Aid to the Church in Need came into being in 1947 when a young Norbertine priest, Father Werenfried van Straaten – whose name means “Warrior for Peace” – responded to an appeal for reconciliation made by Pope Pius XII in the bitter early years after World War II. He set out to organise emergency relief to meet the material and spiritual needs of the suffering German people. With the help of thousands of concerned and compassionate people he more than succeeded. His impassioned preaching and calls for reconciliation touched hearts and supplies of clothes and food poured in – particularly sides of pork, earning him his nickname, the Bacon Priest.
It all began on Christmas Day, 1947, with an article, “No Room at the Inn” written by Father Werenfried van Straaten for his abbey’s newsletter. In this article, Father Werenfried passionately called upon faithful to have the courage and compassion to open their hearts and reach out to suffering World War II refugees so that Christ, in His purity, love and goodness, could dwell among them.
Fr. Werenfried, whose name means “warrior for peace,” was born January 17, 1913, just outside of Amsterdam, in The Netherlands. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a teacher, but found himself called to the priesthood, and in 1934, entered the Norbertine Abbey of Tongerlo, Belgium.
His lifelong work, Aid to the Church in Need, sprang from the ashes of World War II, when Father Werenfried, then just 34, launched a campaign to aid 14 million displaced Germans. At the time, hatred of the German people was still so intense that a relief campaign to help them seemed nearly inconceivable. But that didn’t stop Father Werenfried. At that decisive moment and many times after, he refused to underestimate God’s grace — or humankind’s capacity for mercy and forgiveness. “God is much better than we think,” he often said. “And people, too, are better than we think.”
In assessing the horrific legacy of World War II, Father Werenfried believed there was only one hope: “For me,” he wrote, “the most pressing problem was making room for love again in Europe.” It seemed an impossible task, but Father Werenfried put his trust in Divine Providence, and launched his revolutionary Battle of the Bacon. That initial campaign was the beginning of Aid to the Church in Need. In the more than half-century since, the organization has grown tremendously and is still striving to meet the urgent need for spiritual and pastoral care of the imperiled, oppressed and persecuted Church throughout the world.
Father Werenfried always believed his true vocation in life was simply to be “a beggar for God’s suffering children.” In the year 2000, at the 60th anniversary of his ordination, he said, “I took the vow of poverty and gave away all that I possessed. I retained only my voice which has cried out everywhere for help, and the pen with which I write my begging letters.” He traveled the world with his famous black Begging Hat, to beg on behalf of the suffering; tirelessly working to bring God’s love and comfort to those in need of it most. In 2003, for his passion and dedication to serving those in need, His Holiness John Paul II honored Father Werenfried, naming him as an “Outstanding Apostle of Charity.”
Though Father Werenfried van Straaten is no longer with us in body, having passed away in January of 2003, just after his 90th birthday, his spirit is very much alive in the work of Aid to the Church in Need today. Thanks to the many thousands of caring, committed Catholics who reach out to God’s suffering children, Father Werenfried’s beautiful vision of creating an “international movement of love” lives on, bringing the light and hope of Christ wherever there is hate, discord, oppression or poverty around the world.
Our world is hungering and thirsting for witnesses of the risen Lord, for human beings who pass on the Faith in word and deed as well as for human beings who stand by those in need..