06 June 2011

'The Bacon Priest', a son of St Norbert whose feast is today

During my seminary days I learned about and was inspired by Fr Werenfried van Straaten OPraem (17 January 1913 - 31 January 2003), known as 'The Bacon Priest'. He was born in the Netherlands on 17 January 1913 and joined the Norbertines in neighbouring Belgium. This order gets that name from its founder, St Norbert (c1080 - 6 June 1134), whose feast is today. Its other popular name, 'The Premonstratensians', is derived from the valley of Prémontré in northern France, where the saint set up his first foundation. The members are sometimes known as 'The White Canons', from their habit. The official name in English is 'Canons Regular of Prémontré'.

Father Werenfried [in photo with Blessed John Paul II], whose religious name means 'Warrior for Peace', discovered what he called his true vocation, to be 'a beggar for God's suffering children', through the response of people to an article he wrote for his abbey's Christmas newsletter in 1947, a year and a half after the Second World War had ended in Europe. He began with these words:

'Eighty miles to the east lies a town (in post-war Germany) in ruins. Almost the only thing still standing is a gigantic air-raid shelter, a bunker, like those the Germans built everywhere to protect the population from the bombings.

'All the poor people of the town who still remain alive dwell in this one bunker. Thousands are crowded together in pestilential stench. Each family, insofar as they can still be called families, lies huddled together on a few square yards of concrete.

'Here there is neither fire nor warmth, other than the warmth of bodies crowded together. Among these people too, Christ seeks to dwell in His purity, His love, His goodness. The shepherds worshipped Christ in a stable, but these people have not even a stable. By human standards Christ cannot live here. There is no room for Him.'

With Blessed Mother Teresa in 1959

The nickname 'The Bacon Priest' [Dutch: Spekpater], used to make his mother indignant! In his own words he tells how he acquired it:
'One of these invitations [from a parish priest] included a tea party at the local Women’s Institute. This pious society was celebrating its golden jubilee, and besides cakes and tarts and thick ham-and-cheese sandwiches, the farmers’ wives felt the need of an official speaker. I was invited to enlighten the well-to-do agricultural circles on the subject of the bitter distress suffered in Germany.

'I must have spoken well that afternoon. One hundred and fifty well-nourished country women forgot the fragrant coffee urns and the piles of tasty food and shed tears of pity for the hard fate of their sorely afflicted former enemies. When I ended my barrage on their tender country hearts, there was dead silence. Even the priest could not utter a word for the tears rolling down his cheeks.

'As nobody spoke, I rose once more and declared encouragingly that the time had now come for the collection. Parish priest and farmers’ wives unanimously nodded their agreement, but then a better idea suddenly struck me. I proposed that each of those present should take a not-too-small piece of bacon out of the chimney and deliver it to the presbytery some time in the next few days. At the end of the week I would come with the car to collect it. Everyone consented and the Battle of the Bacon had begun.
'In this first parish I collected more than a ton of bacon.'

Post-War Europe

This invitation was a consequence of a talk he gave to a group of priests on retreat at his abbey in Tongerlo, Belgium. At the end of it he passed around his hat, the first of many such collections using the same hat. Many of the priests then invited him to visit their parishes.

With his famous hat

All of this eventually led to Aid to the Church in Need, which continues to respond to needs in many parts of the world, both spiritual and material. These are often combined in the building of chapels, including boat-chapels for the Russian Orthodox Church that travel along rivers there enabling many communities to have a celebration of the Eucharist.

London's The Daily Telegraph published a fine obituary of Father Werenfried.

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