Father Werenfried was ordained on 25.07.1940

Father Werenfried van Straaten was born in 1913 in the town of Mijdrecht, near Amsterdam. Named Philip, the future Father Werenfried was meant to become a teacher, like his father. Certainly his parents had always wanted one of their sons to become a priest, but as both their other sons had already joined the Augustinian Order, Philip, the third son, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Philip for his own part would rather have studied painting, but he went along with his parents’ wishes and studied classical philology.

Even as a student he was very engaged in social issues: he actually founded a newspaper and even a political party. It was thus a complete surprise when in 1934 he entered the Norbertine abbey of Tongerlo in Belgium. While in the monastery poor health almost sealed his fate and he came close to having to leave as the doctors had determined that his poor physical constitution would not permit him to exercise the normal activities of a priest. God however had other plans and so he remained for the time being as the abbot`s secretary, until the time came for him to transform the name “Werenfried”, (‘warrior for peace’) which he had assumed as a monk into a programme for life.

It was at Christmas 1947, when this young 34 year old Dutch Norbertine priest, wrote an article entitled “Peace on Earth?/No Room at the Inn”. In this article he called on the Belgian people to help the 14 million homeless Germans, expelled from the Eastern territories, 6 million of whom were Catholics. Nobody could have imagined that this would be the birth of a charity that today is actively involved supporting the Church in over 140 countries around the globe.

The times then were bleak indeed; Europe lay in ruins and so many Belgians were still mourning loved ones killed by the Germans; the wounds of war were still raw and open… But so deeply was Father Werenfried moved by the misery of the German people, especially those expelled from their homes in the East, that he could not remain silent, but had to speak out loud and clear. And the incredible happened– his appeal triggered an enormous wave of generosity and sacrifice among the Belgians, and then the Dutch.

One of the first things that Father Werenfried requested of the Flemish countryfolk was bacon, so that he could at least ease the immense physical hunger of the refugees. Not only this, but he had quickly realised that these peasant folk were more likely to have food in the house than money, and were also willing to part with some of this. Indeed, so much bacon was collected that Father Werenfried soon earned his the nickname of “Bacon Priest”.

From 1948 onwards Father Werenfried worked together closely with Monsignor Kindermann, who ran an organisation for refugees and also a seminary for those expelled from the East, in the town of Königstein, near Frankfurt in Germany.

Fr. Werenfried with a Chapel Truck

It was from Königstein that he launched his programme of providing wheels for the many “rucksack priests” – Catholic priests from among the displaced refugee population who sought to minister to their scattered flocks in war-torn Germany.

By 1950 he was financing the first “chapel trucks” – converted buses used as mobile churches to bring the Mass and sacraments to the scattered Catholic refugees in Germany.

The sickly young novice of 1934 had transformed into a brilliant organiser, a powerful public speaker and a highly successful popular missioner. He was making as many as 90 church appeals a month and cheerfully acknowledged begging to be his true vocation. Even in his old age occasionally he sat after Mass at the back of the church with his worn-out “Hat of Millions”, collecting money for the cause.

In 1953 Fr Werenfried’s small handwritten newsletter, the “Mirror” first appeared. Today this bi-monthly bulletin around 700,000 copies are published in seven languages.

Fr. Werenfried with Mother Teresa

In 1956, during the Hungarian Uprising, Father Werenfried travelled to Budapest and met Cardinal Mindszenty, who had just been released from prison. It was the start of a flood of aid for the Church in Hungary.

In 1959 Father Werenfried travelled through Asia, visiting the refugee areas and meeting Mother Teresa in her “House of the Dying” in Calcutta.

In 1960 his first book was published, “They call me the Bacon Priest”.

In 1962 Father Werenfried attended the second Vatican Council in Rome as a “peritus“,(expert). There he met 60 bishops from the Iron Curtain countries who were directly or indirectly receiving help from ACN.

In 1965, during the Simba Uprising, Father Werenfried visited the Belgian Congo (now Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo). A year later, together with the Belgian nun, Mother Hadewych, he founded the religious community “Daughters of the Resurrection”. This was in some ways a unique congregation, since it was open to young African women with no formal education.

The Bacon Priest

In 1969 Fr. Werenfried published his book “Where God Weeps”.

After the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe the work of ACN took on a new dimension. In many countries of the former communist bloc Father Werenfried was now received with a joyful welcome. Since it became easier to help the totally destitute Church of Eastern Europe Fr Werenfried committed ACN to re-doubling its efforts to help the Church rise from the ruins and rebuild her pastoral and evangelising mission in this former communist empire.

On the 30th March 1991 the spiritual head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Lubachivsky, returned home from his exile in Rome. Fr. Werenfried went with him and, in front of hundreds of thousands of the faithful, promised to help him rebuild church life there.

During all of his life a particular concern of Father Werenfried’s was the support for the Ukrainian Catholic Church. This Church has been in union with Rome since 1596, however it celebrates the Liturgy according to the Eastern rite. In 1946 it was effectively abolished by the communists, who had called a fake synod, and thereby officially ceased to exist. Right up to the collapse of the Communist regime the faithful had to suffer severe reprisals and punishments, and Father Werenfried helped the Ukrainian Catholics to keep their church alive underground. Father Werenfried called his journey to Lviv “one of the happiest days” in his life.

For Father Werenfried in particular a new chapter began in his work of reconciliation, namely the promotion of better relations between the Catholic Church in the West and her Russian Orthodox sister Church.

So it was that in 1992 he appealed for reconciliation of the divisions within Christianity and called upon Catholics to give help for their Orthodox sister Church.

Just as he had preached after the war for love for the “enemies of yesterday”, so now he was preaching reconciliation and the overcoming of the schism in the Church which has lasted between East and West since 1054.

He met with Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow and agreed to specific aid measures for the Russian Orthodox Church. This will later include the “chapel boats” – based on the model of the earlier “chapel trucks”to bring the sacraments to Orthodox Christians on the vast churchless reaches of the Volga and Don rivers.

In 1993 Father Werenfried spoke at the World Youth Day in Denver, USA.

In 1997 a pilgrimage to Fatima of over 5,000 friends, benefactors and staff of Aid to the Church in Need marked the 50th anniversary of ACN and the 80th anniversary of the apparitions in Fatima. Father Werenfried renewed the consecration of his Charity to Our Lady.

In 2000 Father Werenfried celebrates his Diamond Jubilee of the priesthood and a Holy Year pilgrimage is organised with friends and benefactors to Rome. Pope John Paul II addresses a message of greeting to Father Werenfried and thanks him, on behalf of the Church, for his life`s work.

Pope John Paul II. with Fr. Werenfried, 17. September 1986

In 2001 Father Werenfried meets Pope John Paul II during the latter’s pastoral visit to Ukraine. In Lviv the Pope blesses the site of the new Greek-Catholic seminary and the Theological Centre which was funded by ACN benefactors.

In 2002 the first ever meeting of the spiritual assistants and leaders of ACN with Fr. Werenfried took place at which senior representatives and staff of the Vatican express their gratitude and recognition for the work of Aid to the Church in Need. The climax of this meeting was the concelebration of Holy Mass with the Pope in his private chapel after which the Holy Father gives Father Werenfried his own Paschal Candle.

In 2003 On 17 January Father Werenfried celebrates his 90th birthday, together with over five hundred colleagues, friends and benefactors, with a solemn Mass in Limburg Cathedral followed by a reception in the town hall. Bishop Franz Kamphaus of Limburg gives the principal address and reminds us that “religion is still something exciting today”. And he cites the life and work of Father Werenfried as the best proof of this.

Following a short but serious illness, Father Werenfried passed away on 31 January 2003 in Bad Soden, Germany.

The solemn Requiem Mass is once again celebrated in Limburg Cathedral. The chief celebrant and preacher this time is the Prefect of the Vatican’s clergy congregation, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos. With him are Cardinal Meisner of Cologne, Bishop Franz Kamphaus of Limburg and numerous other bishops and priests from all around the world.

As a symbol of the resurrection and a token of personal affection and devotion to the Pope, the candle burning next to the coffin is the Paschal candle from the private chapel of Pope John Paul II, who had personally given this to Father Werenfried the previous year. The solemn burial of the Founder of Aid to the Church in Need takes place on the same afternoon, 7 February 2003 in the town of Königstein before a large throng of the faithful.