On January 31st, 20o3, fifteen years ago, Fr Werefried van Straaten went to his eternal rest. He had celebrated his 90th birthday just two weeks before his death.
Fr Werenfried van Straaten is almost a legend in the Catholic Church. A Dutch Norbertine priest, he has become known and loved throughout the world thanks to his powerful message of charity and love, and its fulfilment in the work of the charity that he founded in 1947, Aid to the Church in Need.
This was the man who urged his fellow countrymen to help the impoverished and starving Germans after the Second World War – calling for generosity, forgiveness and new hope, instead of bitterness and recrimination.
Although known to generations as ‘the Bacon Priest’ because of his practical approach to fundraising, Fr Werefried never neglected the spiritual hunger of the poor and dispossessed. While the charitable work that he founded on the ruins of Europe has continued to expand and flourish around the world, he has also remained a steadfast witness to eternal truths of the Catholic Faith – and his writing has been an inspiration to millions.
Later, during the years of the Cold War, he extended his mission to the countries behind the Iron Curtain; now his work often had to be carried out in dangerous circumstances, and in secret. Van Straaten’s unflinching anti-Communism during this period did not endear him to some more liberal elements in the Church, who referred to him dismissively as “the last general of the Cold War”. Often travelling illegally, trusting entirely in prayer and love, this giant of charity organised secret help from the West to the ‘Church of Silence’ in Eastern Europe during the bitter years of Communist persecution.
When the Russian troops retreated temporarily from Budapest in October 1956, Fr van Straaten made straight for the Hungarian capital.
In his haste, he forgot to take his passport and arrived in the white habit of his Order. For the first time he met the imprisoned Hungarian Archbishop Mindszenty, who made a deep impression on him; he later became the Archbishop’s spokesman in the West.
With the changes in eastern Europe, Fr van Straaten twice made extensive trips, when over 80 years old, to Russia and Siberia. On both occasions he met the Patriarch of Moscow, agreeing to give aid to a small number of Russian Orthodox projects. To some of his supporters, this was a step too far; but he explained that the duty to help the Orthodox Church in need was the same duty which had given birth to his work at the end of the Second World War; and his policy of Christian charity to the Russian Orthodox Church was sanctioned by Pope John Paul II himself.
Fr van Straaten had been on reasonably good terms with Pope John XXIII, who in 1962 asked him to extend his charity’s work to the Church in Latin America, and with Pope Paul VI, but he disagreed with their policy of seeking an accommodation with Communism. His greatest supporter was Pope John Paul II who, when Archbishop of Cracow, had defied the Communist authorities to build a church in the town of Nowa Huta. (For months he and his supporters carried out building work at night, while the Communists pulled down their efforts by day. The church had finally been completed, and reluctantly accepted by the Communists.)
In the post-Communist era many Catholics were forced to think again about van Straaten. He became a hero to hundreds of thousands of young Catholics and, before a series of heart attacks in the early 1990s, he was for a time a sought-after speaker at major gatherings of Catholic youth.
His life and work spanned one of the most desperate periods of the Church’s history; a period when against- all the odds- terror and despair were overcome by faith, hope and charity. He spoke steadfastly for the forgotten and the abandoned, and for the modern martyrs of the Catholic Church.