hearts. 

“3. Bring home the stories of hope we have encountered here — to keep that spirit alive even as it disappears as a headline. 

“Witnesses of hope we were. One element of that was seeing how the Church has responded to this devastating tragedy, coming together as global agencies — such as CNEWA and the Knights of Columbus — with local partners, diocesan charities and parish volunteers. That solidarity, that togetherness, has really impressed me.” 

John Woods and Christie L. Chicoine contributed to this report.