An outstanding apostle of charity
CARDINAL KEITH O’BRIEN pays tribute to the life of ACN founder Fr Werenfried van Straaten on his centenary and also to persecuted Christians worldwide
Exactly 100 years ago, a man was born who gave his life for suffering Christians. When he died aged 90, Blessed John Paul II paid tribute to the priest he called ‘an outstanding apostle of charity.’ Described as ‘the 21st century’s greatest beggar,’ Fr Werenfried van Straaten was a larger than life character whose force of personality inspired millions of people in the cause of Christians persecuted and forgotten around the world.
Fr Werenfried was without doubt an organiser par excellence, a man with an eye for detail, someone whose capacity for hard work remained undiminished, even in old age. But what stands out most of all about his life and legacy is his prophetic voice, his genius ability to speak up for Christians suffering for their faith.
Fr Werenfried’s words—his own beautiful handwriting reproduced in his newsletter The Mirror—touched me deeply as far back as before my ordination to the priesthood.
And in my own travels, to Sudan (pictured right), China, Cambodia and other countries like them, where I have seen for myself the reality of the persecuted Church today, I can testify to the importance of Fr Werenfried’s work and why his determination never to be deflected gives us courage today.
His refusal to compromise, never softening his words to avoid ruffling feathers, guaranteed him a devoted following from those who saw him as a champion for the underdog, a true Christian whose firmness of faith was truly heroic.
At a time when Catholics and Christians in general are increasingly called upon to stand up for beliefs and values increasingly at odds with many forces in society, Fr Werenfried’s life and witness stands as a beacon of hope.
Born Philip van Straaten in Mijdrecht, Holland, he took the name Werenfried on entering the Norbertine Abbey of Tongerlo in neighbouring Belgium. Werenfried literally means ‘fighter for peace’ and he quickly lived up to his name when he took a bold step in response to Pope Pius XII’s request to help heal a Europe turned upside down by the Second World War.
In a Christmas 1947 public letter titled ‘No Room at the Inn,’ he called on local people to put aside their differences with their former foe and help Germans rendered refugees by the conflict and by the 1945 peace treaties—Yalta and Potsdam.
In later life, Fr Werenfried would recall his first preaching mission in a Flemish village where he appealed for food and clothing. The response came in the form of huge hunks of meat. And so it was that he earned the name the ‘bacon priest.’
Aid to the Church in Need, the charity that in time grew up around him, never strayed from his oft-repeated wish to prioritise pastoral support. He provided so-called ‘chapel trucks,’ enabling priests to minister in areas whose churches had been reduced to rubble.
The bacon priest was soon donning a disguise and disappearing behind the Iron Curtain to find out for himself the real needs of the Church under Communism. Having diced with death wearing a false moustache, he came back armed with the facts necessary to quash calls for a deal with the Communist authorities.
In time, more than 500,000 copies of the Mirror, the Aid to the Church in Need newsletter, were being sent to benefactors all around the world, each with a facsimile copy of a letter by Fr Werenfried in his own elegant hand.
Impressed by the early success of Fr Werenfried’s charity, Blessed Pope John XXIII asked him to extend his work to the Church in India and Latin America. That was in 1962. By the end of the decade, Aid to the Church in Need was also at work in Africa.
Fr Werenfried’s relationship with another Pope, Blessed Pope John Paul II, led to the bacon priest travelling to Russia in the early 1990s when he met the Patriarch of Moscow and pledged to support the Russian Orthodox Church as it began to emerge from Soviet oppression.
By then of course, he was entering his 80s, and soon his health was in decline but he continued to make appeals and give talks which invariably concluded with a hat being passed around.
In Fr Werenfried’s case, the hat in question was becoming decidedly thread-bear and full of holes. Drawing attention to this, he used to say with a wry smile: “No coins please, only notes!”
When Fr Werenfried died on January 31, 2003, two weeks after his 90th birthday, tributes poured in from all over the world. Bishops, priests, sisters and lay each had their own story to tell about a personal act of kindness or an amusing anecdote. It was quite a legacy to leave. But his greatest legacy is the continuing compassion of Catholics and many others committed to the cause of caring for the persecuted Church.
I myself can testify to the need to help Christians who suffer for their faith. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to go to Sudan and I went out to Darfur where the suffering has been immense.
I remember being led by a group of Christians to their small hut-like chapel. They asked me if I would celebrate Mass for them. I readily agreed. I asked them when they were last able to have Mass in their chapel and they said that it had been three or four years before.
On another occasion, in January 2008, I visited Cambodia and went to St Joseph’s Church, in Phnom Penh. Preaching there and recalling my experiences, I was only too aware that we were at St Joseph’s for Mass quite simply because the cathedral had been wantonly destroyed during the persecution of Christians some 30 years ago.
And then there is Rwanda in Africa, which I visited in 2004. This is a country where almost one million people lost their lives in a period of 100 days during a genocide of unimaginable horror. I remember meeting a young priest who said that his parents and five other family members were slaughtered and that he only escaped because he was studying in Rome at the time. He simply said that now all he wanted to do was work for peace and reconciliation in his country and help people come back to Christ.
And Christ is suffering today both in Rwanda and elsewhere in the world. I think perhaps most especially of the Faithful in the Middle East, where in Syria and elsewhere the violence against Christians and others goes on with no sign of an end in sight.
Fr Werenfried, a man with a remarkable gift for language, had a phrase to sum up the spiritual significance of persecution and how we must respond. He memorably called on us to: “Dry the tears of the abandoned Jesus on the Crosses of this century.”
And in marking this special anniversary of Fr Werenfried, let me pay a personal tribute to Scottish Catholics whose compassion and love enable his legacy to live on in the continuing work of his charity, Aid to the Church in Need.
A few years ago, I presided at a memorial Mass for Fr Werenfried celebrated at St Bride’s Church, Cambuslang. Let me repeat now what I said then and assure you of my blessings and prayers: “You are so generous to ACN. No matter how much you give, no matter how many prayers your say, no matter how much effort you make, God will never be outdone in his generosity to each and every one of you.”
Celebrating the life of the priest who was a champion of the poor and downtrodden
By John Pontifex
A WARNING against self-centredness and a call to renew compassion for people who suffer has come from a senior cardinal marking an important anniversary for a leading Catholic charity.
In a letter to the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need, which helps persecuted and other suffering Christians, the organisation’s president, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, praises Fr Werenfried van Straaten, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday on January 17.
Saying that Fr Werenfried ‘saw service of the poor as a ‘sacramental’ action,’ Cardinal Piacenza writes: “By his preaching, Fr Werenfried ruffled the false sense of security of those who thought they could save themselves without thinking of their neighbour.”
The cardinal, who reports directly to Pope Benedict XVI, continues: “We need to become ‘poorer,’ more genuine and less interested in our own words, thoughts, feelings and actions so that… through us God can carry out His own works.”
Stressing that when he started up ACN, Fr Werenfried tasked his charity with ‘proclaiming without compromise the law of love,’ Cardinal Piacenza recalled how in early post-war Europe, Fr Werenfried invited people to put aside differences and help German refugees.
He stated: “[Fr Werenfried] sought to dry the tears of the poor and bind up the wounds of the suffering.”
Cardinal Piacenza’s comments come as Aid to the Church in Need benefactors, volunteers and staff around the world hold celebrations marking Fr Werenfried’s centenary with memorial Masses, talks and events taking place in many of the charity’s 17 national offices.
Committing himself afresh to ACN’s work in the years ahead, the cardinal writes: “[The suffering people’s] gratitude is the gratitude of Christ Himself and thus the sole guarantee of God’s blessing on ACN and its work.
“[This] we shall continue to fulfil with renewed love for him and in his name.”
The letter of Cardinal Piacenza, who is President of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, appears in ACN’s February 2013 Mirror newsletter sent to benefactors around the world.
“I was privileged to know Fr Werenfried,” Neville Kyrke-Smith, director of ACN UK, said. “He was a man of indefatigable spirit who challenged all those whom he encountered to respond to Christ’s love.
“His pastoral ‘Dear Friends’ Mirror newsletter called upon the friends of the suffering Christians to storm heaven with prayer and live charity in compassion.
“People warmed to his humour and humanity and many thousands of kind friends of ACN came to recognise the immense value of his prophetic work.”
A life marked by care
Born in 1913, Philip van Straaten left his native Holland in 1934 to join the Norbertine Abbey of Tongerlo, Belgium, taking the name Werenfried, which means ‘fighter for peace.’
Ordained priest in 1940, the initiative for what became Aid to the Church in Need began at Christmas 1947 with Fr Werenfried’s appeal on behalf of refugees, prompted by a general request for help made by Pope Pius XII.
Fr Werenfried’s first appeal for help among Flemish farmers led to donations of large hunks of meat, earning him the nickname ‘the bacon priest,’ which stuck with him for life.
Fr Werenfried mobilised ‘rucksack priests’ and ‘chapel trucks’ for displaced people and soon risked his life by visiting embattled Catholic communities suffering behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.
He called on the Church to refuse to compromise with Communism and he fulfilled ‘promises of love,’ providing aid for bishops, priests, sisters struggling to carry out pastoral work in very difficult, even dangerous, circumstances.
In response to a request from Blessed Pope John XXIII, Fr Werenfried expanded his work to Latin America and India in the early 1960s and by the end of the decade the charity was active in Africa.
By the time Fr Werenfried died aged 90 in January 2003, the charity was at work in more than 130 countries around the world, annually fulfilling at least 5000 projects—aid for refugees, training for seminarians, providing cars and other transport for priests, churches and other religious buildings, Catholic radio and other media and children’s Bibles.
By then a crucial new venture was underway after Fr Werenfried responded to a request by Blessed Pope John Paul II to help Christians emerging after more than 70 years of Soviet oppression.