In December 1947, an unknown Dutch Premonstratensian wrote an article for his Abbey magazine called ‘No Room at the Inn’. In it, he pleaded for the restoration of love in a lacerated world, as he put it in a book he wrote many years later. To the people of the Netherlands, who had been defeated and humiliated by the Nazi regime, Fr Werenfried van Straaten (1913-2003) made an appeal on behalf of the defeated Germans. It was a remarkable call to action that received a remarkable response. “The result exceeded all expectations,” he wrote. “From Flanders the columns of charity began their trek to the East.”
Fr Werenfried may have been in delicate health, but he had formidable energy and an amazing faith. In a very short period of time, he had arranged for hordes of rucksack priests and chapel trucks to take both the sacraments and practical aid to displaced Catholics across Germany. What an act of charity that was in post-war Flanders, a place that was still ravaged by the economic, physical and spiritual scars of war.
Fr Werenfried knew how terribly the people of the Netherlands had suffered but that did not hold him back. He knew how poor his compatriots were but he also knew the terrible need. That is why he pulled no punches when asking his audiences to help their defeated enemy.
“In Antwerp,” he wrote in his inspirational book They Call Me the Bacon Priest (1960),
I once had to speak to a meeting which was attended by 600 working-class women, and I had been allotted a speaking time of ten minutes. And I talked for twenty minutes. And the lady who was in the chair, a very distinguished lady, was getting nervous. But I was talking and I didn’t stop. And when I had finished, a woman shouted: ‘Let’s have a collection.’ But the lady who held the chair said: ‘Not now, first we have other speakers.’ Two or three other women protested and they said: ‘No, the father should hold his collection now, he should strike while the iron is hot.’ Then I thought to myself: this is the right moment! I took the hat of the lady, a hat with a little feather – a nice hat – and I said: ‘I will hold the collection myself, and if two or three are willing to help me, we’ll be finished in five minutes.’ And I was off right away. We did finish within five minutes. I got 40,000 francs – 300 pounds! – from 600 working-class women. The little feather was broken, it is true, but I had 40,000 francs.
What Fr Werenfried saw more clearly than most was the crisis that followed the crisis of war. As Pope Pius XII told him in 1955, “Everyone is now preparing for war and hardly anybody thinks of preparing for peace which may take us unawares.”
Fr Werenfried famously said that while the suffering Church is being tested in faith, we are being tested in love. This perception of the test that faces us when any catastrophe comes to an end runs through They Call Me the Bacon Priest. In 1952, for example, he wrote about “the test that Christianity must undergo in the coming years”:
The great danger lies in the possibility that in our superficiality and false peace, we neglect to strengthen the spiritual defences of the Church, that we deprive our persecuted brethren of the spiritual, moral and material support they have a right to expect from us.
In a similar way, writing about the fall of Communism that he so keenly anticipated, he said:
What follows after Communism cannot be simply annexed by the Church. Those who have gone through the melting pot of this system cannot be incorporated into the old Mother Church by a mere quantitative increase. First we must improve our quality. Millions of rebels in Eastern Europe have inwardly conquered Marxism. We can only be united with them in truth if we can overcome our materialism.
Few men or women can match the astounding levels of charitable giving that the founder of Iron Curtain Church Relief and, latterly, Aid to the Church in Need achieved during his lifetime, but Fr Werenfried was under no illusions about the heart of his mission: “the best preparation for a better future,” he wrote, “is to rise again with Christ to a life of goodness, mercy, pity, helpfulness and true love; and this, together with all men of good will.”
As we consider the crisis that currently engulfs us, we too need to plan for the peace that will follow. We cannot continue as before. However much we have suffered, we need to be ready to reach out to those who have suffered more. We need change at every level of government and society but the most fundamental change of all needs to take place within our own hearts where the living Christ is waiting to work more wonderful miracles than we can perhaps dare to imagine. And if we don’t believe that, we need look no further than the life and work of a frail Dutch priest who transformed suffering into faith, hope and love all those years ago.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!