The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need has been elevated by Pope Benedict XVI to the status of a Pontifical Foundation. This means that the organisation is now under the umbrella of the Vatican, but will continue in the same spirit as before. Being raised to this new status is a great honour for ACN, and is a sign of Pope Benedict XVI's support for its work and mission.

The official seat of the Pontifical Foundation is the Vatican, although Aid to the Church in Need's international headquarters will remain in Königstein, near Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It will also retain its 17 national branches throughout the world, including its offices in the UK, continental Europe, North and South America and Australia.

The canonical act of elevating ACN to its new Pontifical status was enacted by a chirograph, an official document in Latin usually written in triplicate. It was personally signed by the Pope, who highlighted in the document the decades-long service that Aid to the Church in Need has already provided the universal Church. In 1984, ACN was also recognised as an universal public association of faithful in a decree published by the Congregation for the Clergy.

Pope Benedict XVI assigned the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, as President of the Foundation. He in turn nominated Baron Johannes Heereman von Zuydtwyck as Executive President, with immediate effect as of 1 December 2011. For 30 years preceding his present appointment, Baron Heereman was Secretary-General and later Executive President of the Knights of Malta in Germany. Another appointment within the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need was the nomination of Rev Father Martin Barta as its Ecclesiastical Assistant. Father Barta is a member of the Clerical Association "Work of Jesus High Priest".

The initial impulse for the founding of Aid to the Church in Need came from Pope Pius XII, who soon after the Second World War asked Christians to reach out to the 14 million refugees in Germany - many of whom were Catholics who had been expelled from Soviet controlled Eastern Europe. In response to Pius XII's call, the Norbertine priest Werenfried van Straaten launched an appeal for reconciliation through charitable deeds. The organisation was launched on Christmas Day 1947 - with the publication of "No Room at the Inn", an article by Father van Straaten's in his abbey's newsletter.

Today, Aid to the Church in Need is a worldwide community of over 600,000 friends and benefactors and supports approximately 5,000 aid projects every year in over 140 different countries. In 2010, the total amount of donations came to €85 million (£73 million, US$114 million). ACN is known for its great work in helping Christians communities throughout the world, especially the millions of people who are persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ.

According to its UK website: "Now a Pontifical Foundation, Aid to the Church in Need will continue as before, in a spirit of active charity to help wherever the Church faces hardship or persecution. As a pastoral charity, acting in the name of the Church, it is committed to strengthening and deepening Catholic faith and moral life."

In offering my congratulations to Aid to the Church in Need, I urge everyone to support this organisation - even making it our preferred Catholic charity. ACN UK has an excellent online shop, too, with ideal gifts for the Christmas season - and is therefore well worth a visit at this time of year.