Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark was principal celebrant and guest-of-honour at a memorial Mass to mark the life and work of Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of Aid to the Church in Need.
The annual service, held on Thursday, celebrated the legacy of the Dutch Norbertine priest who set up the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians in 1947. He died in January 2003, two weeks after his 90th birthday.
The charity, which now fulfils more than 5,000 projects in 130 countries, has 17 national offices around the world, with the UK office in Sutton, the town in Surrey where the Mass was held.
During the service, at Sutton’s Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Archbishop Smith recalled how Fr Werenfried, the man known as the ‘Bacon Priest’, was “inspired by the love of Christ” to act in the early post-war Europe where he provided emergency aid for homeless people and others in desperate need.
Speaking to a packed congregation, Archbishop Smith recalled how Father Werenfried’s work quickly spread to providing support for Christians in Eastern Europe under communism before expanding to other continents around the world.
The archbishop said: “Father Werenfried was inspired by the love of Christ for each and every one of us. Aid to the Church in Need continues to be inspired by that same love today.”
In a reference to the worsening plight of Christians in key parts of the world, Archbishop Smith continued: “Today we are being asked to focus on the Middle East: many Christians are leaving that land where Christ himself exercised his ministry.
“We must have communion with those Christians through our prayer. We must give what we can to assist their material wants and needs.
“There are many other parts of the world where Christians are being persecuted. They need our help and our prayers.”
Welcoming people to the church was Father James McGillicuddy, parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, where parishioners have regularly raised funds for Aid to the Church in Need including a project in Malawi.
Speaking before the close of the Mass, Aid to the Church in Need UK director Neville Kyrke-Smith told the charity’s friends and benefactors present at the Mass: “‘You have been the hands of Christ.’ These words of a rector of a seminary in Ukraine which Aid to the Church in Need helped are words offered to you. With your prayer and your giving you have supported the suffering Church around the world.”
After the service, John Pontifex, Aid to the Church in Need UK head of press and information, gave a brief talk in the parish hall, concentrating on the plight of Christians in the Middle East, which is a priority for the charity.
Mr Pontifex highlighted the worsening persecution of Christians in key countries, underlining concerns recently made by Pope Benedict XVI.
Afterwards, Mr Kyrke-Smith said: “This is a year of opportunity and challenge to inform the people in the wider society about what Christians are facing for their faith today.”