At the end of Second World War, Europe lay in ruin and millions of German men, woman and children were displaced from their homes. In 1947, into this dark hour, began what would become the life’s work of a young Dutch priest asked to take charge of a special relief campaign for exiled priests and Catholics in Germany. Father Werenfried van Staaten began to appeal to the Catholic people of Belgium and the Netherlands, calling them to move past their hatred for the Germans and see in the suffering of these innocent German families, the suffering Christ.
“Charity does not mean fine-sounding phrases: it means deeds and sacrifices … Charity also demands that we acknowledge and assist Christ even in those who wear the uniform of the enemy … Now these, the poorest of our brethren, are in deep distress, and we cannot, with impunity, close our eyes to this fact. Those who turn their heads away from so much suffering are not worthy of the name Christian.”
Fr Werenfried’s pleas unleashed a flood of generosity and he became repeatedly successful at getting unique aid projects off the ground; tonnes of bacon for starving German families; the adoption of thousands of itinerant priests by Dutch school children; priests ministering on foot given motorbikes and VW Beetles; a fleet of chapel trucks built to take the sacraments to the people.
When the Cold War began in the 1950s Father Werenfried launched an unprecedented campaign for the persecuted Church behind the Iron Curtain. His passion saw ACN build “fortresses of God”, churches constructed along the length of the Iron Curtain. From the 1960s onwards ACN began to increase its scope, offering hope to suffering Catholic communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Fr Werenfried remained at the helm of ACN until his death in 2003. Known as, “the greatest beggar of the 20th century” it is estimated that over fifty years his charity collected and distributed some $5 billion for the needs of the suffering Church.
In acknowledgement of the work and mission of Aid to the Church in Need, the charity was raised to the level of a Pontifical Foundation by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. Prior to his Pontificate, Benedict stated that Aid to the Church in Need had, “turned out to be one of the most important Catholic charities”.
With 23 National Offices and over 365,000 benefactors around the world, ACN raises $200 million annually in support of some 5000 Catholic projects in nearly 150 countries. The work receives no funding from State or Church and is carried out entirely from individual donations.
Today Aid to the Church in Need is the only international Catholic charity dedicated to the service of suffering Christians wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. Both the world and the Church have evolved much since Christmas 1947 but the needs today are as great, perhaps greater than ever. ACN continues to pray and work to keep the precious flame of faith alive.