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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 107, August 2008







Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo, O.M.I.

Secretary General

Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences



The phenomenon of migrants and itinerant peoples of various kinds from workers to refugees has been discussed thoroughly in the past few days at this seminar. Through various conferences we have become more aware of their social, political, religious, cultural and economic situation. The litany of problems seems to be endless. The problems differ, sometimes in kind and sometimes in degree, from country to country. All these constitute the pastoral situation of migrant workers and itinerant peoples.

My subject matter is limited, namely, the issue of the breakup of the family of migrant workers and itinerant peoples. And the question is simple – what can we do to respond to family breakup?

May I attempt to develop a general pastoral response to this tragic situation.

The pastoral perspective that I shall assume is inspired by three decades of pastoral reflection on various pastoral challenges by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC). The Federation is composed of all the bishops in Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia – from Kazakhstan to East Timor.

The themes that FABC uses to reflect on the pastoral situation include the following:

  1. in the light of the Asian pastoral situation the mission of announcing the Gospel of Jesus is by way of a triple dialogue – dialogue with the peoples of Asia especially the majority poor, dialogue with the various cultures of Asia, and dialogue with the different religions of Asia;
  2. for the common task of social transformation in the Asian situation of religious pluralism, a common basis for action is the universal Reign of God;
  3. the local church is the acting subject of mission;
  4. international collaboration is necessary to face the challenges in the common journey to God’s Reign;

According to the 7th and 8th FABC Plenary Assemblies, the situation of itinerant and migrant workers is one of the major pastoral priorities in Asia.

The pastoral response I wish to present may be summarized in the following way: In the light of the universal mission of the Church to announce the Gospel of Jesus, relevant family ministry should be set up in every local church with the task of building communion and solidarity among members of families, among families and local churches. Such ministry should have a perspective of the Reign of God. It should respond to the needs of families in special situations, such as the families of migrants and itinerant peoples. 

1. A Family Ministry in Dialogue with Migrants and Itinerant Peoples.

Without doubt the great majority of migrants and itinerant peoples leave their homes and work in other countries without referring themselves to their local church. They go to recruiting agencies and work out their travel and immigration papers directly through them. In many cases they receive only a minimum of information about the receiving countries, the people and their cultures, the employers that hire them, conditions of work, the customs of the people among whom they will work. If they go to countries with a predominantly different religion, they have only little knowledge about the risks to their own faith, the problems of practicing their faith, the pressures on them because of differences of faith.

In general they are aware of the problems of living apart from their families for an extended period of time, the pressures on the brothers, sisters, and parents they leave behind, and particularly on their spouses and children. At the end as Ecclesia in Asia (1999) says, “In the countries to which they come, these people often find themselves friendless, culturally estranged, linguistically disadvantaged and economically vulnerable” (no. 34).

But all these they have decided to go through for the sake of a better future for their families. The future of their family is uppermost in their minds.

As migrants leave for work the temporary break-up of the family of migrants and itinerant peoples becomes actual. In the duration of their work contract, the separation of the members of the family will be keenly felt, even for those who have worked for several years away from their families with brief periods of vacation. Intermittent reunions will not completely assuage the loneliness of being separated from their families.

But it is not only loneliness or homesickness that is of concern to families. It is the negative impact that the absence of perhaps a key member of the family (e.g. a father or mother, an older brother or sister) would have on the family itself, on the natural growth and development of the children.  

Moreover in the experience of many families, a permanent breakup is not only possible. It can be real, as when the migrant or itinerant worker falls into other relationships either casually with many persons or permanently with one person. These relationships can ruin the relationship that the migrant worker has with the family that is left behind.

Given the above situation of temporary and permanent family breakup, possible or actual, and the many other social, cultural, religious, economic and legal problems that have been discussed at this seminar, the setting up of a family ministry at the churches of origin and destination is imperative.

Such family ministry has to be in dialogue with migrant workers and itinerant peoples. Pastoral workers have to know them, their life situations, their conditions of work. Dialogue with them will reveal their real pastoral situation, their priority needs, and the ways by which effective response can be given to their situation. Through such dialogue an effective family ministry with the proper social dimensions on behalf of migrants and itinerant peoples can be set up. Without such dialogue a pastoral response can be misdirected and irrelevant.  

2. A Family Ministry that Cares and Serves

Family breakup contradicts the nature of marriage and family. The Lord of families calls the local churches to do the task of explaining in a credible and convincing manner the nature of marriage and of family as a communion of love and care.

This task also aims at educating members of families to reflect in their lives and relationships the communion that they are called to be. The family is a sanctuary within which the unity of husband, wife and children is fostered. It is God’s gift to them for the sake of salvation. In this way their natural desire for unity in love is consciously brought to the realm of the spirit and of the Reign of God. Such formation in faith given by the local church regarding marriage and family builds communion and solidarity within the family. It prepares them live up to their family commitments while one or more members of the family depart for work in a foreign country.

The task of formation and education requires a family ministry that cares for and serves families of migrants and itinerant peoples.

When migrants and itinerants actually leave for their places of work, the local church of origin still has the task to help maintain and promote the communion and solidarity of the family. Through pastoral guidance and encouragement, the local church provides the spiritual resources that give them strength to bear and cope with separation.

On the other hand, in communion and solidarity with the local church of origin and with the migrant and itinerant worker, the church of arrival has to provide a similar ministry of care and service. It begins with a “ministry of welcome” (see Erga migrantes caritas Christi, no. 40). In this way the “stranger” will find a home away from home - in the Lord’s household that is the Church. The local church of arrival is not only a place where migrants and itinerant peoples go for worship. It should be a place where they find “family” belongingness, friendship and fellowship in community. Simple celebrations of birthdays and other anniversaries take on greater meaning when celebrated within such fellowships. 

Concretely, this means the active presence and ministry of chaplains and pastoral workers to whom migrant workers and itinerant peoples can refer their problems and find a listening ear and caring hand. Letters of introduction would also help. It is important for pastoral workers to know a little bit of the cultures of migrants and itinerant workers and be able to speak to them in a language they understand. The lack of ability to communicate in a language that is understood is one of the most serious causes of loneliness and alienation. Associations of migrants and itinerant peoples will add to the spirit of common strength, belongingness and fellowship they find in the church.

Such pastoral care was envisioned by the FABC at its 8th Plenary Assembly held in Daejeon, Korea in 2004 on the topic: “The Asian Family towards a Culture of Integral Life.”

One of its pastoral recommendations is the setting up of family ministries in Asia that “form and empower,” “care and serve,” and “promote social transformation.” Among the special programs of a caring and serving family ministry, the Plenary Assembly recommended “setting up programs for families with migrant workers abroad and helping migrant workers before they leave and when they return” (Final Document, no. 119).

The FABC vision of family ministry in Asia calls for pastoral programs that should “make the inner resources of our faith (the sacraments, liturgy, prayer, day-to-day spirituality) available to couples and their families in their striving toward a culture of integral life… and should empower families to become evangelizers, such that ministry is not only for families but by families” (no. 116).

3. A Family Ministry that Forms and Empowers

Beyond the simple idea of receiving pastoral care is the universal mission, valid also for migrants and itinerants, to evangelize others. For this reason, a family ministry should form and empower in the faith. In communion and solidarity both the church of origin and the church of destination have to work on empowering migrants and itinerant peoples to become evangelizers.

It is well known that by the dynamism of their religious faith migrant workers and itinerant peoples have impressed peoples with weakened faith or with hardly any practical faith. Domestic workers in many countries of Europe bring the children of their employers to church on Sundays, teach them how to pray and what the basic tenets of the Church are.

In the churches of origin faith formation and empowerment can be done through the regular catechetical and biblical programs at the parish level in collaboration with the family ministry of the parish. The local church should especially emphasize formation to a spirituality of communion in the family:

"… at the heart of the family is Communion, communion with God, communion of the spouses, communion of young or elderly parents and their children, communion with grandparents and other members of the extended family…. It is a union of hearts and minds that in a human way reflects the communion of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Triune God from whom the family came to be…. Communion within the family, however, reaches out to the wider community and impels the family toward a mission of service for the sake of the Reign of God. This outward movement enables the family to share the Trinitarian communion that it is gifted with. A spirituality of communion infuses vigor and enthusiasm – life – into the dynamics of the family, the relationship between spouses, between parents and children, between members of the extended family". (8th FABC Plenary Assembly, Daejeon, Korea, August 17-23, 2004, Final Document, nos. 105-106).

A spirituality of communion, unity, and solidarity will definitely help spouses and children cope better with the aches and pains of temporary separation. Kept alive through prayer and communication, it would also serve to overcome temptations to permanent separation. 

In the churches of arrival, migrant workers and itinerant peoples could follow a designed program of catechesis and have on-going faith and biblical formation. For instance, Filipino migrant workers who come together for Mass and socialization every Sunday could have on-going faith formation for one hour after the Mass and before their socialization and fellowship activities. [In Rome student priests at the Pontificio Collegio Filippino are assigned to various churches on Sundays where Filipino migrants and itinerants gather for Mass and fellowship. They act as chaplains providing religious services, giving spiritual conferences, helping organize them, and bringing them together for various events, social and religious. This is a practice that can not be replicated in other places, simply because of the lack of chaplains].

But on the issue of on-going formation and empowerment, an initiative in some countries like the Philippines is significant in the light of the concerns of migrants and itinerant people. This is the training of pastoral workers. A week-long course was started six years ago by the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila in collaboration with the Philippine Bishops’ Commission on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. This was designed to train pastoral workers for migrants. Last January the course was attended by 46 pastoral workers from Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines. They went through learning modules covering the migrant situation in Asia, church teachings on migration, the mission with migrants in Asia, specific issues on the care of migrants, networking and planning future programs.   

The more programs there are to train pastoral workers, the better for the mission of caring and serving migrants and their families.

My suggestion is for pastoral care and activities to go beyond worship, socialization and fellowship and into ongoing formation and empowerment for integral evangelization.

Evangelizing by migrants and itinerant peoples may seem to be idealistic but for many Filipino migrant workers this is already a lived experience. Already many Filipino migrants who belong to various lay religious movements such as El Shaddai, Couples for Christ, and other charismatic groups follow the faith formation sessions of their lay groups.

It is a matter simply of consciously bringing the missionary or evangelizing dimension into the on-going faith formation session and continuing what may already have been started at the local church of origin.

Here again we see the great need of collaboration – of communion and solidarity for mission among migrants and itinerant peoples, between them and the local churches of origin and arrival. 

4. In Dialogue with Other Cultures and Religions

What has been said so far would seem to apply only in places where migrants and itinerant peoples can practice their own religion freely, where local churches of origin and destination play a great role.

But the great majority of Asian migrants and itinerant peoples live and work in countries where they cannot freely and safely practice a religion different from that of their host country. In such countries temporary separation from one’s own family becomes even more acute. They are deprived of the strength and consolation that religious faith and fellowship could provide even when a celebration is merely a birthday or anniversary.

It is in this situation that prior formation and empowerment in the local church of origin is important and necessary. Prior faith formation can help migrant workers and itinerant peoples cope with the pressures of work in a country of different religious persuasion and where religious conversion in order to have better work conditions and higher compensation is always a severe temptation.

Only a dialogue of life is possible in such situation. For domestic workers, more restricted to the home of employers perhaps not even this kind of dialogue is possible. Friendship and fellowship with peoples of other faiths and cultures would certainly ease the aches of homesickness and of being away from families.

Moreover, dialogue – solidarity and collaboration - between governments with peoples of predominantly different religions will go a long way to make migrants and itinerant peoples feel at home in their countries of work. 

5. Solidarity and Collaboration at the International Level

Beyond decent and humane working conditions is a mutuality and reciprocity of rights, especially of the fundamental freedom of religion, based on the universal golden rule – “Do unto others what you want them do unto you.” Recent appeals by the Holy Father for such reciprocity of rights and freedom of religion have raised the consciousness of people around the world regarding this human rights issue. It has also raised the bar of inter-religious dialogue a bit higher.

To promote this reciprocity of rights and to ensure that peoples of different faiths practice their religion freely and safely everywhere would be a paramount responsibility of international decision makers. It needs dialogue, solidarity, and collaboration between States. It would also be necessary for the United Nations to act determinedly on this issue in accord with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Dialogue towards recognizing and practicing reciprocity of the freedom of religion is a task needing the utmost mutual respect, openness, persistence and determination. For if States do not recognize such freedom for their own citizen-minorities, how much more difficult it would be for States to recognize the same freedom to migrants and itinerant workers.

Dialogue, solidarity and collaboration at the international level should also address another burning issue – the issue of reuniting the families of migrants and of recognizing their rights as families, according to them the same protection as other families (see the Holy See’s Charter of the Rights of the Family, 1983, Article 12).  

Granted that there are many obstacles that prevent effective resolution, including concerns about internal security, economics and demography, the obstacles are not insurmountable. The pastoral care of migrants and itinerant peoples would call for local and international advocacy on these issues regarding family unification and family rights.

To be highly commended is the work of non-governmental organizations both at the local and international levels, such as the International Catholic Migration Commission, that pushes the advocacy of the Church forward at various fora. Advocacy is part and parcel of pastoral care and strives to press forward ethical decisions on migrants and their families in accord with the teachings of the Church.

6. A Common Basis for Pastoral Work toward Communion and Solidarity - the Reign of God

In a situation where peoples of different religious traditions and their governments are involved, the pastoral care of migrant workers and itinerant peoples would require a common perspective. We who believe in Jesus Christ are guided in our work by this belief in Jesus and by the mission of proclaiming him as the Lord and Savior of the world. This is our unique perspective. We need to keep this perspective in our consciousness. It should always motivate and energize our pastoral work.

But communion and solidarity with other religious traditions would require a common perspective. This is provided by the perspective of God’s Reign. Brothers and sisters under the one God are on a journey together towards God’s Reign which comes definitively at the end of time. We are in the “now and not yet” dimension of God’s Reign. We are called to make this one globalized world a safe home for all, a home to be built on justice, truth, freedom, peace, and love. These are fundamental values of the Reign of God.

It is this perspective of God’s Reign, of God’s loving dominion over us, that pulls together efforts of various religions and ideologies to respond to the family breakup of migrant workers, itinerant peoples. 


To the question how can we respond effectively to the breakup of the family of migrant workers and itinerant peoples, I have attempted to provide a pastoral response in the light of reflections of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. 

The response concretely calls for a triple dialogue – with the poor, with cultures, and religious traditions. It calls for the setting up of a family ministry that is in dialogue with migrants and itinerants, with their cultures and religious traditions.

It is a family ministry that cares and serves, forms and empowers for mission. Formation towards a spirituality of communion which is at the heart of marriage and the family is the key element of this pastoral response.

The response also calls for solidarity and collaboration between churches of origin and arrival, and between States at the international level. The crux of the matter is reciprocity and mutuality of rights, particularly of the freedom of religion. When migrant workers and itinerant peoples enjoy freedom of religion, they are able to avail themselves of the spiritual resources of their faith. They are better able to cope with pressures of temporary family breakup and the severe temptations to permanent family break-up.

The common basis of action for such solidarity and collaboration is the universal journey of all peoples towards the Reign of God, a journey towards justice and truth, peace, freedom and love.