Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, president of Aid to the Church in Need, is praising the founder of the Catholic charity for “ruffling the false sense of security of those who thought they could save themselves without thinking of their neighbor.”
Cardinal Piacenza is prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, which oversees the charity group since its establishment in 2011 as a pontifical foundation.
Father Werenfried van Straaten, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Thursday (Jan. 17), began what would become the charity organization in 1947.
Cardinal Piacenza said Father Van Straaten saw “service of the poor as a ‘sacramental’ action.”
“By his preaching, Father Werenfried ruffled the false sense of security of those who thought they could save themselves without thinking of their neighbor.”
“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,” the cardinal added.
Stressing that when he started up ACN, Father Werenfried tasked his charity with “proclaiming without compromise the law of love,” Cardinal Piacenza recalled how in early post-war Europe, Father Werenfried invited people to put aside differences and help German refugees.
He stated: “[Father 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 the founder’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 fulfill with renewed love for him and in his name.”
Cardinal Piacenza’s letter is published in ACN’s February 2013 Mirror newsletter sent to benefactors around the world.
Humor and humanity
Neville Kyrke-Smith, the Director of ACN UK, said: “I was privileged to know Father Werenfried. 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 humor and humanity – and many thousands of kind friends of ACN came to recognize the immense value of his prophetic work.”
Fighter for peace
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 a priest in 1940, the initiative for what became Aid to the Church in Need began at Christmas 1947 with Father Werenfried’s appeal on behalf of refugees, prompted by a general request for help made by Pope Pius XII.
Father Werenfried’s first appeal for help among Flemish farmers led to donations of large hunks of meat, earning him the nickname “he Bacon Priest,” which stuck with him for life.
Father 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, sisters struggling to carry out pastoral work in very difficult, even dangerous, circumstances.
In response to a request from Blessed Pope John XXIII, Father 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 Father Werenfried died at age 90 in January 2003, the charity was at work in more than 130 countries around the world, annually fulfilling at least 5,000 projects – aid for refugees, training for seminarians, cars and other transport for priests, churches and other religious buildings, Catholic radio and other media and Child’s Bibles.
By then a crucial new venture was under way after Father Werenfried responded to a request by Blessed Pope John Paul II to help Christians emerging after more than 70 years of Soviet oppression.