(Originally published in Mundo Negro, June 2013, Spain – adapted by ACN in February 2017)
“It is night time in Africa. I am flying through the night from Rome to Africa. The flight takes remark six hours.” This comment is dated April 1965 and recorded in the book Where God Weeps by its author, Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). In it he records the moments leading up to his arrival in the capital of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This first visit of his to the African continent lasted just nine days during which, in addition to visiting Kinshasa, he also went to Kivu, Isiro and Kisangani. On his return he described the stages of his journey as “the stations on the Way of the Cross”. Following that first visit, there were to be five more journeys to Africa between September 1968 and the end of the 1980s, during which the man known to many as the Bacon Priest was able to witness first-hand the sufferings of the continent and the poverty of the Church there. But at the same time he was able to appreciate the work that needed to be done by the Church in Africa and the aid that ACN could give on that journey.
“There is a task to be done here by our charity”, he wrote. “Not only must we help the devastated dioceses … to rebuild, spiritually and materially; but we must above all invest our love, money and ideas in the formation of lay leaders trained in the pastoral apostolate.” At the time he was referring here in particular to the Church in the former Belgian Congo, but his words could equally well be applied to many other parts of the continent.
By the time Father Werenfried arrived in Africa, he already had a profound knowledge of the sufferings of the Church all over the world. The commitment of this Dutch Norbertine monk and priest to help those most in need led him, around the middle of last century, to establish the charity that is now known as Aid to the Church in Need, or ACN for short, in order to support evangelisation and the pastoral work of the Church. Created initially as a Public Association of the faithful, it was recently raised to the rank of a Pontifical Foundation in December 2011.
ACN was born in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War, initially to help the uprooted Catholic communities in Germany, expelled from Eastern Europe. Later it extended its goals to embrace other places, other continents, other challenges. Gradually, the primary motivation of helping those persecuted for their faith, as was habitually the case in the communist countries beyond the Iron Curtain, ceased to be the sole and overriding reason for its work. In other countries and other continents, the Church was suffering other forms of poverty and marginalisation, suffering which also required an appropriate response. And in this context, Africa, with its wealth of different languages, cultures, traditions and peoples, combined with its political instability and its marked social inequalities, came to be a major challenge for ACN.
The involvement of the charity in Africa followed close on the heels of the phase of decolonialisation and coincided with a burgeoning nationalist sentiment that was taking root among peoples who had formerly looked towards the colonial powers as their main point of reference. In the ecclesial field it coincided with broad areas of primary evangelisation, linked to communities where foreign missionaries had carried out an intensive, though still unfinished labour. It was a moment of the birth of new countries, but at the same time also a season of sowing the seed, so that a truly local Church could spring up, alongside Islam and the traditional African religions.
As Pope Paul VI said in 1969, during his visit to Uganda, “You have the right to live an authentically African Christianity.” And this was what was beginning to be necessary at that time. “With the rich experience of tens of thousands of missionaries, the Church is placing herself at the service of these youthful nations, without any foolish illusions, humble and disinterested”, Father Werenfried recognised in 1965.
Projects and initiatives
From those earliest aid projects and up to the present day, there have been thousands of initiatives funded by ACN on this continent. In 2016 alone a total of 1,800 projects were supported and almost 22 million Euros steered by the charity towards Africa. Notable here was the aid for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Madagascar, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. According to a report by the charity on its work in Africa last year, “In all the above-mentioned countries the youthful and vital African Catholic Church is in need of our solidarity … We give priority to the regions of recent evangelisation and those places where the local church is less well established.”
As an organisation whose main aim is to help the most needy, ACN helps in various ways – through Mass Stipends, pastoral projects, construction projects, training programmes for pastoral workers, motor vehicles, support for the life and ministry of priests and religious communities, religious literature and the communications media – by order of importance in terms of the number of projects approved. The aid requests from Africa have also revealed a picture of a local Church that is assuming a character of its own and which is in need of help to build or renew its infrastructure. The Church in Africa has grown rapidly in the past half-century – and with it so have its needs.
Impact of climate and the impact of war
ACN is conscious of the fact that a considerable proportion of the Church infrastructure on this continent “was built 40, 60, 80 or even more years ago by European missionaries and is now beginning to show clear signs of deterioration, owing to the passage of time and the inclemency of the African climate”.
Quite apart from the climatic factors, the armed conflicts on much of the continent have also taken a toll, directly or indirectly, on the churches, convents and other religious buildings so necessary to the local communities. Angola is an obvious example here, having suffered a protracted civil war ever since the end of colonial rule. Looking at recent photographs of some of the Angolan churches, you might be forgiven for thinking that the war had ended only yesterday.
The early contacts of the founder of ACN with the reality of Africa led quickly to the establishment of a special section for the continent within the international administrative headquarters of the charity in Königstein, Germany. That original section has now become three separate sections, which each deal with the various countries of the continent according to linguistic, geographical and historical criteria.
One of the most important factors, albeit with certain local variations, is the concern for the promotion and support of priestly vocations, which have been growing almost exponentially in some countries in recent years. “Each time there are more seminarians requesting our aid so that they can complete their academic courses”, ACN sources tell us. But this concern and care for vocations also involves a strong focus on the creation of the necessary infrastructure, so that these vocations can reach their fulfilment. There are various initiatives here, such as the construction of new seminaries in Uganda and Angola and the repair and renovation of other major seminaries in Madagascar, Tanzania, Guinea Conakry and the Central African Republic.
A pastoral and humanitarian mission
Only a little over half a century ago, Father Werenfried van Straaten had already understood the needs of the Church, but at the same time also the needs of those who were living without the barest of necessities. And this reality was not something to which either the founder or his charity were ever indifferent, despite the fact that the charity had been established to help in the pastoral field. “I know well that our charity is not a charitable organisation. Our task is a pastoral one”, the Bacon Priest acknowledged. “But I know too that Christ condemned a priest because on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho he neglected his duty to show love for his neighbour. And this same Christ multiplied the loaves and satisfied the hunger of those who had gathered there, because he did not wish to speak of God to a hungry crowd.”
Reflecting this attitude, ACN has likewise always been ready to provide emergency humanitarian aid in the event of natural disasters or armed conflicts. Hence, as the charity itself states, “All our projects in Africa, including those of a strictly pastoral nature, also include a humanitarian dimension. These two aspects are inseparable in Africa.” In fact two of the most recent projects have involved aid for refugee camps in Malakal, South Sudan, and for uprooted refugee families from Burundi who have sought shelter in Tanzania.
Turning back to the words of Father Werenfried about Africa, we read that “the Church, who is called to be the mother of the poor, is also their ultimate refuge.” Which is why the founder of ACN explained that, while attending to the pastoral needs of the Church, the charity was also close to the most needy. It is a path that ACN has followed and continues to follow, now more than half a century on from that day when a Dutch monk, on a flight from Rome to Kinshasa, described what he could see through the window of his plane:
“We are flying at a height of seven and a half miles. Strange constellations shine brightly in the dark night sky. Far below us, a fire slips past. A hunters’ camp fire, perhaps, or a village in Cameroon. A tropical thunderstorm sends flashes of lightning from the equator. The lightning on the horizon lights up the night sky.”