AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED, MAY 12, 2020 — ON MAY 27, 1940 in the village of Vinkt, near the Belgian city of Ghent, German troops massacred 86 civilians. Thanks to Father Werenfried van Straaten, founder of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the location of this war crime became a scene of Christian love ten years later. That was 70 years ago this month. The Norbertine priest recognizedd the dangers of a Europe divided by hate and dedicated his life to restoring love.
World War II had come to an end. As agreed upon by the victorious powers at the Yalta Conference and in the Potsdam Agreement, 14 million Germans were driven out of the eastern provinces beginning in 1945. In western Germany, the majority of the displaced persons, among them six million Catholics, lived under inhumane conditions in bunkers or camps. The suffering of the millions of displaced persons reminded Father van Straaten of the story of the Nativity, when there was no room at the inn for the Holy Family.
The young priest appealed to the conscience of his fellow Christians in Belgium and the Netherlands, calling upon them to love their enemies and neighbors. In a famous article entitled “No room at the inn,” written for the 1947 Christmas edition of the magazine of Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium, he called upon locals, many of whom were still mourning relatives killed by the Germans, to make a gesture of reconciliation. Something incredible happened: the response to the article was overwhelming, unleashing a wave of giving among the Flemish people.
The name “Werenfried” means “warrior for peace” and this soon became the priest’s mission. In 1948, Father Werenfried collected donations of bacon from Flemish farmers, an initiative that was hugely successful and gave him the nickname of the “Bacon Priest.” Then, in 1950, exactly ten years after the massacre at Vinkt, he travelled to the village to preach.
In his memoirs, Father Werenfried wrote that he was apprehensive about preaching this sermon. “I was never quick to feel fear, but at the time I was afraid.” He certainly had cause, considering that resentment and hatred in the hearts of the people had yet to be vanquished. The oldest of the victims had been 89 years old, the youngest 13. Almost all of the families had suffered a loss.
He wrote: “I drove to Vinkt a day earlier to take stock of the situation. I arrived at the parish house on Saturday evening. Distraught, the priest raised his hands and exclaimed, ‘It will not work, Father, the people do not want it. They are saying, ‘What? This priest is coming to ask for help for the Germans? For those despicable people who shot our men and boys? Never! Not one living soul will come to hear his speech. He can preach to empty chairs, if he feels like it. And he should consider himself lucky that he is a priest. Otherwise he would be in for a beating!’
“What was I supposed to do? After discussing it with the priest, I decided to prepare for that evening’s speech by giving the sermon at all of the divine services held that Sunday. And so, to everyone’s surprise, I was the one standing in the pulpit the next morning, for fifteen whole minutes, preaching about love. It was the most difficult sermon I gave in my whole life. But it worked.
“And once I had spoken the Thanksgiving prayer after Holy Mass and the church had completely emptied—because the people are ashamed to show how good they really are!—a woman shyly came forward. She did not say anything, but gave me one thousand francs and then left before I could ask her anything. Fortunately, the priest had just come out of the sacristy and saw her leave. He told me that she was an ordinary farmer’s wife and that her husband, her son and her brother were all murdered by the Germans in 1940. And she was the first,” he continued.
“That evening, the meeting hall was full. For two hours, I talked about the desperate situation of the rucksack priests and the desolation of their faithful. I did not beg them for bacon, money or clothing. I only begged for love and at the very end I asked whether they would join me in praying for their suffering brothers in Germany. They prayed with tears in their eyes. And late that evening, at eleven o’clock, when it was dark and no one would recognize them, they came, one after the other, to the parish house to deliver envelopes with one hundred francs, with five hundred francs, with an accompanying letter. And early the next morning, before I left, they came again to the parish house (…) I was given seventeen envelopes with money. They transferred money to my postal giro account. They collected bacon. They adopted a German priest. That was Vinkt! Human beings are better than we think!”
Werenfried van Straaten realized that peace and reconciliation would never return to the world while hatred lived on in the hearts of the people. He wrote: “We are all sailing on a ship and that ship is called Europe! […] When this ship springs a leak, everything else becomes irrelevant. And Europe’s Ship of State is taking water. So now we all have to pull up our sleeves and start pumping, or else we will all go under, no matter what side we are on.” He continued, “Neither the atomic bomb nor the Marshall Plan will save us, only a true Christian life. Only through love, the mark of a Christian, can order be restored.”