Cathblog - Unmistakable work of the Holy Spirit

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Following my retirement as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) of Australian Catholic University and an extensive discernment process conducted by the Sisters of Charity, I was appointed a Trustee of Mary Aikenhead Ministries by the Congregation in July 2011.

Mary Aikenhead Ministries is the public juridic person (PJP) established by the Holy See’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in July 2009 at the initiation of the Sisters of Charity of Australia. 

Its purpose is ‘to succeed to, and to carry on and expand various health and aged care, education and welfare ministries conducted’ previously by the Congregation.

Since my appointment as a Trustee, my understanding of what is frequently termed these ‘new and emerging PJPs', like Mary Aikenhead Ministries, has grown and I was part of a panel on PJPs entitled Emerging Governance Models: Sustaining the Ministry in the Next Decade at the Catholic Health Australia conference Stewards of the Mission heldin Sydney on 15 and 16 April 2013. 

The objective of the panel was to consider some of the issues facing PJPs and those seeking to establish such new entities. Significantly, a key challenge for the existing PJPs is how little understood this concept is in the wider Australian Church.

Traditional PJPs, like parishes, dioceses and religious institutes, are well-understood Church entities, although their classification under this Canon Law title may be unfamiliar. So what are public juridic persons?

Established under Canon Law, ‘public juridic persons are aggregates of persons or of things which are constituted by competent ecclesiastical authority so that, within the purposes set out for them, they fulfill in the name of the Church … the proper function entrusted to them in view of the public good’ [Canon 116, §1]. 

Thus, in rather the same way that civil law provides the means to form a civil corporation, Canon Law enables a relevant Church entity to be recognised as a public juridic person.

In recent years, in preparation for future leadership and extending lay collaboration to a new level, religious institutes have instigated the establishment of PJPs as a new model of sponsorship for their ministries, to ensure their continuation as works of the Catholic Church.  To distinguish these new entities which relate to Church ministries from traditional PJPs, which have a more organisational focus like a parish, diocese or religious institute, they are often given the tag 'new and emerging' public juridic persons.   

At the Catholic Health Australia conference canon lawyer Sr Mary Wright ibvm, formally of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, utilised the title apostolic PJP.

The establishing authority for the new entities has varied – some PJPs have been established by the Holy See through the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and are known as PJPs of pontifical right.  Others have been authorised by Diocesan or Provincial Bishops.

The means of appointing the PJPs’ canonical administrators also varies.  In some instances the founding religious institute appoints the trustees or directors of the PJP for a designated term – this is the case for Mary Aikenhead Ministries, where the Religious Sisters of Charity of Australia is the founding member (over time, further members, such as other religious institutes, could join, entrusting their works to Mary Aikenhead Ministries).

For other PJPs, it may be the responsible Bishop/s who appoint the canonical stewards – in the case of St John of God Australia Ltd, the members are two congregations, the Sisters and Brothers of St John of God, and the Bishops of the nine Dioceses in which its health service operates.  The Sisters of St John of God initially founded St John of God Health Care and then the PJP, St John of God Australia Ltd, in 2007.  In some instances, the PJP itself might be responsible for succession planning for its canonical administrators.

While the model varies, such religious-lay partnerships have in common the continuation of Church ministries and are authorised for this apostolate through their establishment as new entities under Canon Law.  These apostolic PJPs provide for long-term stable governance of the ministries and continuance of their Catholic identity with the responsible trustees or directors of the PJP having both canonical and civil responsibility for the governance and stewardship of the ministries entrusted to them.

Apart from the lack of knowledge about the new PJPs, other challenges for them include ensuring effective formation of their trustees or directors for the ministry of governance and succession planning for leadership, both for the PJPs themselves and for their ministries.

Catholic Health Australia is currently playing a significant role in this regard, including through its conference Stewards of the Mission.  Further, a working party is exploring means for PJPs to interact with and support one another, potentially to collaborate in formation for governance and stewardship, and to relate collectively with the Bishops and Church agencies.  I am chairing the working party which is sponsored by Catholic Religious Australia and has representatives of Australian PJPs and Catholic Health Australia.

Vatican II sought to promote the ‘vocation of the laity’ and highlighted that ‘modern conditions demand that their apostolate be broadened and intensified … An indication of this manifold and pressing need is the unmistakable work being done today by the Holy Spirit in making the laity ever more conscious of their own responsibility and encouraging them to serve Christ and the Church in all circumstances’ (Apostolicam Actuositatem: Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, 1963, §1).

The emergence of apostolic PJPs is one demonstrable incidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in the modern world.


Professor Gabrielle McMullen AM is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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