In 2017, the cost of feeding a child at school for a whole year is still a snip at just £13.90. Mary's Meals is now providing school meals to well over a million children, in communities held in subjection to poverty and hunger. As well as fundraising efforts however, I've also written about failures of diplomacy in the developed world, inhibiting efforts to deal collaboratively with crises such as the famine now menacing East Africa and Yemen.
I was also interviewed by a journalist who would later put an article about me in a local paper, and spoke with a Dominican priest, relocated to Lviv, who i recognised from his time at the parish of St Catherine of Alexandria, in St Petersburg. Touching on the question of Christian Unity, he surprised me by saying that prayers were needed not only for Catholic/ Orthodox relations, but also for better ties between the Latin-rite and Byzantine-rite Catholics. This latter flock, predominant among Christians in this part of Ukraine, returned to the Roman fold soon after the demise of the Soviet Union, but retains several key Orthodox traits, most obviously in their liturgy, but also in observance of the Julian calendar, and in allowing clergy to be married. An American priest, of Miles Jesu but also of this Byzantine rite (he’d had to master the Ukrainian language), explained to me the official hope that it can serve as a ‘bridge’, across which Catholic/ Orthodox reconciliation might one day be accomplished, with God’s help.
On Thursday morning there was embarrassment when i left the house, forgetting i’d left some beans boiling on the hob; i phoned home and they’d been discovered, but of course potentially it was not a funny story. At the travel agency i handed over my passport and was told i needed to be back on the following Monday. I then left some excess baggage at the house before striking southwards and, following a tip-off, visited an army surplus shop where i invested in an excellent German-made khaki poncho. I also felt i had to brandish my camera for the sake of a billboard with a photograph of an unborn child, appealing on behalf of little girls and boys like this for respect of their dignity as human beings. To an unborn child, abortion is the end of the world. In a satellite town called Davydiv i settled for a half-constructed building to sleep in, thankfully rising early enough not to be stumbled across by workmen. I was also more than usually keen to evade the long arm of the law, as i was carrying only a photocopy of my passport. This was one reason in fact why i had decided to chart a course (though it was slightly out of my way) for yet another famous centre of devotion to Our Lady, called Zarvanytsia. If asked by a policeman i could easily tell them my destination, a place to which thousands of pilgrims do walk, if not usually at quite that time of year.
At around mid-day on Friday the 1st of April, ‘atheists’ special day’,* i came to a village called Shpilchina and visited the Church, where a well-attended service was in progress, and numerous offerings of bread and milk were laid out on the altar. Afterwards a succession of friendly ladies from the congregation came up to me, followed by the priest. In order to verify that i was Christian he held a crucifix in front of me to kiss, then supplied me with two loaves of bread and a large bottle of milk. One of the women then accompanied me a short distance along the road to her home, where she and her two young daughters treated me to wonderful hospitality; hot drinks and a delicious lunch of fried potatoes, cabbage and aubergines. I was also given a proper ‘Little Red Riding Hood-esque’ warning about the danger of wolves in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. We swapped email addresses, and i left them a photo i’d taken of a red squirrel in the park below Jasna Gora, in Czestochowa. Later on a sky-lark seemed to be putting on a special performance for me, directly above the road which led after dark to the unlit streets of Novi Strelishcha. At length i found lodging in a derelict house, but a departure from the script came when two young fellows returning from a night on the town shone their torch through the entrance, directly at me. I can only assume that they saw me, but happily i was not further incommoded.
The next day, Saturday 2nd of April, could easily have been blighted by the loss of a battery-powered device called a ‘Dazer’, which ingeniously deters dogs with an inaudible high-pitched noise. It worries wolves in the same way, so from the village of Pidkamin i decided to catch a bus back to a little chapel dedicated to Our Lady next to a spring, near Fraga, where i fancied it had fallen out of my pocket. Thanks be to God, there it was. It made a great difference knowing that i had a secret weapon with which to tackle confrontational canines, and i made a mental note to send an email to the kind owner of Dazer International who had donated it for my previous pilgrimage.
In bright afternoon sunshine i made it to Rogatin, and picked up a couple more large bags of ‘pryaniki’ biscuits (like the ones i’d bought in Germany), for the folks at the orphanage in Bortniki where i was hoping to spend the night. It turned out that the last bus had gone, so i took a taxi as the sun set on the springly scenery. On arrival i was shown to a very comfortable bed in a store room, where a box carried the legend ‘Banane de Guadeloupe et Martinique’ (my italics) - i had to take a picture, as it so happened that this French spelling had wreaked havoc with my first attempts at blogging. All in all it was an idyllic stay there, in which i was made to feel as if i was among friends – not least by an English chap, who reminded me in the morning that it was Mothering Sunday, and let me use his phone to leave a message. Before leaving i exchanged little portraits of birds with a boy called Victor, who i had met on a previous visit. My side of the bargain was a photo of a Polish nuthatch, after he gave me a robin with a verse from St Matthew’s Gospel, in Ukrainian;
“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” [Mt 6:26]
*”The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” [Psalm 14:1]