30 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, raising hopes of many millions—ACN was there

THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL on Nov. 9, 1989 was a dream come true for Christians of all denominations and scores of organizations that had worked to defeat Communism. Among them was Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), still led at the time by its founder, Dutch-born Father Werenfried van Straaten.

To mark the momentous occasion, Father Werenfried sent a message to donors of ACN: “After waiting 42 years for this change to happen, our credibility will be at stake if we are not twice as willing now to make sacrifices to help the persecuted Church. Even in those places where the Church has been freed from its chains, it stands bereft of all means of survival. Its liberation will have been for naught if there are no priests, broadcasting programs and books.”

Father Werenfried in Yugoslavia, November 1989

In 1952, after receiving reports of human rights violations and the persecution of the Church in countries newly under Communist rule, Father Werenfried extended relief efforts to these regions

The Soviet Union inaccessible territory. It was only possible to spread the Good News there via radio broadcasts from outside the country – or by smuggling in Bibles. More aid could be provided to other countries in the Soviet sphere, particularly Poland and Yugoslavia.

Father Werenfried wanted to ensure that the Western world knew what was happening in the East. He preached hundreds of sermons on the situation of the persecuted Church, giving a voice to the voiceless.

Once the Berlin Wall fell, aid had always been distributed in secret could now be granted openly—in some cases it was even requested by governments. In all cases, it was absolutely essential. By the end of 1994, ACN grants for projects in the East had topped $30M, 40 percent of all aid granted by ACN worldwide. That amount remained constant until the turn of the millennium.

ACN had a special relationship with the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. When the leader of the Church, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, returned to his native Ukraine from exile in Rome March 30, 1991, Father Werenfried was at his side. At Mass in Lviv, Father Werenfried made a solemn promise: “In the name of our benefactors, I promise that everything humanly possible will be done to help you, the bishops, the priests and religious sisters, the seminarians and all of the faithful, in the re-evangelization of Ukraine.”

The construction of a large seminary in Lviv became one of ACN’s largest projects ever. It stands as one of the largest seminaries in the world and currently is home to 200 seminarians.

Mass in Nowa Huta, Poland

Funding for the formation of young priests was a primary concern in other Eastern European countries as well. The contemplative orders were another issue, many of which had survived the years of Communism under extremely difficult conditions or were now being re-founded. In many countries, the Church was on the brink of ruin, having had all of its buildings expropriated under Communist rule and lacking an organizational structure. ACN also granted aid on this front to several smaller local Churches, such as those in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Kazakhstan, where Catholics are in the minority and have hardly any advocates in society.

A special assignment in support of the spiritual rehabilitation of Eastern Europe came from the highest authority: in 1991, Pope John Paul II wanted to initiate a more intensive Catholic-Russian Orthodox dialogue. Father Werenfried travelled with a delegation to Russia for the first time in October 1992. He met with Patriarch Alexy II and other Orthodox dignitaries. The following year, ACN began to aid Catholic communities in Russia, while also funding projects in support of the Russian Orthodox Church. Father Werenfried was convinced that “the vital task of re-evangelizing Russia was the mission of our Orthodox Sister Church.”

Since 1990, ACN has granted well more than half a billion dollars in aid to the Church in Eastern Europe. Although the focus of ACN’s relief efforts has shifted to the Middle East and Africa, the small, poverty-stricken Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine remains a major recipient of aid.

— Tobias Lehner & Volker Niggewöhner