FRANKFURT, Germany – In a modest structure located under the shade of large oak trees in what used to be a French military compound, hardly betokening the seriousness of purpose that lies within, the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) runs a global operation to provide support to impoverished and persecuted Christians everywhere.
With boots on the ground in all corners of the world, ACN has its finger on the social, political and economic pulse of Christians everywhere. With a simple phone call to priests, nuns or lay people working on their projects, the organization can gather information from Puerto Rico to China.
“We fund those projects that help the Church grow,” said Regina Lynch, director of the projects department at ACN International, in an interview with Crux Sept. 13.
Every year the non-profit receives over 7,000 applications for funding projects worldwide, and ACN, through donors and special contributions, is able to provide funds for about 5,000. Normally a project does not exceed $15,000, Lynch explained.
The greatest demand is for infrastructure, and 30 percent of the organization’s yearly budget is destined for the construction of chapels, seminaries, orphanages.
“Our purpose is evangelization,” Lynch said, “by listening to the needs of the local church.”
ACN also offers funds for clergy transportation. In Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, religious sisters skip along the busy streets aboard Honda 340 motorcycles. For some priests a Mass-equipped boat, capable of moving along the river from port to port, offers the best way to spread the Gospel across large dioceses.
The rest of the funds are deployed for the formation of seminarians and novices, providing them with the necessary tools to evangelize in a changing and globalized world.
With their global headquarters, ACN employees get an exclusive view of the economic disparities between churches worldwide. In Germany, for example, Catholics pay a tax to the state for their religious group or Church, making it among the wealthiest in Europe. In other places, priests barely have the means to cater to their own private needs let alone those of their flock.
For this reason, ACN looks for ways of providing revenue for clergy, where Mass donations form the lion’s share. Priests can earn up to $8 per Mass dedicated to the intention of a benefactor. That number is even higher in cases of Gregorian Masses, which can take place every day for a week.
While in some places the local church requires a helping hand to grow and expand, in others it is downright under attack.
“Our priorities are in the persecuted Church,” Lynch said.
Norbertine priest Father Werenfried van Straaten – also called the “Bacon priest” for his fame of bringing food to the poor – founded ACN in 1947 to help the impoverished and displaced after World War II.
In the 1980s, a large part of the organization’s efforts was to administer to the needs of the persecuted Church behind the Iron Curtain. The ’90s were taken up by rebuilding these countries after the fall of the Soviet Union, and today Eastern Europe remains a primary concern.
ACN’s scope has grown steadily year after year, with projects spreading throughout the globe. Lynch explained that about 30 percent of ACN’s budget is destined for projects in Africa, where large numbers of young people make it a booming continent for evangelization. Yet, she added, the danger of constant conflict and the growing influence of Islamic extremists in some African countries pose many challenges.
Despite these concerns, Lynch said, “Africa is a priority for us” and also “the Middle East has been a big focus.”
Ever since the ISIS invasion of Iraq’s Nineveh Plains in 2014, where up to 100,000 Christians were killed or forced out of their homes, ACN has been working tirelessly to provide support for these battered people and is now a key player in the reconstruction of the area.
“We are concentrating on rebuilding the churches,” Lynch said, explaining that the religious sites offer a point of encounter, community and cohesion.
Whereas Iraq needs infrastructure reconstruction and long-term projects to offer jobs and opportunities to its people, Syria continues to be an emergency situation, Lynch said.
“It’s important for Christians there to see that they are not alone,” she added.
For Reinhard Backes, who heads the Asia section at ACN that provides funds to Pakistan, the Philippines and the Western parts of India, this is especially true.
“For me there is one big topic: How do we deal with Islam?” Backes asked. “There is only one way: through dialogue and cooperation.”
In the regions covered by Backes’ department, Christian-Muslim relations present daily challenges. Pakistan, a Muslim majority country home to over 200 million people, has witnessed countless cases where religious minorities were targets of persecution.
The most troubling threat against religious freedom in this country is its blasphemy law, which has been easily manipulated in order to put Christians in prison or settle old scores.
ACN provides financial support for the families of those individuals who have been sentenced to prison or even death due to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law.
The Philippines, led by controversial President Rodrigo Duterte, is the only Catholic majority country under Backes’ jurisdiction.
“It’s a difficult time with the Trumps and Dutertes of the world,” he said.
During a siege in which ISIS militants attempted to conquer the Philippines’ only Muslim-majority city between May and October of 2017, significant numbers of Catholics were kidnapped and killed. After the battle, which saw government forces emerge victorious, ACN set in motion projects to rebuild trust among different groups that would cater especially to the young.
“We listened to the local bishops,” Backes said, because they emphasized the importance of helping the youth who had undergone trauma.
The Hapitanan Resort Rehab Center was funded by ACN and offers trauma treatment for about 100 former hostages of the siege. Among them are many young people captured by ISIS and enlisted to fight against the Filipino authorities.
Backes also showed pictures of smiling youth, Christian and Muslim, who volunteer in the “Youth for Peace” project by visiting refugee camps and offering help and support.
Bottom line is this: While many of ACN’s individual projects may be fairly small-scale, collectively they add up to a surprisingly large footprint worldwide.