Remembering Father Werenfried

In a letter to the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic charity dedicated to helping persecuted and other suffering Christians, the organization's president, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, praised its founder, Father Werenfried van Straaten, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this coming Thursday, Jan. 17th.

Saying that Fr. Werenfried “saw service of the poor as a ‘sacramental’ action,” the Cardinal wrote: “By his preaching, Father Werenfried ruffled the false sense of security of whose who thought they could save themselves without thinking of their neighbor.”

Fr Werenfried with hatThe Cardinal, who reports directly to Pope Benedict XVI, continued: “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 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 wrote: “[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 fulfill 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.

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 bacon, earning him the nickname ‘the Bacon Priest,’ which stuck with him for the rest of his life. 

Fr. Werenfried mobilized ‘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, and 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 Asia in the early 1960s and by the end of the decade the charity was active in Africa. 

By the time Fr. Werenfried died at age 90 in January, 2003, the charity was at work in more than 130 countries around the world, annually fulfilling 5,000 or more projects:  aid for refugees, training for seminarians, cars and other transportation for priests, building and repairing churches and other religious buildings, supporting Catholic radio and other media and printing Child’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.


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