(OSV News) – As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine marks its second year, an annual collection for Central and Eastern Europe’s Catholic churches will help “shine the light of Christ” in a region still scarred by the historical effects of communism, said a U.S. bishop.

On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, faithful across the country are being asked to donate to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

Some dioceses may opt to schedule the collection at a different date, and faithful also may give directly to the campaign by visiting the USCCB’s #iGiveCatholicTogether website (usccb.igivecatholictogether.org/) and selecting the “Church in Central and Eastern Europe” collection.

Basilian Sister Lucia Murashko talks with volunteers Denys Kuprikov, left, and Ivan Smyglia, far right, in Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine Feb. 7, 2023, about where they will distribute humanitarian aid along the front in Russia’s war against Ukraine. The U.S. bishops’ Collection for Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe is set for Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. The appeal aids Catholics in Ukraine and 27 other countries. (OSV News photo/Konstantin Chernichkin, CNEWA)

Launched under St. John Paul II in 1991 as communist regimes collapsed throughout Europe, the appeal aids Catholics in 28 European countries in various stages of recovering from longtime totalitarian oppression: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia (Czech Republic), Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

“When Catholics give to this collection, they are actively participating in the rebuilding of the Church in places where decades of communism have left behind devastated churches and wounded spirits,” said Auxiliary Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton of Detroit, chairman of the USCCB’s Subcommittee on the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

Since 2001 alone, the collection has raised more than $187.5 million, according to Mary Mencarini Campbell, executive director of the USCCB’s Office of National Collections.

In 2023, the USCCB collection distributed $8.7 million in 329 grants, helping to rebuild churches, support seminary education and minister to families and youth.

More than $2 million was allocated for urgent humanitarian and pastoral relief to victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which continues attacks launched in 2014. With at least 124,186 war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine since February 2022, the invasion has been named a genocide in two joint reports from the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights. In March 2023, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for the unlawful deportation and transfer of 19,546 children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

In October 2023, Bishop Monforton visited Ukraine for the first time in two decades, and in a reflection written afterward, he recounted his experiences of visiting Catholic churches and social ministries there and praying with families of the dead.

“I entered crypts that are now well-stocked bomb shelters, with light and heat from generators supplied by the generous contributions of Catholics to the Collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe,” he wrote.

Bishop Monforton added that “sadly, the rubble and fresh graves in Ukraine today remind us that the most insidious error of communism was not its economic policy, but its doctrine that human beings are mere cogs in the machine of state, rather than precious children of God.”

“That cruel assumption persists under other guises in the post-communist era,” he wrote. “We see it in the blatant disregard for human life that underlies the violence that has erupted in the region, especially in Ukraine. It pervades countries throughout the former Soviet Empire, where people struggle to build marriages and families. Its most pointed expression was the destruction of churches and the imprisonment or execution of clergy and faithful laity.”

As Russia’s war in Ukraine reverberates throughout Europe and the world, funds from the collection are helping the church to offer spiritual and material relief.

In Ukraine’s Roman Catholic Diocese of Kamyanets-Podilsky, a grant from the collection enabled the training and deployment of psychotherapists, social workers and pastoral counselors to address war-related traumatic stress disorder in soldiers and civilians.

The collection also helped build a cathedral for the small but vibrant Catholic community in predominantly Muslim Kyrgyzstan — a faith community founded by prisoners who had been deported on account of their faith of their faith decades earlier by Soviet authorities to the region’s gulags.

In Romania, collection funds were applied by the Archdiocese of Fagaras and Alba Iulia to restore a landmark 18th-century seminary, while making it handicap accessible.

In Slovakia, the collection funded a pro-life counseling center serving hundreds of women in challenging pregnancies. Engaged and married couples in Lithuania received counseling and support from trained volunteer mentors, and in Albania, catechists and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist benefited from a three-year program of study.

“The ministries that you support through this collection bring the Bread of Life to people who hunger for the Word of God. They bring food, shelter and love to the Jesus who suffers among the poor,” wrote Bishop Monforton. “They prepare young people, informed by Scripture, and inspired by the witness of priests, sisters and catechists, to tell their neighbors about Jesus.

“It is my hope that you give generously to the Collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe,” he wrote. “In doing so, you fight alongside St. Michael and St. John Paul II to free souls trapped by the forces of despair and lead them into the light of Christ.”