Aid Group Helps Local Churches Cope, Rebuild

KONIGSTEIN, Germany—Congress late last month passed resolutions condemning “egregious" human rights abuses against Christians around the world. At the same time, across the Atlantic, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), rallied its staff and supporters to help needy Christians in word and deed. While Washington's interest in the issue is relatively recent, the German-based ACN, founded and still headed by 83-year-old Dutch-born Father Werenfried van Straaten, O. Praem, has been championing persecuted Christians for nearly half a century. Last year, it distributed more than $75 million in aid to pastoral projects in more than 115 countries including China, Cuba, Bosnia, Albania, Rwanda and Russia.

The ACN congress brought together some 300 country representatives, academics, theologians, and journalists to address “The Heritage of Communism." Clergy and lay people from Russia, China, Cuba and Ethiopia provided first-hand observations and analyses of the dire situation of the Church in their countries. Two of them—China and Cuba—are still under communist governments, while the others are still emerging from what the organization's president, Benedictine Father Willem de Smet, called the “anthropological catastrophe" of totalitarian rule.

For journalists, the force of the testimonies was tempered by the stipulation that representatives from three of the four countries not be identified. But Father de Smet explained that “[t]he fear of reprisals against the Church and themselves [could result from] their frank words." Nevertheless, their thorough accounts and other available information underscored the complexity of the Church's role in the communist and post-communist societies.

That complexity and the difficulty of determining the appropriate course of action for Western co-religionists and aid groups is no where more difficult than in China. At the root of the quagmire is the co-existence of the state sanctioned “Patriotic" Church—which does not recognize papal authority and appoints its own bishops—and the “Underground" Church, which professes loyalty to Rome. Readily definable in words, the problem of the so-called “two Churches" in China is infinitely more subtle in reality, representatives who reported on the country said.

“One can only warn against painting an over-simplistic black-and-white picture of it,” according to a report prepared by a German-born priest who has worked in Beijing for more than a decade. “However justified the position of the ‘Underground Church,’ one must also understand the conscientious dilemma of those bishops and priests who, while accepting to work under the label of the ‘Patriotic Association,’ are nonetheless personally loyal to the Holy Father and to the Universal Church … For them it is a practical question of to what extent they can accept the facilities offered by the state and so best serve the Church."

In fact, speakers said, sometimes the division between the “Patriotic" and the “Underground" is completely blurred. They noted that it isn't uncommon for the Churches to share pastoral leadership; several underground bishops are also priests in the official Church. “The question [is],” said a Hong Kong research fellow and expert on China: “Are these people underground, official, or somewhere in between?" Part of the problem, she added, lies in the tendency to think of China as a single-minded, centralized government body, which in practice is more “like having 2,000 individual governments in which much depends upon personal relationships."

Added Regis Anouil, ACN's Konigstein-based China projects manager: “Decisions [about belonging to the ‘Underground’ or ‘Official’ Church] are made at a very human, very social level. Whether a young man will enter a ‘Patriotic’ or ‘Underground’ seminary often depends on geography, family contacts, etc."

Some dismiss such explanations that emphasize pragmatic rather than ideological considerations, insisting that the official Church in China is a compromised institution. The Stamford, Conn.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation, for one, has been critical of the ACN's attempts to promote reconciliation between the two Chinese Churches. The stance of the foundation, named for Cardinal Ignatius Kung, the exiled bishop of Shanghai who spent 30 years in jail for his steadfast loyalty to the Pope, has hurt ACN's U.S. collections. The foundation's criticisms of the ACN in 1994 have cost the organization at least $250,000 annually in reduced contributions, according to David Budinger, president of ACN's U.S. board.

But a letter last spring from the Vatican's U.S. Apostolic Pro-Nuncio, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, made it clear that Rome does not share the Kung Foundation's position. The letter, written in response to a circular signed by Cardinal Kung and sent to all the U.S. bishops in late 1995, quoted a document from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples: “[T]he [Cardinal Kung] Foundation is a private institution, not involving the responsibility of the Holy See. Its activities and statements on the situation of the Church in China are the sole responsibility of the Foundation." Archbishop Cacciavillan's letter also noted that “the ‘Patriotic Association’ is much more complex than what appears and is presented in [Cardinal Kung's] letter."

On a number of occasions, most notably in a World Youth Day broadcast from Manila to China in January 1995, Pope John Paul II has encouraged reconciliation between the “Patriotic" and “Underground" Churches. As the German priest who has worked for 10 years in China, reported, “again and again one encounters the same problem: the confrontation of these two camps within the Church, the complete lack of collaboration between them and their reciprocal condemnations represent one of the greatest evils in the proclamation and spread of the Gospel."

More easily understood than the relationship between the “Patriotic" and “Underground" Churches is the general struggle faced by Chinese Catholics, including the sporadic crackdowns on “unauthorized Masses,” people being arrested and jailed for their faith, and the destruction of church buildings. This year “the centers of the ‘Underground’ Church in Hebei Province have been shut again and in some villages there are said to have been collective forswearings of the faith,” the German-born priest reported.

Despite the persecutions, priestly and Religious vocations have flourished in the wake of the Cultural Revolution that spanned the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Currently there are about 1,000 priests in the “Underground" Church and 1300 in the “Official" Church. Of the country's

1.2 billion people, only 10 to 12 million are estimated to be Catholics, but about 60,000 converts come into the Church each year.

In China, as elsewhere, the thrust of the ACN's work has always been pastoral. “We have never relinquished this pastoral character of our work,” Father Werenfried said. “Not even when it became fashionable to put social progress above the narrow path to heaven, development aid above missionary work, violent liberation above redemption via the Cross, the material above the spiritual and the temporal above the eternal."

The organization's top priority is formation of seminarians and novices, catechists and other lay leaders of Christian communities. “We know that in the last analysis, everything depends on individual human qualities,” said the ACN's director of projects, Father Florian Kapusciak, C.M. Other projects the organization takes on, selecting from the 9,000-10,000 annual requests, include producing Bibles and liturgical books in local languages; catechetical projects; media projects; the construction of churches; and purchasing vehicles for priests and Religious whose work depends on mobility.

Since Father Werenfried's (Werenfried means “Warrior for Peace,” the name he took upon entering the Norbertine Order at their Abbey of Tongerlo in Belgium) first project collecting bacon from the Flemish peasants for the 14 million Germans displaced in post-Nazi Europe—an endeavor that earned him the name “the Bacon Priest"—he has known the pitfalls of supporting causes that are open to misinterpretation. The China difficulties of recent years have been overshadowed by the ANC's even more controversial decision in 1992 to support the Orthodox Church in Russia. Father Werenfried saw it as a “good faith" opportunity to contribute to the reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

“The Orthodox is our sister Church,” he told the Register. “Eighty-five percent of the faithful in Russia are Orthodox, and it's up to the Orthodox to reevangelize after 70 years of militant atheism. That's why we help them." Despite the Vatican's concurrence, some donors—including one who reportedly contributed $3 million a year—withdrew their support in protest.

Apart from such ideological fallings-out, the ANC's focus on the pastoral dimension of rebuilding societies makes securing donors difficult. “[It] appeals less to the human imagination than do relief campaigns for tangible needs and catastrophes, and this makes our fundraising more difficult,” Father Werenfried said.

But for a half-century the affable white-robed priest who now relies on a cane to walk insists that Providence guide the ANC. “[I]t is a lack of faith when, because of economic recession or the death of a few outstanding benefactors, we lack the courage to increase our budget, despite new and yet greater commitments, and instead reduce it,” said Father Werenfried. “Why should He cease to do what He has done for 50 years now, namely matching our income to the promises we have made?"

The faith that ANC works to reweave into the fabric of post-Communist societies and to preserve in those still under Communism is often difficult to elucidate. Paraphrasing Pope John Paul II, a Cuban priest at the conference describe it as “renewing the hearts of man in order that they may renew the systems of society."

But the duplicity and moral collapse in communist and post-Communist societies makes that an elusive goal. Of the myriad factors that hamper the Church's attempts to rebuild in these countries, Father Werenfried pointed to the core of the problem: “All these people who had to adjust to totalitarian rule under Communism have been damaged in their thinking and acting."

ACuban bishop who traveled clandestinely to Konigstein said this corrosion has led to a confused generation grown up under Fidel Castro's rule. “Many have been raised to live a dual life,” he said. “Parents teach their children to remain quiet about their faith” because of the “refined persecution” where the stigma of being Christian can be a setback in school and career.

But the bishop left ANC delegates with a story of hope from that tainted generation. “A teacher in a school asked who believed in God,” he recounted. “Only one in 40, a 10-year-old boy, stood up. When he went home the boy said to his mother, ‘My legs were shaking, but I told them, Yes, I believe in God.’”

Larry Montali is associate editor of the Register.