Ukrainian Catholic priest Fr. Ivan Nahachewsky helping flock deal with homeland’s crisis

Fr. Ivan Nahachewsky shares breathing exercise online with Ukrainian Cahtolic community in Saskatchewan. (Photo submitted by Fr. Ivan Nahachewsky, CCN)

By Wendy-Ann Clarke, The Catholic Register

[Canadian Catholic News] – Through the uncertainty of war, Fr. Ivan Nahachewsky is working to bring support and sanity to his community in the midst of collective trauma.

The Ukrainian-Catholic priest and military chaplain for the Canadian Armed Forces was recently appointed chancellor of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon. Managing stress levels has perhaps been his greatest challenge since Russian troops invaded Ukraine Feb. 24.

“I know a person who because of the stress broke out into shingles,” said Nahachewsky. “I know another person who’s bilingual and their ability to think and speak in one language flashes on and off. They are fluent in both languages, but they have reverted to their native language.”

Nahachewsky has observed firsthand the psychological and physiological impact of stress on the community. He’s seen it in the simple things, like people developing a loss of appetite and sleep challenges.

“I just think it’s amazing how the body sends signals to say okay something is going wrong inside you. It’s a warning that if you keep going like this it’s going to be bad.”

Many in the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the wider community have direct family connections to Ukraine and have been looking for comfort and counsel as they seek to aid and stay connected with loved ones in Eastern Europe. All too common are sad stories of families separated — female relatives crossing the border to safety in neighbouring countries, without their husbands who were made to stay behind to defend their homeland.

Shortly before the war began, Nahachewsky began an online series called “Chancellor Chats,” featuring two-minute videos intended to shed light on various topics relevant to the Catholic faith. Since the Russian invasion he has directed his messages towards the situation in Ukraine.

A recent video provided an explanation of the stages of grief many are going through such as denial and anger along with tools for managing anxiety. Sharing his own methods for stress relief, he recommends long, slow breathing coupled with the Jesus prayer, saying His name on the inhale and “Lord have mercy” on the exhale to slow the heart rate.

Through managing his own stress levels, he’s been encouraging Ukrainian Catholics to continue about normal daily activities from making the bed to going to work and showing up for meals even when they don’t feel like eating. Perhaps his most important piece of advice has been limiting the intake of news. That, he says, has been his greatest strategy in staying emotionally regulated.

“How do you manage stress? Don’t watch the news 24/7,” said Nahachewsky. “Watching the news exhausts me and creates a lot of emotion. I used to be in denial (of the war) then I shifted to anger. Now I’m mostly angry. I’m controlling that by eating, sleeping, exercise and minimizing the amount of news I watch.”

As far as tangible support goes, many have been asking how they can support and Nahachewsky has been encouraging donations to CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association). From a connection made through a fellow Ukrainian-Canadian priest, he was able to directly provide funding to help a family escape to safety which he says brought some much needed comfort to his heart in the crisis.

Last year Nahachewsky embarked on a 2,000-kilometre bike ride throughout western Canada to raise money for wheelchairs in Ukraine in conjunction with The Canadian Wheelchair Foundation. He recently received a heartbreaking email from their Ukrainian partners on the ground asking if there was any way a shipment of wheelchairs that had been delayed due to COVID-19 could be expedited. These are dearly needed for refugees seeking mobility devices as they had to flee with just the clothes on their backs. There is also expected to be greater need for wheelchairs, braces and handrails as people are injured from the war.

Sadly, Nahachewsky is resigned to the fact there’s likely nothing that can be done to speed the shipment along.

Currently enrolled in a class on Canon Law, Nahachewsky says the discipline and focus required for the course has been like his own “self-imposed occupational therapy.” Tempted to quit due to the stress of the war, he realized the healthy distraction was doing a world of good for his mental health.

Despite the countless challenges, his hope and confidence in the people of Ukraine remains unwavering.

“I’m tired but I’m hopeful,” he said. “My tiredness is nothing compared to the tiredness that is being experienced in Ukraine, but I am hopeful. Everybody I’m talking with in Ukraine is saying, ‘We must win,’ ‘We will win,’ so we’re going to overpower this. There’s no doubt.”

RELATED: Diocese prays in unity with Pope Francis’ consecration of Russia and Ukraine to Mary