Following in their founder’s footsteps

Following in their founder’s footsteps
The creation of a new lay body within the Church is an attempt to live out Vatican II, writes Greg Daly


The transfer this January 1 of services run by the Brothers of St John of God to a Church lay body has been a long time coming, according to the provincial of the order in Ireland.

“It can be said, really, that it’s been 50 years – since Vatican II,” Bro. Donatus Forkan tells The Irish Catholic. “The  renewal process that we entered into after Vatican II which called the entire church to renew itself and to adapt to present situations,  we as an order took that very seriously.

“It was a long journey, and it’s not over by any manner or means,” he says, explaining how in the aftermath of the Council the Brothers of St John of God looked at their life and felt it was monastic in a way that might not have matched the vision of St John of God himself.

“We lived over the shop, so to speak, for example at the psychiatric hospital in Stillorgan, we lived on the top floor – we had about 200 patients – and we lived a monastic type of life, with frequent visits to the church, and prayers and silence and reading in the dining room and all of that,” he says.


He describes this life as both fully contemplative and fully active, where the 50 or so brothers – with around 10 lay assistants – directly looked after those in their care in a range of ways.

The brothers reflected on the example of St John of God, a 16th-Century Spanish businessman who spent time in a mental hospital and subsequently dedicated himself to improving the lives of the most marginalised, and especially the mentally ill.

“We looked at our own lifestyle in the 1960s, compared with John of God, and we asked the question if John of God were here today what would he be doing – would he be living a monastic type of life as we’re living, or would he get outside the walls into the community and look after the most marginalised?”

This drove an expansion of services, with the order reaching out into the community, and realising how much could be done by laypeople who had not made religious professions.

“We looked around and we saw the laypeople that were working with us at that time. They also had received the gift of hospitality, the charism, and were as committed as the brothers were, and we saw this is something to build on,” he says, explaining how the order had its first non-religious director of services more than 30 years ago.

“So instead of every centre of service having to have a brother responsible, gradually it was handed to laypeople. There was a whole process of renewal with the laypeople,” he says, noting how they too identified with John of God’s charism.

“The gift he had received was a gift of the Church and of society. It wasn’t a possession of the brothers, it was something to be shared,” he says. “And that’s the way of thinking in the Church today, the charisms are a gift from God to the Church and society and they should be shared and involve other people.”

The transfer last week of the province’s services to the new St John of God Hospitaller Services Group is the latest step in this process, he explains, with there being an obvious question around how the order’s charism could be carried into the future when so few people are responding to religious vocations – currently the Western European Province, which as well as Ireland, Britain, and the Netherlands, also includes Malawi, has just 40 brothers, 25 of whom are in Ireland.

“We’re getting older and there are not many members joining us, so again we looked at a structure: what kind of structure can we put in place?

“These people are lay-people of many religions and none, but the core would be Christians committed to the values and ethos of the order and the Church, while there are many others who identify with our mission and our charism, that work with us,” he says.

The answer, pioneered in the United States around 20 years ago, has entailed the creation of a Vatican-approved body termed a Ministerial Juridic Person (MJP), or a Public Juridic Person.

Describing such a body as “a lay entity within the Church”, Bro. Donatus says of the first of these: “There would be a sister or brother’s involvement but it was a lay institute and was recognised, almost like a religious order.”

While these bodies don’t live religious lives, in terms of prayer and community life, they can run Church services such as schools and hospitals.

“Being a Church org-anisation, it is the Church in action,” Bro. Donatus explains. “First of all you come up with this idea of setting up a ministerial juridic person, so when you have done your homework – and you have to get canonical advice – you can set one up.

“We had Frank Morrissey, a Canadian Oblate canon lawyer, who is the recognised authority in MJPs in the English-speaking world, who was our adviser from day one,” Bro. Donatus says.

“We had a very good brother, Bro. Laurence Kearns, who from early on was the provincial in Ireland and he worked with Frank Morrissey in setting up the MJP, and then when all the ducks were lined up he went to the Vatican, to the Congregation of Religious and Apostolic Life.”

Canonical approval was granted in 2012 for the St John of God Hospitaller Ministry to replace the system where the provincial and his council governed the province’s services.

“Then we applied to the Charity Commission here in Ireland, and that then is mirrored in civil law. It’s the same group, the same people, the St John of God Hospitaller Group. That’s recognised and has a charity status and for the Revenue Commissioner it has a charity number. It’s a lay entity, a charity within the Church, under the umbrella of St John of God Order, but independent of the brothers,” he says. “It reports directly to the Holy See.”


With civil recognition being granted last year following Church approval, the group and its subsidiary companies became operational on January 1 in a manner that should stand as a model for those horrified and baffled by the Religious Sisters of Charity’s hamfisted and secretive attempts to hand over services and property to the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group.

It seems fair, then, that the Brothers can claim that the creation of the new group is “not the end, but rather the birth of something new and exciting” and “an innovative way for maintaining the Catholic identity of services traditionally part of the ministry of the Church”.