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Closure of Melbourne John Paul II Institute appears surprising given Pope’s comments

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Pope Francis gestures as he answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Asuncion, Paraguay, to Rome July 12, 2015. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Pope Francis gestures as he answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Asuncion, Paraguay, to Rome July 12, 2015. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Archbishop Hart announced the closure of the Melbourne-based Institute in a letter to staff and students on 25 October, a day before Pope Francis addressed a global gathering of around 400 Institute staff in Rome.

Archbishop Hart’s letter, which quickly went viral on social media in Catholic circles in Australia, shocked students causing an outpouring of dismay on social media.

In his comments in Rome, Pope Francis paid tribute to St John Paul II’s “far-sighted intuition” in establishing the Institute and emphasised that the development of the Institute on all five continents confirmed the validity and meaning of the “Catholic” form of its program.

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However it appeared from the Holy Father’s comments he was unaware of the imminent closure of the Melbourne session (campus) of the Institute on the Australian continent (English translation).

His comments appear to indicate a firm belief that the Institute – which offered postgraduate qualifications such as master’s and doctoral degrees – was operating successfully on all five continents.

Archbishop Hart told students that the Institute’s governing body, its Council, had been concerned for the last two years at the small number of enrolments and the financial burden placed on the archdiocese as a result.

“After careful discussion at the meeting on 25 October 2016, the Council resolved that the Melbourne Session, out of responsibility to the faculty and students, will maintain the Institute in operation until the end of 2018 so that students can complete their studies,” he wrote.

“For any students who do not complete by that time, discussion will take place concerning referral to another Institute.

“The members of Council are very concerned for the welfare of all and have arranged that the Executive of the Institute will communicate with you further in November concerning any questions.”

In Rome, however, Pope Francis said that in establishing the Institute St John Paul II had “vigorously restored to the attention of the Church, and to human society itself, the depth and delicate nature of the bonds that are generated from the conjugal alliance between man and woman.”

The Holy Father was also referring to the theological anthropology of the late pope’s work which is taught at John Paul II Institutes around the world and is regarded as what makes their teaching and research so distinctive.

An English-language report of Pope Francis’s comments by the Rome-based Zenit news agency said Pope Francis had set out a range of threats to marriage and the family as understood by the church.

“At the current moment, conjugal and family bonds are challenged in many ways,” the Pope said, including:

  • a culture that exalts narcissistic individualism,
  • a concept of freedom detached from responsibility for the other,
  • the growth of indifference with regard to the common good,
  • the imposition of ideologies that directly attack the family project, and
  • the growth of the poverty that threatens the future of many families
  • open questions on the development of new technologies, which make possible practices that are at times contrary to the true dignity of human life.

Bishop Peter Elliott of Melbourne, who has served as Director of the Institute since 2005, and a former staffer at the Pontifical Council for Marriage and the Family, told The Catholic Weekly he deeply regretted the decision to close the Institute but was looking forward to sustaining it in the last two years of its existence.

“I thank God for the massive contribution the Institute has made not only in Australia but across South East Asia, Africa and other countries,” he said.

The Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, said he was deeply saddened by the news.

As the then-Father Anthony Fisher OP, he was the first Director of the Institute when it was opened in Melbourne in 2001, serving as Director until being appointed an auxiliary bishop of Sydney in 2003.

The establishment of the Melbourne session of the Institute by then-Archbishop George Pell in 2000 was regarded at the time as a major coup for the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Church in Australia.

It demonstrated that the Church in Australia had the vision as well as the Catholic scholars who could contribute to cutting-edge theological research and teaching at a global level.

“Although a relatively small institution, the John Paul II Institute has had an effect way beyond its size – not only in Australia but around the world,” Archbishop Fisher said.

“The students who have passed through its doors in the last 15 years have received a formation not available anywhere else in this country or this region of the world, and have gone on to assume many different roles, often in fields such as Catholic education, welfare, healthcare and marriage education.

“Many dioceses around Australia and Oceania are blessed to have Institute graduates as pastors and lay leaders, all trained to bring St John Paul’s remarkable legacy to bear on their vocations.

“The Institute also became the leading Catholic ‘think tank’ on issues to do with sexuality and gender, marriage and the family – all critical issues for Church and society at the present time.

“As Pope Francis recently observed, the Institute’s time has come “now more than ever.

“I congratulate the staff and students of the Institute on their extraordinary achievements.

“There is now a big challenge for the Church in this part of the world to find new ways of preparing lay leaders theologically and pastorally in this important field.”

The Catholic Weekly understands typical enrolments at the Institute were in the vicinity of 100-150 students in a typical year.

While enrolments had fallen in some subject areas, other, newer subjects had seen rising enrolments such as in units which offered accreditation to teachers of Religious Education in Catholic schools.

An estimated 170 individuals are believed to have graduated with postgraduate qualifications from the Melbourne Institute since its commencement.

A snapshot of graduates gives an idea of the range and variety of areas of church life the Institute ended up serving or providing for in Australia.

The Catholic Weekly was able to ascertain that graduates included:

  • Dr Paul Morrissey, President of Campion College
  • Dr Brigid McKenna, Director of the Office of Life, Marriage and Family,
  • Archdiocese of Hobart Marita Winters, previous Director of the National Office for Evangelisation, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
  • Matthew McDonald, Executive Officer of the Life, Marriage and Family Office, Archdiocese of Melbourne
  • Anthony Coyte, Executive Officer to the Vice Chancellor, University of Notre Dame Australia (Fremantle, WA)
  • Tom Gourlay (finishing thesis), Manager Campus Ministry, University of Notre Dame Australia (Fremantle, WA)
  • Fr Scott Armstrong, priest, Archdiocese of Brisbane
  • Dr Dominica Ho, General Practitioner, Queensland
  • Dr Ray Campbell, Director of the Queensland Bioethics Centre
  • Dr William Newton, Professor of Theology, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio
  • Dr Chris Meney, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Sydney
  • Marcia Reardon, former director of Life, Marriage and Family Office, Archdiocese of Melbourne
  • James McDonald, Director of Mission, St John of God (Pinelodge, Victoria) Jing-Ping Wong, engineer
  • Fr Grant Gorddard, priest, Archdiocese of Perth

Although small on the tertiary education scene in Australia, the Institute was regarded as filling a boutique research and teaching role that no other Catholic body offered.

Its small size offered some advantages as well; renowned for its ethos, the Institute was regarded as a place where students were treated and regarded as being part of a close-knit community of scholars.

Dr Tracey Rowland, who served as Dean of the Melbourne Institute from its commencement, told The Catholic Weekly it was the focus on the thought of John Paul II that made the institute so different.

“What is distinctive about the curriculum of the Institute is that the theological anthropology of St John Paul II is foundational for all the subjects,” she said.

“Students of the Institute begin their studies by examining the teaching of St John Paul II on the human person, the human person’s dignity and the relationship of these to the Trinity in a sacramental cosmos.

“All the other subjects taught are related to that foundation.”

“Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is the most well-known or famous component of his theological anthropology,” she said.

“So it is St JPII’s theological anthropology and the accent given to that which makes its theology degrees so distinctive.”

In recent years the Melbourne session had sought to address Pope Francis’s call for more attention to be given to the field of pastoral theology by offering a graduate diploma in the theology of psychology addressing issues such as post abortion grief, post divorce trauma and other issues relating to mercy, grief and loss.

The Catholic Weekly submitted several questions to the Archdiocese of Melbourne, however an archdiocesan spokesman declined to comment.

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