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.
A secret global bestseller turns 40 Aid to the Church in Need’s Children’s Bible celebrates anniversary.
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.”
Since its release, more than 51 million copies have been distributed across the globe in 189 languages.
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 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).
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.
The World Youth Day in PANAMA will be the launch-pad for a unique educational grassroots initiative that will gradually percolate to all of Central America. The DOCAT (= the catholic social teaching with a foreword and impulses from Pope Francis) will be distributed in huge numbers. A multitude of study groups will be formed. Archbishop Ulloa Mendieta of Panama says, “Nothing helps our youth more than education. Once they know the Christian social doctrine, they will also know how to fight corruption, end violence, establish democracy, make freedom happen and create wealth with the power of the Gospel”. Together with Pope Francis, he dreams of a revolution of love and justice that will affect all the countries of the region – from Mexico to Panama!
DOCAT presented in the World Youth Day 2016.
Pope Francis supports this with all his heart. He will distribute the DOCAT books and the DOCAT smartphone app to WYD Panama pilgrims as his personal gift. The host, Archbishop Ulloa, will invite the Central American pilgrims, in the opening speech and through the media, to enter deeply into the Catholic social doctrine. 25,000 Spanish DOCAT books and up to 1,000,000 digital versions are all set to be distributed. The only condition is: Whoever takes a book has to form a study group. (There is a free digital study guide to help animate these DOCAT study groups). All pilgrims can also download the DOCAT smartphone app which will also be freely available. Dedicated support and mentoring by 35 social doctrine experts from all over the world will also be available to the DOCAT recipients on how to work with catholic social teaching to build a fairer society.
The project will be support from ACN (Aid to the Church in need) which is an organisation that is approved by the Vatican.
The Institute for Philosophy and Theology run by the Capuchin Fathers in Addis Abeba is the only Catholic higher educational institution in central and southern Ethiopia. All the dioceses and all the religious communities in this country of Eastern Africa send their seminarians for their studies there.
The Institute also includes a „Capuchin Research and Retreat Center“, which provides religious formation for adults, spiritual accompaniment and retreat days for religious and laity alike. These facilities are likewise open to Orthodox and Protestant believers, and every other week there is an ecumenical seminar devoted to various different topics drawn from the fields of religious art, philosophy and literature. National conferences are held four times a year and every three years there is also an international congress.
A bookbinding machine for the Capuchin Fathers in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
The centre also publishes books, among other things translating spiritual classics from the European languages into Amharic and also publishing the contributions to the conferences, making them available not only to specialist readers but also to a wider public. At present the centre can print the books itself, but not bind them. This results in great delays in publication, and in addition it is expensive to have the books bound externally – which naturally also increases the price of the books. The centre, which is nonprofitmaking, would like to be able to offer the books at affordable prices. And so the Capuchin Fathers have asked ACN for help. We have promised 18,000 Euros for a bookbinding machine.
The congregation of the Bene-Mariya Sisters was established in Burundi in 1956. Their mission consists in helping families to live according to a Christian spirit and shape their lives after the pattern of the Holy Family of Nazareth. The sisters work above all with the mothers, since they are, so to speak, the „heart“ of the family and the ones who above all shape the family spirit. But the sisters‘ work also involves the training of catechists, and they themselves give catechetical instruction in the schools and parishes, lead parish groups and prepare couples for the sacrament of matrimony.
They are a missionary congregation, which means that the sisters are ready to leave their own homeland and go wherever the Church calls them. By now the Bene-Mariya Sisters (their name means ‚Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary‘) are active not only in Burundi but also in Tanzania, Chad, France and Italy.
Success Story: Prayer books for religious sisters in Tanzania
But in order to be able to help others live according to a Christian spirit, the sisters themselves first have to learn this spirit and cultivate a profound personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This naturally involves an intensive life of prayer, involving both their personal and their communal prayer life.
In Tanzania the congregation is growing rapidly, and currently there are 33 young women in the novitiate, plus many more who would like to join the community. Altogether the congregation has 92 sisters in Tanzania at the present time. One result of this success, however, was that the community did not have enough prayer books for the many new sisters who had joined them – and of course these prayer books are vital to the life of the community. So the congregation turned to ACN and, thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, we were able to give 1100 Euros to cover the cost of 60 additional prayer books. Now the books have arrived, and there are enough to go around for all the new sisters. Needless to say, they are delighted and have promised their prayers for all who have helped them!
“Happy Christmas to all the benefactors of ACN, and thank you for all your help.”
So says Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw of Lahore, the largest diocese in the whole of Pakistan. A Franciscan and a member of the Order of Friars Minor, he heads a diocese of over 450,000 Catholic faithful in the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab region. He was speaking to Josué Villalón of ACN (Aid to the Church in Need).
The year 2016 has been a difficult one for Pakistani Christians, during which they suffered one of the worst jihadist attacks last Easter Sunday. An Islamist terrorist blew himself up in the central Gulsan Iqbal Park in Lahore, leaving behind 78 dead and over 300 injured. Yet at the same time it has been a year of hope. The Year of Mercy initiated by Pope Francis has been lived with great intensity by the Catholics of Pakistan.
ACN: How is the present situation in Lahore?
Mons. Sebastian Shaw: It appears to be a little better. Security has been improved around our religious celebrations. The people are cheerful and motivated. They have prepared themselves spiritually for the Christmas feast, and they are very happy to be able to celebrate these feasts. But at the same time people are a little frightened because, as happened last Easter, we know that we could well be attacked during the Christmas season.
Apart from the fear of possible attacks, how do people celebrate Christmas in Pakistan?
The truth is that the people love to celebrate Christmas. They decorate their homes with stars, and on 16 December they begin a Christmas novena. And of course they also go shopping, like everyone else in the world.
What is the meaning of the stars that the Christians in Pakistan put up for Christmas?
In Pakistan Christians put up stars in their homes, in the streets, in the churches and schools in order to show that Jesus Christ is the Light who has come into the world and express their hope that by this light the darkness will disappear. The darkness that is war, that is discrimination. We need the light of Christ to illuminate our path and so that darkness may be defeated. So we put up stars as a symbol of our faith in Christ.
What is the importance of the Christians of Pakistan for the Church and for the rest of the world?
Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Islamic country with a population of around 190 million, in which Christians make up just 2%. We are a very tiny minority, yet at the same time we are a very living Church. The great majority of the Christians are very poor, but we are very rich in our faith. They are really interested in the Word of God and there are very committed laypeople involved in the work of catechesis who are helping young people and married couples to live their faith with fervour. For example, this Year of Mercy was a very special time. The Christians of Pakistan are champions of mercy. I recall that one day, after celebrating Holy Mass I went up to a married couple to give them my blessing. They told me that my homily on mercy and pardon had helped them greatly, since they had lost a son in the attack in the Gulsan Iqbal Park on Easter Sunday and that they had forgiven the suicide bomber who blew himself up in that attack.
What is your assessment of the year 2016 which is now coming to an end?
We experienced some very difficult moments, such as the terrorist attack in Gulsan Iqbal Park, but the people are getting back on their feet. The Year of Mercy has been a great blessing for the whole Church and especially for the Church in Pakistan. We celebrated many encounters of dialogue between the religions. We give thanks to the Pope for this Year of Mercy, and for the prayers and the help of so many people who have reminded us that we in Pakistan are not alone.
How are the relations with other religious groups?
This is the moment to promote increased dialogue between religions, and especially with Islam, which is growing greatly, including in Europe. I’m very proud of the good relations we have with the leaders of other religions. We celebrate each other’s festivals; they celebrate Christmas with us and we also celebrate the end of Ramadan with them. But in order for there to be a genuine dialogue it is important that our young people are well instructed in the Word of God. It is also important for there to be unity among Christians. It is important to teach the Bible to the young people, not so that they know it by heart, but to put it into practice through love for neighbour.
What are the principal needs of the Church in Pakistan?
Education is important to us. We especially want to make it possible for young Christians to go to university. Even though it’s very difficult, because it requires a lot of money and the Christian families are very poor. We also need to rebuild the churches and mission stations. We need to renovate our seminary. We have many vocations and we need to extend it. At present we have 34 young men in the minor seminary, 12 studying philosophy and 10 theology.
What does the help of ACN mean to the Church in Pakistan?
We are extremely happy and grateful to ACN. You have been helping us to raise up the Church, not only the physical building, but the body of the Church, bringing hope and faith, and especially with the training for catechists and with catechetical material, such as Bibles in the Urdu language. I ask Christ, who has come into the world, to bless all the families. I pray for them and wish them prosperity and peace.
Josué Villalón (ACN Spain), email@example.com
Once upon a time … there was a beautiful country, a country in which joy pervaded the streets each and every day. Venezuela, the nation of cacao, beaches with crystal clear waters, the traditional “Llanera” music, fruit in a thousand colours, tropical animals, cosmetic institutes and Miss Universe … a slice of the Caribbean where everyone wanted to go. Or at least this was the Venezuela that could be seen on TV. Even though another reality of course existed, the tourism slogan of the nation read, “Venezuela, where dreams come true”. Today, this dream has turned into a nightmare.
Most of the young people in the northwestern state of Sucre have left university because they “do not have the money for paper, let alone for photocopies or pens,” as Bishop Jaime Villarroel of the Diocese of Carúpano said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “They can’t even pay for the trip to the university.” A university education has become the prerogative of a select few. Most join gangs or become criminals. “The people are afraid!” the Venezuelan bishop said. Drugs, murder and torture have now become part of everyday life in the former jewel of the Caribbean. “We are worse off than ever. Hospitals have neither medicine nor bandages. There is no food in the houses. Trucks are constantly being plundered because the people are hungry and no longer have any regard for anything.”
Citizens receive food rations each month consisting of flour, noodles, butter and sugar. The selection of foods would seem normal if it were not for the amounts that are distributed. “Each family receives 300 grams of powdered milk, half a kilo of pasta or 200 grams of butter. If they would like to buy something else, such as meat, eggs or fish, then they have to pay for it with money that they don’t have,” Bishop Jaime Villarroel explained. “The children especially are suffering from malnutrition. The food rations are supposed to be enough for a month, but they don’t even last a week.” The crisis began as an economic one, but has in the meantime developed into a veritable humanitarian catastrophe. “The people are fainting from hunger. Famine reigns, which used to be unthinkable for Venezuela.”
An untenable situation that has forced the people out into the streets to demonstrate – every day. “We no longer know what to do or to whom we should turn. The police and also the politicians are often corrupt. We feel forsaken.”
The Church plays a fundamental role in the midst of these tensions. “It is our job to be there for our people and to relay a message of trust in God,” the Venezuelan bishop explained to Aid to the Church in Need. The crisis has brought the people closer to the Church. “The pastoral visits are a source of great strength in this terrible situation.”
Even though the Catholic faith is practiced in most regions of the country, missionary work is most needed in the northwestern part of Venezuela. “This area was evangelised. However, the hearts of the people were not reached.” Even though 70% of the people are baptised in the diocese of Carúpano, only 2% are practicing Catholics. The see is young: the diocese was set up 16 years ago. It works on “spreading the Gospel”, even though in the country priests and seminarians are often maltreated and humiliated in public. Neither the churches nor the cathedrals in Carúpano are spared from the wave of violence. They have fallen victim to plundering and desecration on numerous occasions. “There is no respect for anything anymore,” the bishop said.
One such disgraceful incident happened to a group of seminarians in another diocese in Venezuela. According to Archbishop Baltazar Porras, Metropolitan Archbishop of Mérida, “four young students of the seminar were going to English class when they were assailed, undressed and attacked by delinquents. These were not punished because neither the police nor the federal police do anything to prevent such acts of violence.”
Aid to the Church in Need has helped the diocese of Carúpano on many occasions and continues to do so. In 2015, various publishing projects were carried out in the country because there is no paper in the country for printing. The church also supported educational programmes for seminarians and lay people.
The terrible economic situation extends beyond the borders and also has an impact on Venezuelan institutions throughout the world, such as the Venezuelan College in Rome, which has announced that it is closing temporarily because of the severe crisis in the country. Since 1997, this college has provided housing for many students who come to the Italian capital for schooling and then return to their homeland after graduation.
Bishop Jaime Villarroel emphasised that they are currently living in an “culture of survival” that will be difficult to overcome. However, he did call to mind that one of the characteristics of the Venezuelan people is their ability to build beautiful things out of the stones that are placed in their path. They simply make jokes about it, as for example, “Do you know why mangos and sardines are like jeans?” he said, laughing. “Because they go with everything.” Since there are a lot of mangos in the region and a lot of fishing, they are the only two foods that are accessible to all. This is why mostly mangos and fish are eaten with the food rations – “if anything is left over from them.”
In 2015, Aid to the Church in Need carried out a total of 27 projects in Venezuela, granting more than 200,000 euros in aid. In the first six months of 2016, Aid to the Church in Need approved 15 other projects in order to help the country in severe crisis.
The largest amount went towards supporting publishing projects (37.5% of the total amount in 2015) because the emergency situation makes it almost impossible to print catechetical materials. Aid was also provided in the form of Mass stipends and for religious education as well as for courses and days of retreat.