On 27 May 1940, the village of Vinkt, located near the Belgian city of Ghent, was the scene of one of the great crimes committed on the Western Front during World War II. Eighty-six civilians were executed during a massacre carried out by German troops. Dutch Premonstratensian Father Werenfried van Straaten, founder of the charity Aid to the Church in Need, recognized the dangers of a Europe divided by hate and dedicated his life to restoring love. Also in Vinkt, where ten years after the disastrous events, something worth remembering happened.
World War II had come to an end. As agreed upon by the victorious powers at the Yalta Conference and in the Potsdam Agreement, fourteen million Germans were driven out of the eastern provinces beginning in 1945. In western Germany, the majority of the displaced persons, among them six million Catholics, lived under inhumane conditions in bunkers or camps. The suffering of the millions of displaced persons reminded Father Werenfried van Straaten, a Premonstratensian priest born in 1913 in Mijdrecht in the Netherlands, of the story of the Nativity, when there was no room at the inn for the Holy Family because “their people” had no love.
No room at the inn
The young priest appealed to the Christian conscience of his fellow countrymen, calling upon them to love their enemies and neighbors. In the article “No room at the inn”, written for the 1947 Christmas edition of the magazine of Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium, he called upon his countrymen, who were still mourning relatives killed by the Germans, to make a gesture of reconciliation. And the incredible happened: the response to the article was overwhelming, unleashing a wave of giving among the Flemish people. As the three thousand Catholic priests who were among the displaced persons had taken on the task of distributing the aid to those in need, the new charitable organization was given the name “Iron Curtain Priest”.
“God preserve us from hate”
The name “Werenfried” means “warrior for peace” and this soon became his mission. In 1948, Father Werenfried collected donations of bacon from Flemish farmers, an initiative that was hugely successful and gave him the nickname “Bacon Priest”. Then, in 1950, exactly ten years after the massacre described above, he traveled to Vinkt to preach. In his memoirs, Father Werenfried wrote that he was apprehensive of preaching this sermon. “I was never quick to feel fear, but at the time I was afraid.” He certainly had cause, considering that the resentment and hatred in the hearts of the people had yet to be vanquished. The oldest of the victims had been 89 years old, the youngest 13. Almost all of the families had suffered a loss. Even the local priest advised Father Werenfried against taking this risk.
“I drove to Vinkt a day earlier to take stock of the situation. I arrived at the parish house on Saturday evening. Distraught, the priest raised his hands and exclaimed, ‘It will not work, Father, the people do not want it. They are saying, “What? This priest is coming to ask for help for the Germans? For those despicable people who shot our men and boys? Never! Not one living soul will come to hear his speech. He can preach to empty chairs if he feels like it. And he should consider himself lucky that he is a priest. Otherwise, he would be in for a beating!”’
What was I supposed to do? After discussing it with the priest, I decided to prepare for that evening’s speech by giving the sermon at all of the divine services held that Sunday. And so, to everyone’s surprise, I was the one standing in the pulpit the next morning, for fifteen whole minutes, preaching about love. It was the most difficult sermon I gave in my whole life. But it worked,” Werenfried van Straaten later recalled.
“Human beings are better than we think!”
“And once I had spoken the Thanksgiving prayer after Holy Mass and the church had completely emptied – because the people are ashamed to show how good they really are! – a woman shyly came forward. She did not say anything, but gave me one thousand francs and then left before I could ask her anything. Fortunately, the priest had just come out of the sacristy and saw her leave. He told me that she was an ordinary farmer’s wife and that her husband, her son, and her brother were all murdered by the Germans in 1940. And she was the first,” he continued.
“That evening, the meeting hall was full. For two hours, I talked about the desperate situation of the rucksack priests and the desolation of their faithful. I did not beg them for bacon, money, or clothing. I only begged for love and at the very end, I asked whether they would join me in praying for their suffering brothers in Germany. They prayed with tears in their eyes. And late that evening, at eleven o’clock, when it was dark and no one would recognize them, they came, one after the other, to the parish house to deliver envelopes with one hundred francs, with five hundred francs, with an accompanying letter. And early the next morning, before I left, they came again to the parish house (…) I was given seventeen envelopes with money. They transferred money to my postal giro account. They collected bacon. They adopted a German priest. That was Vinkt! Human beings are better than we think!”
“Europe’s Ship of States”: Only a Christian life can save us
Werenfried van Straaten realized that peace and reconciliation would never return to the world while hatred lived on in the hearts of the people. “We are all sailing on a ship and that ship is called Europe! […] When this ship springs a leak, everything else becomes irrelevant. And Europe’s Ship of States is taking water. So now we all have to pull up our sleeves and start pumping, or else we will all go under, no matter what side we are on.” He continued, “Neither the atomic bomb nor the Marshall Plan will save us, only a true Christian life. Only through love, the mark of a Christian, can order be restored.”