FR WERENFRIED: A Life
by Joanna Bogle
(Gracewing, 2001, 151 pp, $29.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
This short, well written biography by leading and highly acclaimed British Catholic writer Joanna Bogle tells the story of Fr Werenfried van Straaten, a Norbertine monk who founded the international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, in 1947 and tirelessly directed it until his death in 2003.
Fr Werenfried was born Philip Johannes Hendrick van Straaten on 11 January 1913, the second son of Evert and Catharina van Straaten, in the Netherlands. In 1934 he sensed a religious vocation and joined the Norbertines at Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium, taking the religious name Werenfried, and was ordained to the priesthood on 25 July 1940.
Soon after the end of the Second World War, in the wake of the forced relocation to the West of 16 million Germans from former eastern German regions, such as Pomerania and Silesia, the Holy See asked the abbey of Tongerlo for assistance. The task was assigned to Fr Werenfried and thus Aid to the Church in Need commenced.
Initially, charitable works focussed on supporting the German refugees and their priests, including a seminary established for dislocated seminarians at Konigstein. Fr Werenfried soon earned himself the nickname 'the bacon priest' from the donations of bacon made by Flemish farmwives.
Fr Werenfried's work soon expanded to include assistance to Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. For years he remained one of the few voices in the West which fearlessly exposed the misery wrought by communism. Aid to the Church in Need also began to assist communities in the Third World.
During the turmoil from the late 60s onwards, Fr Werenfried remained uncompromisingly loyal to the Magisterium with Aid to the Church in Need's magazine Mirror supporting Catholic teaching and providing solace for many Catholics. When the message of Fatima was unpopular, Fr Werenfried remained a firm advocate.
Other publications such as catechisms and prayer books were distributed, not only to assist those in communist and Third World countries but also to bolster the faith of those in the West, one example being 'I Believe' - A Little Catholic Catechism.
With the fall of communism came new opportunities and challenges. Aid to the Church in Need was able to distribute material assistance and religious items far more easily with a major new initiative being to provide support for the Orthodox in Russia, for example, boat chapels that sail along the River Volga.
Two years after the publication of this excellent and informative biography Fr Werenfried died at Bad Soden, Germany, on 31 January 2003, two weeks after his 90th birthday.
Aid to the Church in Need, which he founded and to which he devoted most of his priestly life, continues his mission of providing material assistance to Catholic and Orthodox Churches in developing countries and those in which the Church faces persecution and hardship.
Michael E. Daniel teaches at a Melbourne independent secondary college.