St. John Paul II—Our Patron Saint

“Now God has given the Church a pope whose iron character was forged on the anvil of persecution and whose priestly soul has been purified in blood and tears.”

With these powerful words, Father Werenfried van Straaten, the founder of Aid to the Church in Need, saluted the election of Karol Wojtyla to the papacy. The two men were friends for almost 40 years—four decades that saw the founding of ACN and the fall of communism, years during which both men gave their all to supporting the persecuted and suffering Church behind the Iron Curtain.

Rome January 18, 1997
Audience with Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the 84th birthday of Fr. Werenfried van Straaten and the opening of the Jubilee Year.

St. John Paul II’s relationship with Father Werenfried dates back to the 60s, when they collaborated on the building of the famous “Lord’s Ark Church” in Nowa Huta, near Cracow, Poland, as then-Cardinal Wojtyla was battling communist authorities for the right to build a new house of worship. The project was completed in 1977, just a few years after the founding of ACN which provided critical funding. This symbol of faith erected in a communist state still stands as one of the organization’s most significant achievements. It also helped forge an enduring friendship.

 

 

“The experience of the Second World War and of the years following brought me to consider carefully and with gratitude the shining example of those who, from the beginning of the twentieth century to its end, met persecution, violence, death, because of their faith and because their behavior was inspired by the truth of Christ.”  Saint John Paul II

Communism was the second form of tyranny that had come up against the iron will of St. John Paul; as a young man, he had suffered under the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Right after the war, Poland was subjected to communist rule and domination by the Soviet Union. But the seed of freedom for many millions in the region had been planted when during the dark days of German rule he answered God’s call when he entered an underground seminary: the first non-Italian Pope in more than 400 years would mount the world stage to play a major role in the downfall of communism.

Starting with his famous first visit to Poland as Pope in June 1979, St. John Paul II—who would visit his homeland a total of eight times—patiently began chipping away at communist power in Poland and beyond. The Polish Church—inspired by its native son and supported by ACN—would soon be at the forefront of the opposition to the Polish regime. It all began at a Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square on the eve of Pentecost, June 2, 1979. Concluding his homily, St. John Paul said: “I cry … Let your Spirit descend. Let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.”

Pope John Paul II with Fr. Werenfried, June 1985; photo: Lido Santoni (Italy/Rome)

This papal mission was a natural fit for ACN, which through the years embraced a great number of projects dear to the heart of St. John Paul—projects that allowed the Church behind the Iron Curtain to survive despite often brutal repression by communist regimes. A famous example was the construction of the Holy Spirit seminary near Lvov, in the Ukraine, which provided a life-line for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church that was nearly completely destroyed under communist rule.

The Pope who had stood at the side of ACN from the start would outlive his dear friend Father Werenfried by just two years. When ACN’s founder died in 2003, St. John Paul II hailed him “as an outstanding apostle of charity.” The tribute echoed the promise Father Werenfried made him when he was first elected Pope, when he pledged to place “our whole charity at the disposal of the suffering and persecuted Church.”

St. John Paul II’s exhortation that marked the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II is a call to action to honor and support persecuted Christians everywhere and at all times; he asked: How can we fail to remember those Christians, who, bearing witness in the face of evil, prayed for their oppressors and bent down to bind the wounds of all?”

Today, ACN knows for certain that it has a great friend in heaven who will ensure that wherever and whenever the Church is suffering help is never far away. St. John Paul II pray for us!