A tale of friendship
It was on April 27, 2002, when the two friends saw each other for the last time. For decades, Karol Wojtyla and Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), had been travelling companions, so to speak. Now, exactly 12 years to the day after this, their last meeting, Pope John Paul II will be canonized in Rome.
When Pope John Paul II gave his friend Father Werenfried the Paschal candle from his own private chapel, it was a gesture of powerful symbolism. They had just celebrated Holy Mass together for the last time.
No one has given us a more beautiful description of this, their last earthly encounter, then the Italian journalist Orazio Petrosillo, who himself died in 2007. He was privileged to witness this moment.
"They were both moved to tears", he writes. "How often had they thought of each other, prayed for each other? Now they were meeting again, the Holy Father and his friend, Father Werenfried.”
“Both men marked by old age and sickness, and yet full of life and charisma. After the Mass, they embraced in the private library. Few words, long looks, tears of emotion."
They had already known each other, long before Karol Wojtyla even became Archbishop of Cracow, in 1964. As the representative of the Polish bishops' conference, the man who was later to become Pope came for many years to Father Werenfried to discuss aid projects for the Church in his Communist dominated homeland.
The first battle fought by the young archbishop, together with Father Werenfried, took place in 1967 when the communists built a vast workers' suburb for 200,000 people, close to the huge steelworks complex of Nova Huta. It was planned as a "town without God;" in the desire to impose atheism it had been designed deliberately without any church.
Yet, Sunday after Sunday, despite all the efforts to stop them, the faithful gathered in their thousands to attend Holy Mass, which was celebrated in the open air, standing in front of a cross they had erected. Every stratagem was employed by the communists to prevent them, but finally, with financial help from ACN, a large church was built here, sufficient to accommodate 5,000 worshippers.
In 1977, the church was consecrated by Archbishop Wojtyla. This joint victory over the regime was also a great source of encouragement to the Church in the neighboring countries of Eastern Europe, which were likewise under communist domination.
Both men firmly believe that the Iron Curtain must one day fall and that God would return to these atheist dominated countries. Both men were the scourge of communism in the East, just as they were of the "culture of death" in the West. Both were uncompromising and fearless in speaking the truth and in unmasking the numerous attacks on God and man as ultimately the work of the evil one. "Political correctness" and mainstream opinion were not the measure of their thinking.
In their striving for reconciliation they were likewise allies and prophets. So it was that, after the collapse of communism, Pope John Paul II entrusted Father Werenfried with the task of promoting reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Although already advanced in age, Father Werenfried immediately traveled to Russia, on two occasions, meeting with Patriarch Alexy II and a number of Orthodox bishops, to whom he promised his prayers and practical help. For the Orthodox Church in Russia was now obliged, after over 70 years of persecution, to begin again almost from scratch, just like the Catholic Church in the country.
The Pope kept himself fully up to date with both of Father Werenfried's Russian trips and attached the greatest importance to being personally informed of every development.
It was Pope John Paul II who uttered these memorable words: "We need two lungs, both the Western and the Eastern lung, with which Christianity breathes." Since then, pictures of Orthodox bishops coming and going at the Vatican and of Catholic church leaders visiting their Orthodox brother bishops have become almost normal.
Over the course of time, many friendships have been established, and recent history testifies to a veritable spate of ecumenical encounters that even 20 years ago almost no one would have dared to dream of.
Among the handful of people who did indeed dare to do so were Pope John Paul II and Father Werenfried. And still to this day, ACN remains faithful to this mission, which has likewise been reaffirmed frequently by the successors of this great Pope and saint. Only recently, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the pontifical unity council, once again called on ACN to continue to pursue the path of dialogue.
A factor that played a great part in the thought and work of both men was the great devotion to the Mother of God that was shared alike by Pope John Paul II and by Father Werenfried, and which also unites Catholic and Orthodox believers in a particular way.
Thus it was surely providential that the renowned icon of Our Lady of Kazan, the most revered icon in Russia, found "Catholic asylum" so to speak, during Soviet times. After finding its way to the shrine of Our Lady in Fatima during the 1960s, it was given to Pope John Paul II in 1993 as a gift. The Pope kept the image in his private quarters and revered it deeply.
Then, in 2004, he returned it to the Russian Orthodox Church. During the final commemorative service, before bidding farewell to the Kazanskaya, the Pope said, "How often, since that day, have I called on Our Lady of Kazan and asked her to protect and guide the Russian people, by whom she is so greatly revered, and to quickly bring about the time when all the disciples of her Son may recognize one another as brothers and so fully restore the damaged unity."
Both Pope John Paul II and Father Werenfried had a profound connection with the shrine of Our Lady in Fatima, where for 30 years the icon of Our Lady of Kazan had found shelter. In the messages given in 1917 by Our Lady to the three shepherd children they saw a solemn warning of the dangers of communism and atheism, which must be confronted.
Pope John Paul II attributed his survival from the attempt on his life on May 13, 1981, to the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima, and he had the bullet that had almost killed him set in the crown of the Madonna. Father Werenfried was invited to concelebrate with Pope John Paul II in the Holy Mass in Fatima on May 13th, 2000, at which the Pope beatified the two shepherd children Francisco and Jacinta.
Father Werenfried later recalled the evening candlelit procession, during which he was wheeled in his wheelchair immediately behind the renowned icon amid a throng of a million pilgrims, as one of the high points of his life.
The two traveling companions are no longer physically with us, but their legacy remains. One of them will be canonized on April 27 this year, exactly 12 years to the day after their last meeting together. Together they witnessed many of the historic moments of the 20th century. They fought side by side, always prophetic, often misunderstood.
Their legacy is immense, and ACN is pledged to safeguard this legacy to this day. Orazio Petrosillo described their leavetaking in these words, "Pope John Paul II laid his hand on the shoulder of his old friend. It was his gesture, as the successor of Peter, so to speak confirming a work of Providence such as ACN with the original charism of the Pope."
With picture of Father Werenfried van Straaten, Founder of ACN, and Pope John Paul II (© ACN)