MESSAGE OF THE HOLY FATHER
The Pastoral Care of Migrants,
a Way of Accomplishing the Mission of the Church Today
1. "Jesus Christ is the same today as
he was yesterday and as he will be forever" (Heb 13:8). These words of the apostle Paul, chosen as the motto of
the Great Jubilee that has just ended, recall the mission of Jesus, Word
incarnate for the salvation of the world. Faithful to his task in the service of
the Gospel, the Church continues to approach people of all nationalities to
bring them the good news of salvation.
With this present Message, on the occasion of the World Day of Migration, I wish
to reflect on the evangelizing mission of the Church with respect to the vast
and complex phenomenon of emigration and mobility. This year, the following
theme was chosen for the commemoration: The
pastoral care of migrants, a way to
accomplish the mission of the Church today. This is an area that many
pastoral agents have at heart for they know quite well the numerous problems
that are found there. They also know the various situations that make men and
women leave their own country. In fact, mobility that is chosen freely is one
thing; mobility caused by ideological, political or economic constraint is an
entirely different thing. It is not possible to ignore this in planning and
carrying out a suitable pastoral care for the various categories of migrants and
The Dicastery, which has the institutional task of expressing the solicitude of
the Church for people involved in the phenomenon, summarizes all of human
mobility with the aforementioned terminology. The term "migrant" is
intended first of all to refer to refugees and exiles in search of freedom and
security outside the confines of their own country. However, it also refers to
young people who study abroad and all those who leave their own country to look
for better conditions of life elsewhere. The migration phenomenon is in
continuous expansion, and this poses questions and challenges to the pastoral
action of the Church community. The II Vatican Ecumenical Council, in the Decree
Christus Dominus, called for a
"special concern … for those among the faithful who, on account of their
way or condition of life, cannot sufficiently make use of the common and
ordinary pastoral service of parish priests or are totally deprived of it. Among
them are very many migrants, exiles and refugees" (no. 18).
In this complex phenomenon, numerous elements come in: the tendency to foster
the political and juridical unity of the human family, the noteworthy increase
in cultural exchanges, interdependence among States, particularly in the
economic sphere, the liberalization of trade and, above all, of capital, the
multiplication of multinational enterprises, the imbalance between rich and poor
countries, the development of the means of communication and transportation.
2. The interplay of such factors produces the movement of masses from one area
of the globe to another. Although in varying forms and degrees, mobility has
thus become a general characteristic of mankind. It directly involves many
persons and reaches others indirectly. The vastness and complexity of the
phenomenon calls for a profound analysis of the structural changes that have
taken place, namely the globalization of economics and of social life. The
convergence of races, civilizations and cultures within one and the same
juridical and social order, poses an urgent problem of cohabitation. Frontiers
tend to disappear, distances are shortened, the repercussion of events is felt
up to the farthest areas.
We are witnessing a profound change in the way of thinking and living, which
cannot but present ambiguous aspects together with the positive elements. The
sense of temporariness, for instance, induces one to prefer what is new to the
detriment of stability and a clear hierarchy of values. At the same time, the
spirit becomes more curious and open, more sensitive and ready for dialogue. In
this climate, people may be induced to deepen their own convictions, but also to
indulge in superficial relativism. Mobility always implies an uprooting from the
original environment, often translated into an experience of marked solitude
accompanied by the risk of fading into anonymity. This situation may lead to a
rejection of the new environment, but also to accepting it acritically, in
contrast to the preceding experience. At times, there could even be a
willingness to undergo a passive modernization, which could easily be the source
of cultural and social alienation. Human mobility means numerous possibilities
to be open, to meet, to assemble; however it is not possible to ignore the fact
that it also brings about manifestations of individual and collective rejection,
a fruit of closed mentalities that are encountered in societies beset by
imbalance and fear.
3. In her pastoral activity, the Church tries to take these serious problems
constantly into consideration. The proclamation of the Gospel is directed
towards the integral salvation of the human person, his authentic and effective
liberation, through the achievement of conditions of life suitable to his
dignity. The comprehension of the human being, that the Church acquired in
Christ, urges her to proclaim the fundamental human rights and to speak out when
they are trampled upon. Thus, she does not grow tired of affirming and defending
the dignity of the human person, highlighting the inalienable rights that
originate from it. Specifically, these are the right to have one’s own
country, to live freely in one’s own country, to live together with one’s
family, to have access to the goods necessary for a dignified life, to preserve
and develop one’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage, to publicly
profess one’s religion, to be recognized and treated in all circumstances
according to one’s dignity as a human being.
These rights are concretely employed in the concept of universal common good,
which includes the whole family of peoples, beyond every nationalistic egoism.
The right to emigrate must be considered in this context. The Church recognizes
this right in every human person, in its dual aspect of the possibility to leave
one’s country and the possibility to enter another country to look for better
conditions of life. Certainly, the exercise of such a right is to be regulated,
because practicing it indiscriminately may do harm and be detrimental to the
common good of the community that receives the migrant. Before the manifold
interests that are interwoven side by side with the laws of the individual
countries, it is necessary to have international norms that are capable of
regulating everyone’s rights, so as to prevent unilateral decisions that are
harmful to the weakest.
In this regard, in the Message for Migrants’ Day of 1993, I called to mind
that although it is true that highly developed countries are not always able to
assimilate all those who emigrate, nonetheless it should be pointed out that the
criterion for determining the level that can be sustained cannot be based solely
on protecting their own prosperity, while failing to take into consideration the
needs of persons who are tragically forced to ask for hospitality.
Through her own pastoral activity, the Church tries her best not let migrants
lack the light and the support of the Gospel. In the course of time, her
attention towards Catholics who were leaving their country increased. Most of
all towards the end of the XIX century, huge masses of Catholic migrants left
Europe and navigated across the oceans. Sometimes, they found themselves in
conditions that endangered their faith because of the lack of priests and
structures. Not knowing the local language, and therefore unable to take
advantage of the ordinary pastoral care of the adopted country, they were
abandoned to themselves.
Thus, migration was in fact a danger for the faith, and that caused concern in
many pastors who, in some cases, even reached the point of discouraging its
practice. Later on, however, it became clear that the phenomenon could not be
stopped. Thus the Church sought to introduce adequate forms of pastoral action,
foreseeing that migration could become an effective way of spreading the faith
in other countries. Based on the experience made in the course of the years, the
Church later developed an organic pastoral care for emigrants and emanated the
Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia
Nazarethana in 1952. Referring to migrants, it affirms that it
is necessary to see to it that they receive the same pastoral care and
assistance enjoyed by the local Christians, by
adapting the structure provided by ordinary pastoral care for the
preservation and growth of the faith of the baptized faithful, to the Catholic
Subsequently, the II Vatican Council tackled the migration phenomenon in its
various expressions: immigrants, emigrants, refugees, exiles, foreign students,
put together, from the pastoral point of view, into the category of those who
dwell outside their own country and therefore cannot
take advantage of ordinary pastoral care. They are described as the faithful
who, because they live outside their own country or nation, need specific
assistance through a priest who speaks their own language.
We move on from considering the faith that is in danger to more aptly
considering the right of the emigrant, to the respect for one’s cultural
heritage even in pastoral care. From this perspective, the limit placed by Exsul Familia of giving pastoral assistance only up to the third
generation no longer holds, and the right of migrants to receive assistance as
long as real need continues to exist, is affirmed.
In effect, migrants do not represent a category comparable to those that make up
the parish population – children, youth, married people, laborers, employees,
etc. – who are homogeneous in culture and language. They belong to another
community, which should receive a pastoral care that bears similarities with
that in the country of origin in terms of respect of the cultural heritage, the
need for a priest of the same tongue and the need for permanent specific
structures. It is necessary to have a stable, personalized and communitarian
care of souls, capable of helping the Catholic faithful at a time of emergency,
up to their incorporation into the local Church, when they will be in the
position to take advantage of the ordinary ministry of priests in the
5. These principles were included in the canonical regulations in force,
which have incorporated the pastoral care for migrants in the ordinary pastoral
care. Over and above the individual norms, and also as far as the pastoral care
of human mobility is concerned, what characterizes the new Code is the
ecclesiological inspiration of Vatican II underlying it.
The pastoral care of migrants has thus become an institutionalized activity,
addressed to the faithful, considered not so much as individuals, but as members
of a particular community for which the Church organizes a specific pastoral
service. However, this service is, by its very nature, temporary and transitory,
although the law does not set a definite time for its cessation. The
organizational structure of such a service is not a substitution
but is cumulative with respect to the territorial parochial care, which
it is expected to join sooner or later. In fact, although the pastoral care of
migrants takes into account the fact that a given community has its own tongue
and culture, which cannot be ignored in daily apostolic work, it does not intend
to make their preservation and development its specific objective.
6. History shows that in those cases wherein the Catholic faithful were
accompanied during their moved to other countries, they did not only preserve
their faith, but also found a fertile soil to deepen it, personalize it and bear
witness to it through their lives. In the course of the centuries, migration
represented a constant means of proclaiming the Christian message in entire
regions. Today the picture of
migration is radically changing: on one hand, the flow of Catholic migrants is
decreasing; on the other hand, there is an increasing flow of non-Christian
migrants, who settle in countries where the population is Catholic by majority.
In the Encyclical Redemptoris missio,
I called to mind the task of the Church with respect to non-Christian migrants,
underlining that by settling down, they create new occasions for contacts and
cultural exchanges. These urge the Christian community to welcome, to dialogue,
to help and towards fraternity. This presupposes a deeper awareness of
the importance of the Catholic doctrine on non-Christian religions (cfr.
Decl. Nostra Aetate), so as to be able
to undertake an attentive, constant and respectful interreligious dialogue as a
means of mutual knowledge and enrichment. “In the light of the economy of
salvation," I wrote in the aforementioned Encyclical Redemptoris
missio, "the Church sees no conflict between proclaiming Christ and
engaging in inter-religious dialogue. Instead she feels the need to link the two
in the context of her mission ad gentes.
These two elements must maintain both their intimate connection and their
distinctiveness; therefore they should not be confused, manipulated or regarded
as identical as though they were interchangeable” (no.55).
7. The presence of non-Christian immigrants in countries of ancient
Christianity represents a challenge to the Church communities. The phenomenon continues to activate charity in the Church,
in terms of welcome and aid for these brothers and sisters in their search for
work and housing. Somehow, this action is quite similar to what many
missionaries are doing in mission lands. They take care of the sick, the poor,
the illiterate. This is the disciple's way: he responds to the expectations and
necessities of the neighbor in need, although the fundamental aim of his mission
is the proclamation of Christ and his Gospel. He knows that the proclamation of
Jesus is the first act of charity towards the human person, over and above any
gesture of solidarity, however generous it may be. There is no true
evangelization, in fact, “if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises,
the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not
proclaimed.” Ap. Exhort. Evangelii
the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not
proclaimed.” Ap. Exhort. Evangelii
Sometimes, due to an environment dominated by growing religious relativism and
indifferentism, it is difficult for the spiritual dimension of charitable
undertakings to emerge. Some people fear that doing charity in view of
evangelization could expose them to the accusation of proselytism. Proclaiming
and bearing witness to the Gospel of charity constitutes the connective tissue
of the mission towards migrants (cfr. Ap.
Lett. Novo millennio ineunte, 56).
At this point, I would like to pay homage to the many apostles who have
consecrated their existence to this missionary task. I would also like to recall
the efforts that the Church has exerted to meet the expectations of migrants.
Among them, I am pleased to mention the International Catholic Migration Commission, which will be
celebrating the 50th anniversary of its foundation in 2001. In fact,
it was instituted in 1951, by initiative of the then Substitute at the
Secretariat of State, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini. It intended to offer a
response to the exigencies of those involved in migratory movements, provoked by
the need to re-propose the production machinery, which was damaged by the war,
and the tragic situation in which entire populations found themselves. They were
forced to move due to the new geopolitical order dictated by the winners. The
association’s fifty years of history, with the modifications adopted in order
to cope better with changing situations, give witness to how various, attentive
and substantial were its activities. Speaking at its inaugural session held on 5
June 1951, the future Pope Paul VI dwelt on the necessity to demolish the
obstacles that prevented migration, so as to give the unemployed the possibility
to work and the homeless a shelter. He added that the newborn International
Commission for Migration’s cause was the very cause of Christ himself. These
words have entirely preserved their relevance.
As I give thanks to the Lord for the service it has rendered, I wish that the
said Commission would carry on its commitment of attention and aid to refugees
and migrants, with a vigor that becomes more and more concerned, the more
difficult and uncertain the conditions of these categories of persons appear to
Today, the proclamation of the gospel of charity to the vast and diversified
world of migrants implies a particular attention to the cultural environment.
For many persons, going to a foreign country means encountering ways of life and
thinking that is foreign to them, that produce different reactions. Cities and
nations increasingly present multiethnic and multicultural communities. This is
a great challenge for Christians, too. A serene reading of this new situation
highlights many values that merit to be greatly appreciated. The Holy Spirit is
not conditioned by ethnic groups or cultures. He enlightens and inspires people
through many mysterious ways. Through various paths, he brings everyone close to
salvation, to Jesus, the Word incarnate, who is “the fulfilment of the
yearning of all the world’s religions and, as such, he is their sole and
definitive completion” (Ap. Lett. Tertio
millennio adveniente, 6).
This reading will surely help the non-Christian migrant see his own religiosity
as a strong element of cultural identity, and at the same time it will make it
possible for him to discover the values of the Christian faith. To this end, the
collaboration of the local Churches and missionaries who know the immigrants’
culture will be useful more than ever. This means establishing links between the
community of migrants and those of the countries of origin, and at the same time
informing the communities of arrival regarding the cultures and the religions of
the immigrants, and the reasons that have caused them to emigrate.
It is important to help the community of arrival not only in being open to
charitable hospitality but also to a meeting, collaboration and exchange.
Furthermore, it is opportune to open the way to pastoral agents who, from the
countries of origin, come to the countries of immigration to work among their
fellow countrymen. It would be very useful to institute for them centers of
welcome that would prepare them for their new task.
9. This enriching intercultural and inter-religious dialogue presupposes a
climate that is permeated with mutual trust and respects religious freedom.
Among the sectors to be illuminated by the light of Christ therefore is freedom,
particularly religious freedom, which is still at times limited or restricted.
It is the premise and guarantee of every other authentic form of freedom.
"Religious freedom" - I wrote in Redemptoris
Missio - "is not a question of the religion of the majority or the
minority, but of an inalienable right of each and every human person" (no.
Freedom is a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith itself, since it is
not a transmission of human traditions, or a point of arrival of philosophical
discussion, but a free gift of God, which is communicated with due respect for
the human conscience. It is the Lord who acts efficaciously through his Spirit;
it is He who is the true protagonist. People are instruments that He uses, to
each of whom He assigns a singular role.
The Gospel is for everyone. No one is excluded from the possibility of
participating in the joy of the divine Kingdom. The mission of the Church today
is exactly that of giving every human being, regardless of culture or race, the
concrete possibility of meeting Christ. I wholeheartedly wish that this
possibility be offered to all migrants and for this, I assure my prayers.
I entrust the commitment and the generous intentions of those who take care of
migrants, to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, humble Servant of the Lord, who lived
the pains of migration and exile. In the new millennium, may She be the guide of
migrants towards Him who is "the real light that gives light to
everyone" (Jn 1:9).
With these wishes, I wholeheartedly impart to all agents in this important field
of pastoral action a special Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, 2 February 2001
JOHN PAUL II