9 November marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a crucial milestone in the events leading to the collapse of Communism in Europe. This was a dream come true for many people, not only those in East Germany. Dedicated Christians of all denominations and many organisations had worked tirelessly for decades to achieve this political change. One of these was the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and its founder, the Dutch Premonstratensian priest Father Werenfried van Straaten (1913-2003).
42 years of waiting – and working towards – political change
For the pastoral charity, the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall did not come as a surprise. ACN had worked towards this end from the very beginning. “After waiting 42 years for this change to happen, our credibility will be at stake if we are not twice as willing now to make sacrifices to help the persecuted Church. Even in those places where the Church has been freed from its chains, it stands bereft of all means of survival. Its liberation will have been for naught if there are no priests, broadcasting programmes and books,” Father Werenfried wrote to the benefactors of ACN. The challenges that the charity now had to overcome were reminiscent of those that faced the pioneers in their day.
Looking back in time: in 1947, in response to an initiative of Pope Pius XII, Father Werenfried van Straaten launched a relief campaign for Germans who had been displaced and expelled from the East. After receiving reports of human rights violations and the persecution of the Church in those countries newly under Communist rule, he extended the relief efforts to these regions in 1952. For this reason, the name of his charity was, for the first few years, “Aid to the Eastern Priests”, before being renamed “Aid to the Church in Need” in 1969.
Very different conditions prevailed in the countries behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union itself was considered inaccessible territory. It was only possible to spread the Good News there via radio broadcasts from outside the country – or by smuggling. More aid could be provided to other countries, particularly to Poland and Yugoslavia.
Another important activity of the charity was the dissemination of information. Father Werenfried believed that the Western world needed to know about what was happening in the East. He therefore preached hundreds of sermons in which he talked about the situation of the persecuted Church in Eastern Europe, giving a voice to those who were repressed and without one.
“Armed” for peace
Beginning in the 1960s, ACN extended its aid efforts to other regions throughout the world such as Latin America and Africa; however, relief for Eastern Europe remained one of its most fervent concerns. Its efforts were inspired by the words of Pope Pius XII, who once said to Father Werenfried, “Everyone is currently taking up arms for war, but hardly anyone remembers to get ready for peace, should this suddenly come upon us.” And that became Father Werenfried’s goal, to have everything in readiness when that day came.
In response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s political reforms in the Soviet Union, ACN increased its aid for the republics of the Soviet Union from less than one million US dollars to 3.5 million US dollars between 1987 and 1988. Father Werenfried also began to collect money for the recruitment of priests in the Eastern bloc states. Both of these initiatives proved to be extremely helpful as events unfolded.
The day ACN was waiting for finally arrived with the fall of the Berlin Wall and other revolutionary events. Whereas up until this point, the aid had always been distributed in secret, it could now be granted openly – in some cases it was even requested by the government. In all cases, it was absolutely essential. As of 1990, the aid for Eastern Europe increased to more than 22 million US dollars and would reach almost 30 million dollars by 1994/95. This was equivalent to more than 40 per cent of all aid granted by ACN worldwide. The amount remained constant until the turn of the millennium.
Humanitarian and spiritual aid
To highlight a few particularly remarkable relief projects carried out in the years following the fall of Communism: during the Romanian Revolution, in December 1989, Father Werenfried travelled to Bucharest one day after the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife. Prior to this, he had been one of the first to organise deliveries of relief supplies for the suffering Romanian people.
ACN had a special relationship with the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. When the leader of the Church, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, returned to his native Ukraine from exile in Rome on 30 March 1991, he was accompanied by Father Werenfried. While celebrating Holy Mass in Lviv, Father Werenfried made a solemn promise: “In the name of our benefactors, I promise that everything humanly possible will be done to help you, the bishops, the priests and religious sisters, the seminarians and all of the faithful, in the re-evangelisation of Ukraine.”
ACN again kept its promise. The construction of a large seminary in Lviv became one of the greatest projects undertaken by the charity. Today, with around 200 students, the seminary in Lviv is one of the largest in the world.
A focus on priestly formation, convents and monasteries, spreading the Good News
Funding for the formation of young priests was a primary concern in other Eastern European countries as well. The contemplative orders were another issue, many of which had survived the years of Communism under inhumane conditions or were now being newly founded. In many countries, the Church was on the brink of ruin, having had all of its buildings expropriated under Communist rule and lacking an organisational structure. ACN granted aid here as well, particularly to smaller local Churches, such as those in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania or Kazakhstan. In these countries, the Catholics are in the minority and have hardly any advocates in society.
A special assignment for the spiritual rehabilitation of Eastern Europe came from the highest authority: Pope John Paul II first mentioned the idea of initiating a more intensive dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church to ACN in 1991. And with Father Werenfried, this seed fell on fertile ground. He travelled with a delegation to Russia for the first time in October 1992. There, he met with Patriarch Alexy II and other Orthodox dignitaries. After Father Werenfried personally delivered his report to the Pope in early 1993, the charity not only distributed aid to Catholic communities, but also extended its efforts to projects supporting the Russian Orthodox Church. The best known of these projects were the so-called “chapel ships” – converted boats used by priests to visit communities that no longer had a church. Father Werenfried was convinced that “the vital task of re-evangelising Russia was the mission of our Orthodox Sister Church.” In his opinion, the Orthodox Church was also in need of assistance after suffering persecution during Communism and having to start again from zero.
From aid recipients to helpers
Since 1990, ACN has granted more than half a billion Euros in aid to the Church in Eastern Europe. Although the focus of its relief efforts today has shifted to the Near East and Africa, the organisation has not forgotten the Christians in Eastern Europe. The small, poverty-stricken Church in Ukraine is therefore ranked fourth among the countries that receive aid from ACN.
However, the communities in the former Communist countries were never just aid recipients. Soon after the Iron Curtain collapsed, solidarity campaigns developed among the Catholics in different countries who had recently been the victims of persecution themselves. Poland played and still plays a major role in this. One of the national offices of Aid to the Church in Need is now located there – another in Slovakia. The miracle of political change is also at work here.