Lay Centre scholar reunites with mother who fled Ukraine

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Lay Centre scholar reunites with mother who fled Ukraine

Lay Centre community from Romania, Italy, Ukraine and Greece pictured leaving for March 25, 2022 Penitential Celebration in St. Peter's Basilica and Act of Consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.


By Heather Walker

ROME — Born in Boryslav, Ukraine, Lay Centre "Impact Fellow" Olena Shust came to Rome in 2016 to study psychology at the Salesian Pontifical University, where she is currently in the doctoral program.

Her road to Rome began while studying for her PhD in chemistry at Lviv State University. She would often look out the laboratory window and see the Cathedral of St. George. She was drawn to the church and she gradually became involved in parish activities. Over time, she realized faith was important for her life and her vocation. Despite her career at a pharmaceutical company, she was certain she could contribute more to the world as a psychologist, and her bishop supported her decision to study in Rome.

“I wanted to study in a Christian environment and serve the Church,” she said.

When Olena left for Rome, Ukraine had been fighting a war against Russian-backed separatists for two years already.

In the past eight years, 14,000 Ukrainians died in the war being fought in Donbas. This experience of war has influenced her area of research, which she explained as “the prospect of peacebuilding in Ukraine from a psychological perspective.”

Ironically, in carrying out some field research in January, she asked 164 subjects their feelings about the threat of a possible Russian invasion. Like so many other Ukrainians, she herself hoped war would not break out. But on Feb. 24, Russia launched its invasion on Ukraine.

Olena’s mother, Oksana, was living in Ukraine at the time of the invasion. She felt completely helpless in the face of the war and the inaction of the international community.

“It is as if everybody is looking at Ukraine being crucified,” said Olena.

Oksana realized she had to get out of Ukraine, and Olena knew she had to help her. Oksana arrived in Rome and is now trying to learn Italian so she can communicate more easily. Olena said the warm welcome her mother received from the staff and scholars at The Lay Centre has really helped.

Both Olena and Oksana have been very anxious in recent weeks and have turned to prayer for solace. People in Ukraine, too, have been praying together every day, all day, she added.

“My only hope is in God,” Olena said, comparing Ukraine’s chances against Russia’s military might to “a war between David and Goliath.”

“If you think about this, Ukraine doesn’t have a chance,” she said. “But from a religious point of view, we can have hope.”

Her biggest hope is that good will overcome the forces of evil.

“We always try to believe that something good will happen, even if it may not be possible. We have endured and survived so much,” she said, recalling how her grandfather was sentenced to a gulag camp in Siberia for 25 years. However, upon Stalin’s death in 1953, there was an armistice and he was released after only 10 years.

“When he returned home, he lived in silence, but he was very strong,” Olena said. “He didn’t lose his dignity nor his national identity.”

Olena and Oksana attended the penitential liturgy March 25 at St. Peter’s Basilica, when Pope Francis consecrated both Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Olena described it as an incredible moment and a historical day.

“The consecration is not a magic remedy, but it gave us all a lot of hope,” she said.

The mother and daughter together now look toward the hope of Easter.


Photo courtesy Lay Centre staff

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