"Someone must begin: Let it be us!"
"Someone must begin: Let it be us!" This was the principle followed by Father Werenfried van Straaten, founder of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), who died on Jan. 31, 12 years ago, after a lifetime dedicated to the service of the suffering Church and the work of reconciliation.
When Pope John Paul II asked him in 1991, after his long life as a bridge-builder, to now seek the means of creating a dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church, he couldn't wait to get going.
After all, this Church had had to start practically from scratch after decades of persecution: of the approximately 60,000 houses of worship in which the Holy Liturgy had been celebrated prior to the October Revolution in Russia, only 100 were left twenty years later. In the first two years after the October Revolution alone 15,000 Orthodox priests had been killed. More than 300 bishops had been executed or had died in prison.
When he was almost 80 years old, Father Werenfried said that to give support to the Orthodox sister Church after the collapse of the communist regime was the "last and greatest joy of my life."
The "ecumenism of the martyrs," the common confession of faith by the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians in the labor camps and prisons of the Soviet Union, was now to become transformed after the political turnaround into an "ecumenism of solidarity."
Help in training new priests, the "chapel boats" which acted as floating churches visiting villages which had no houses of worship on the shores of the rivers Volga and Don, joint media initiatives intended to break down prejudices and to inform the faithful about the respective other Church and support in pastoral care for prisoners and drug addicts have all borne rich fruit, as has the support given to the first Orthodox hospice for terminally ill children.
Numerous friendships and initiatives have emerged from these actions. The help given was not only one-sided since in Russia, where Catholic Christians are only a small minority. There, open-minded Orthodox clerics can be valuable helpers for the Catholic communities.
Successive Popes have expressed the wish that this commitment be continued. Often mutual mistrust is based on ignorance and prejudices, and so it is important to get to know one another better and thus be able to come closer together.
"Ecumenism is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not have hands or feet and so we Christians must become his hands and feet in the world."
With these words the young Protestant pastor Vladimir Tatarnikov from Belarus encapsulated what more and more Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians feel: that reconciliation is not just a theory, but something concrete. That it consists of words which are consciously spoken, of deeds which create facts, of steps which people take to come closer to one another. And that, in the final analysis, it is a gift of God.
In many countries there now exist successful ecumenical initiatives. For example, in Lutsk in the north-west of Ukraine an ecumenical benefit event is held every year. For this joint celebration, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants prepare a program of Christmas carols, plays and dances.
The proceeds go to orphans, and the program is broadcast on state television. The fact that the Churches join together to help poor children also sets a good example to people who generally have nothing to do with the Christian faith.
"Not only a choice, but a duty" is how Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, describes the commitment to ecumenism. In many countries the collaboration between the different denominations and religions is, however, also a bitter necessity, since wherever hatred rules it can save lives if the representatives of the religious communities join together to advocate reconciliation and peace.
In the spiral of violence into which the Central African Republic was drawn further and further in 2013/2014, it was the combined voices of Catholic, Protestant and Muslim religious leaders which could be heard opposing the law of vengeance and supporting reconciliation and reason.
It is thanks to the joint intervention of representatives of the Churches and religions that it was possible to prevent massacres in many places; for example in Bozoum, a town in the north west of the country where the Italian Carmelite father Aurelio Gazzera joined with a Protestant pastor and an imam in January 2014 to conduct intensive peace negotiations and achieve the withdrawal of the Séléka rebels when it was feared there would be a massacre with hundreds of dead.
In view of the spreading persecution of Christians, collaboration is becoming more necessary than ever. Pope Francis said in December 2013 in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa that, in view of the persecution of Christians, ecumenism was for him a "matter of priority, since in many countries Christians are being killed because they wear a crucifix or own a Bible.”
“And before they are killed, they are not asked whether they are Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans or Orthodox believers. The blood is mixed."
It was the wish of Jesus that all should be one. Father Werenfried, the founder of ACN who died twelve years ago on January 31, always trusted in the power of God which opens the hearts of people to one another.
The desire to build bridges and bring about reconciliation was the great mission in his life, and taking the first step in this direction was the major feature of Aid to the Church in Need from the very beginning.