IJoanna Bogle celebrates the 90th birthday of Fr Werenfried van Straaten and married, but prayed ghat and removed from their homes oday, January 17. a remarkable priest with an international following celebrates his 90th birthday. It is a landmark, not only in his personal life but in the work he founded. which goes right back to the days of a devastated Europe in the wake of World War II. It became famous during the years of the Cold War when in fact much of the work it was actually doing had to remain secret.
The priest is Fr Werenfried van Straaten, born Philip Johannes Hendrik van Straaten in the small town of Mijdrecht in Holland.
The background to his birth was a sad and extraordinary story. His father was one of a large family and had always hoped to be a priest. But this was in the 1880s, and a terrible outbreak of cholera swept across Holland, taking within one week his three older brothers. He had to work to support his elderly parents and all hope of the priesthood was abandoned. He became a schoolmaster might give a son to the priesthood. He had three sons and they all became priests.
Initially, Philip, who was the middle son, felt that the priesthood was not for him. ("I frankly felt that two priests were quite enough for one family," he was later to recall.) But after a university career which had seen him passionately interested in politics, in social action and in quite challenging and controversial discussions on the Church, he experienced a sudden and dramatic call. He joined the Norbertines, the white-robed friars who were neither parish-based nor contemplati.tTs but had a preaching and minstering role.
Werenfried — the name he took when he made his vows and was to keep for the rest of his life — was chiefly to be remembered among the novices as a prankster and as being almost completely unable to sing in tune.
But these were serious times. Within a year of his entering the Abbey at Tongerlo in Belgium, war had broken out and the next five years were to be grim for all of Europe. Like everyone else he lost friends — unlike many in Europe, his included men fighting on both sides, for the German Axis as well as for the Western allies.
As the war ended, the Church sought to mop up the mess created by the battles that had raged across Europe — the thousands of displaced people, the fragmented families and the destroyed communities. Chief among the Church's priorities — but not among anyone else's — were the displaced Germans who had been swept from their homes when the Red Army moved across Europe.
In the territories formerly German, but now decreed by the Yalta Treaty to be Polish, many thousands of people — mostly women and children as their men had been away fighting at the Front — were forcibly and farms and sent westwards. The same occurred in the newly restored state of Czechoslovakia, with its new Communist-dominated government. As Stalin's • grip tightened. the displaced refugees were housed in ' makeshift camps. some created out of former airraid shelters in the devastated cities of West Gezrnany.
F. r Werenfried, given ' the task of raising funds for these rgfugees..gave his heart to the work. He collected money from Dutch farmers and factory workers who themselves had suffered at German hands. He begged for pigs to be fattened up and used for sausages — earning himself the nickname "the bacon priest", which stuck. He crammed clothing, sweets, bedding, biscuits, and tins of meat into his car.
He battled with officialdom to be allowed to cross the German frontier and visit the camps — and he published what he saw. Desperate people, with no hope and no prospects, desperate for news of a missing husband or father last reported captured at Stalingrad or some grim part of the Eastern Front, were crammed in grim conditions into camps where they knew themselves to be forgotten by the wider world and loathed as being Germans.
He gave them a voice through his newsletters, and when his work widened to include new waves of refugees from the East as the tealities of communism struck home, be created a new charity, iron curtain Church reild, to send help to those making new lives in the West and, more importantly, the suffering church now enduring savagkPersecution under an atheistic regime. , The rest, as they say, is history. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Fr Werenfried was there at the heart of the action, meeting Cardinal Mindzsenty in an embattled Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising. visiting Yugoslavia in disguise (complete with moustache) to distribute aid to churches and widening the scope of his work to include Latin America, India and Africa where the Church was menaced not by persecution but by hunger, homelessness and desperadon among her poorest people.
The charity, now renamed Aid to the Church in Need, flourishes today. It has seen off its critics. Those who denounced Fr Werenfried as a Cold War warrior were proved foolish when his predictions that communism was so evil that it would eventually fall and that the Church must be prepared to pick up the pieces proved true.
He is a close colleague of Pope John Paul whom he first met when, as a young Archbishop of Cracow, Cardinal Woytila needed help to build a church in the modern steelworks town of Nowa Huta which had been declared a Godfree zone by the Communists.
Now old and frail, Father lives in Germany, near the headquarters of his work at Konigstein just outside Frankfurt. He is cared for by nurses and by his niece Antonia who has herself dedicated her life to the work and is its General Secretary.
Still interested in everything that relates to the world-wide mission of Aid to the Church in Need, Fr Werenfried (who speaks English, French, German and Italian as well as his native Dutch) views life from a wheelchair. He has said he needs time now to pray and concentrate on preparing to meet his Maker.
He has never claimed to be a saint and in Christmas appeals tended to identify himself with the old donkey at the back of the stable. On his 90th birthday, he must let the achievements of his life speak for themselves.