This year, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its children’s Bible, God Speaks to His Children. Since its release, more than 51 million copies have been distributed across the globe in 189 languages. “It is beyond human understanding just how many children as well as adults have opened themselves to God through the children’s Bible,” the executive president of the foundation, Dr Thomas Heine-Geldern, explained when asked about the anniversary. He pointed out that for many families living in the world’s poor regions, the children’s Bible is the only book that they will ever own.
Children’s Bible relieves longing for God
“The letters we have received over the past 40 years, in which children, families, bishops and pastoral workers have expressed their thanks for the children’s Bible, bear witness to the deep longing for God that this book continues to relieve today,” said Dr Heine-Geldern. Divided into 99 short chapters, God Speaks to His Children retells the most important texts of the Old and New Testament in a way that is easy for children to understand. The stories in the current edition of the children’s Bible were written by German theologian Eleonore Beck (1926-2014) and brightly illustrated by the Spanish religious sister Miren-Sorne Gomez (*1937). The illustrations have become popular in religious instruction and catechesis.
The “father” of the children’s Bible was the Dutch Premonstratensian Father Werenfried van Straaten (1913-2003), the founder of Aid to the Church in Need. When the United Nations proclaimed 1979 as the “Year of the Child”, this became the impetus for the realisation of a long-cherished idea of Father Werenfried. He wrote at the time: “Children need something like a children’s Bible so that the image of Christ will become a living one in their hearts. The Church often does not have the means to acquire a children’s Bible written in the native language. Or the Church is being persecuted and is not allowed to publish literature of this kind. Many children are so poor that they cannot afford to buy a book. And so we would like to give them the Bible as a gift.”
In great demand from the very beginning
ACN presented the children’s Bible at the Conference of the Latin American Bishops that took place in late January 1979 in Puebla, Mexico, and was also attended by Pope John Paul II on his first foreign tour. The response was overwhelming: the bishops immediately ordered 1.2 million copies in Spanish. As soon as missionaries, bishops and catechists from other countries learned of its existence, additional translations became necessary. Today, the Bible is available in 189 languages, from Afar, which is spoken by around 1.5 million people of the same name in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, to isiZulu, a Bantu language spoken in southern Africa. New translations are added regularly. After all, more than 2,000 distinct languages are spoken in Africa alone. There, the children’s Bible continues to play an important role in fostering literacy today.
From the very beginning, ACN has distributed the children’s Bible in poor countries free of charge. In more affluent countries, it is sold at cost price. The editions with the widest distribution are those in Spanish (around 14 million), Portuguese (10.3 million), English (2.5 million), French (1.2 million) and the East African language Swahili (950 000). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian edition of the children’s Bible was mentioned by a Christian radio station. ACN was flooded with half a million orders within a short amount of time.
The popes also recognised the importance of the children’s Bible. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, handed out the ten millionth copy of the children’s Bible during his pastoral visit to Brazil in May of 2007.