Aid to the Church in Need is a Pontifical Foundation established in 1947 by a young Dutch Norbertine priest, Father Werenfried van Straaten. Born in Mijdrecht on January 17, 1913, he entered the Premonstratine Belgian abbey of Tongerlo. One hundred years after his birth, ZENIT interviewed Peter van Hoof from ACN Holland (Aid to the Church in Need, Netherlands)
ZENIT: When, where and how did Aid to the Church in Need begin?
Van Hoof: Father Werenfried van Straaten began his activity in 1947, at a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons were flooding into Western Europe. It began with the collection of clothes and food, but he soon realized that the spiritual needs of the refugees far outweighed their material needs. Since that time, the aid has been principally aimed at supporting pastoral work among refugees.
Initially, the aid was limited to the camps located in what later became West Germany. In 1956 (the Hungarian Uprising), support was extended to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe. Since 1964, at the request of the Pope at the time, widespread support has also been given to Churches in the Third World. Currently about 40% of all aid goes to the ex-communist countries, and 60% to the Third World.
ZENIT: What was Father Werenfried Van Straaten’s role?
Van Hoof: On Christmas 1947 the young Norbertine priest (Werenfried was then 34 years old) wrote an article entitled “Peace on Earth? No Room at the Inn.” With this article, he appealed to the Belgian people to help the 14 million Germans who had been exiled from the eastern regions and left homeless after the Second World War. Over 6 million of them were Catholics.
No one would ever have imagined that this would be the beginning of a charity that now reaches approximately 140 countries around the world. They were very difficult times. Europe was left utterly in ruins, and many Belgians were mourning their loved ones who had been killed by the Germans. The wounds of war were still open. But Father Werenfried was so touched by the misery of the German people, especially of the exiles from the eastern regions, that he could not remain silent. He had to cry out loud and clear.
Then the unlikely happened. Werenfried’s call unleashed a massive wave of generosity and self-sacrifice among the Belgians and Dutch. One of the first things Father Werenfried requested from the Belgian people living in the countryside was bacon, in order at least to relieve the refugees’ great hunger. In fact, he quickly realized that while the rural populations didn’t have much money, they did have enough food that they were able and wanted to share. Father Werenfried collected so much bacon that he was soon nicknamed the “Bacon Priest” (Spekpater).
ZENIT: What were the first countries to be helped?
Van Hoof: First, believers in communist countries in Europe were helped, particularly in Hungary. In 1962, at the request of Pope John XXIII, ACN expanded its work to Latin America.
ZENIT: What is the relationship between Aid to the Church in Need and the Child’s Bible?
Van Hoof: The Child’s Bible is published directly by ACN. More than 50 million copies have been printed, in 172 different languages. It’s read in approximately 140 countries. About 30 years ago, Father Werenfried took the initiative to print this Bible. He distributed the first copies himself in 1979, in Mexico.
ZENIT: How is your Association organized today? Where does the money come from for the financial aid you offer?
Van Hoof: In 2011, Aid to the Church in Need was established as a Pontifical Foundation overseen by the Congregation for the Clergy. Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Congregation, is the President of ACN. Baron Johannes von Heereman Zuydtwyck is the Executive President. The organization’s international headquarters are located in Königstein, Germany. There are offices in 17 countries, including the Netherlands.
ZENIT: What is your mission today? How many countries are you present in? Which ones?
Van Hoof: ACN supports Christians all over the world wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in need of pastoral care. ACN carries out this mission through information, prayer and action, i.e. practical charity. ACN is an international Catholic aid organization with offices in 17 countries. Founded 65 years ago by the “Bacon Priest” Werenfried van Straaten, it provides annual support to 5,000 projects around the world (in over 150 countries):
• Formation of seminarians
• Printing and distribution of Bibles and other religious literature
• Support for priests and clerics in difficulty
• Assistance to refugees, drug addicts and other persons in need
• Construction and reconstruction of churches and chapels
• Production and distribution of radio and television programs.
ZENIT: ACN is particularly active in the Netherlands. What initiatives are being carried our in this country?
Van Hoof: We focus our efforts on three pillars: information, prayer and practical charity.
We believe it is important to provide accurate information about the suffering Church and persecuted Christians. We do this through a web site, where we present the most important news on Christians who are being persecuted. We also hold regular meetings (several times a month) in parishes, youth groups, etc. on different aspects that relate to the suffering Church. On March 21, 2013 we will once again be holding a conference, this time entitled: “Witnesses of Faith from the Holy Land,” where people can get first-hand information. ACN also prints books on the persecution of Christians. The pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a very special way to obtain information on the suffering Church.
People need this information in order to be touched by the plight of persecuted Christians. The most important way to do something is to pray. In this regard, ACN makes frequent appeals for prayer for Christians who are being persecuted. It also organizes an annual “Evening of Martyrs”, a prayer meeting where we remember people who were killed for their faith and pray for them and for the their persecutors. Other ways include lighting a candle at www.bidmee.nl or reciting one of the prayers found on the ACN Web site.
ACN also asks for action, i.e. financial support for one of the projects sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need.
ZENIT: In addition to economic aid, what other forms of support do you offer?
Van Hoof: In addition to financial support, ACN helps persecuted Christians through exchange and encouragement. ACN collaborators provide this support by travelling to the various countries for specific projects. Those who are interested may also participate in one of the annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land. This is an excellent way to meet Christians who are in need, and to encourage them and (even more) to be encouraged by them.
ZENIT: Isn’t the Church of the Netherlands also a Church that suffers?
Van Hoof: Yes, it is a suffering Church. But it suffers in a way quite different than many other countries. The needs of the Church in the Netherlands are much more interior. This requires even more prayer.
ZENIT: What projects do you support in the Netherlands?
Van Hoof: As described above, there are several initiatives currently being carried out in the Netherlands. ACN sponsors “Catholic Youth Day” so that young people can meet together and be strengthened in their faith. There are also several small projects being supported in the Netherlands. They are almost always aimed at promoting the new evangelization or improving pastoral care.[Translation by Diane Montagna]