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Monday, October 24, 2016
Fr Werenfried: 'the most irresistable mendicant preacher of our times'
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 Fr Werenfried van Straaten, founder of Aid to the Church in Need, died on Friday, 31 January at Bad Soden, Germany. Fr Werenfried was born Philip Johannes Hendrick van Straaten on 11 January 1913, the second son of primary school teacher Evert and Catharina van Straaten, in the Netherlands. His two brothers had both decided to be priests by the age of six, but Philipp initially decided to be a teacher. After school he began philosophy and classical studies in 1932 at Utrecht University, where he was heavily involved in Christian political movements. However, he suddenly rejected politics in favour of the monastic life. Initially he wanted to join the Capuchins, but he failed the medical, suffering a bout of TB during this time. In 1934 he joined the Norbertines at Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium, taking the religious name Werenfried, and was ordained to the priesthood on 25 July 1940. During the war and the occupation, he tried to stay out of the rivalries between pro-Nazis and resistance fighters. Once the Nazis had been driven out, he remained concerned at the polarisation of the country. "There were so many grave problems," he later recalled ­ they could be summed up as "a lack of brotherly love." Immediately after Belgium was liberated, he founded an anti-hatred league with a close friend and fellow Norbertine brother. Each member had to pledge to say, at least once a day, a short prayer for his worst enemies. Within a year they were organising joint retreats for the 'blacks' (former Nazi collaborators) and the 'whites' (former resistance fighters). At the end of World War Two, 16 million Germans were forced to relocate from former eastern German regions such as Pomerania and Silesia to the west. The Holy See asked the abbey of Tongerlo to help them. Fr Werenfried was given the job, and Aid to the Church in Need was born. Fr Werenfried launched a programme of providing transport for 3,000 'rucksack priests' ­ Catholic priests from among the displaced refugees who ministered as best they could to their scattered flocks, resettled in mainly Protestant areas of Germany. "If the rucksack priests had given up, it would have been the end of the Church in those regions," he said. By 1950 Werenfried was financing the first "chapel trucks" ­ converted buses used as mobile churches. Fr Werenfried soon earned himself the nickname 'the bacon priest', from the donations of bacon made by Flemish farmers' wives. His work soon expanded to include support for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. For years he remained one of the few voices in the West to fearlessly expose the misery wrought by communism. He supported Cardinal Josef Mindszenty in Hungary and Cardinal Iosyf Slipyi in Ukraine, both of whom suffered imprisonment and exile. On hearing the news of the Hungarian uprising in October 1956, Werenfried rushed across the border from Austria without a visa or passport and met Mindszenty in Budapest within hours of his release from prison. He first met Slipyi in Rome in 1963 when Khrushchev suddenly expelled him from the Soviet Union. During the Second Vatican Council Fr Werenfried met 60 Eastern European bishops, pledging his support for their hard-pressed faithful. ACN gave vital financial support to émigré church institutions, such as the Ukrainian Catholic University in Rome, believing that, when Communism eventually gave way to a more open system, they would be able to contribute to the recovery of the churches in their homelands. ACN also began to assist Arab refugees in the Middle East, refugees from China, North Korea and North Vietnam. In 1962, with encouragement from, Pope John XXIII, Werenfried extended ACN's work to Latin America, making his first visit to the continent. He was shocked by the poverty in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and had to beat a hasty retreat from one home to be sick. In 1965 Fr Werenfried began work in Africa. During the genocide in Burundi in 1972 he was arrested, but managed to escape and gain sanctuary in the Vatican nunciature before being expelled. Fr Werenfried remained uncompromisingly loyal to the Magisterium. Besides their magazine, Aid to the Church in Need has produced many other publications promoting Catholic teaching around the world including catechisms and prayer books. With the fall of communism came new opportunities and challenges. A major recent initiative has been to provide support for the Orthodox in Russia, including floating boat chapels along the River Volga. "Father Werenfried, fight on!" Pope John Paul II told Fr Werenfried at the World Youth Day at Denver in August 1993. He continued touring the world visiting projects, preaching and drumming up support for the charity well into his 80s. Werenfried was close to Pope John Paul spiritually. Both interpreted world events in a spiritual light and believed that the secularised West needed re-evangelisation as much as the former Communist countries or those in the Third World. Both had a strong mystical strain and had a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. The two also shared many practical goals, such as overcoming the mutual distrust between Catholics and the Russian Orthodox and ending the schism in the Catholic Church in China. In close consultation with the Pope, Werenfried initiated projects in the early 1990s to support the Russian Orthodox Church financially and practically - in spite of some opposition from both Catholic and Orthodox factions. In 1992 Werenfried made a pioneering visit to Russia, winning over not only Patriarch Alexy in Moscow but also the hardliner Metropolitan Ioann of St Petersburg. More controversial still for some Catholics was ACN's decision ­ fully backed by the Pope ­ to support not only the persecuted part of the Catholic Church in China that retained its loyalty to the Pope, but the part of the Church loyal to the Chinese government. ACN invited government-loyal bishops to its headquarters in the central German town of Königstein and supported institutions of the Catholic Patriotic Association. Fr Werenfried said: "There is no division between the Patriotic and the underground Church. We look at people first. We will help the Patriotic Church. This helps towards reconciliation. I know this is difficult for the underground bishops and priests to accept." Felix Corley from the Keston Institute wrote that Fr Werenfried considered writing his memoirs, after his 75th birth, but he said: "his heart wasn't really in it. He preferred staying on the road, wheedling, cajoling and encouraging donations for the poor and threatened church." Fr. Werenfried, with only an old hat for begging, a strong faith, and a heart full of love begged, received and gave away more than $700 million in his lifetime. He said: "I live only in the present, from day to day. I never had a long-range plan. Each time one project was achieved, God gave me a new one; what I had to do was always clear. I am no theorist: I am a doer. I trust in Divine Providence, in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and I try to do what God expects of me."
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