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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 107, August 2008





Rev. Fr. Maurizio PETTENÁ, C.S.

            National Pastoral Planning Assistant

Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office




Your Eminences

Your Graces

My Lord Bishops

Reverend Fathers

Sisters and Brothers of the various Religious Institutes

Ladies and Gentlemen

I wish to begin by expressing my heartfelt thanks to H. E. Cardinal Martino and His Grace Archbishop Marchetto as they have graciously honored my person, and indeed the Office I represent within the apostolic care of migrants and refugees of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Australia, with this invitation to discuss the following theme:

“Disintegration and/or cohesion of the family institution in the context of migration”. 

1.   Introduction

It serves the scope of this discussion to show a brief, essential panoramic of the socio-religious landscape of Australia, which, as the beginnings of the third millennium continue unfolding, remains essentially a Country of permanent immigration.

I come from a Nation, Australia, whose history is profoundly intertwined with the experience of people on the move. As it goes for many a culture, migration has been, and continues to be thus, a determining factor in the continuing process of growth which is so evident in Australia. This experience is at the source of this present discussion. Though we are not here to debate on migration issues in general, it serves the purpose of our present contribution to briefly survey the migratory situation in Australia in terms of movement of people and its implication in re-designing the contours of the Australian family. This would help all presents to reflect upon recurring patterns across the varied experience of the Nations where we come from.

Multicultural' is a term that describes the cultural and linguistic diversity of Australian society. Cultural and linguistic diversity was a feature of life for the first Australians, well before European settlement. It remains a feature of modern Australian life.[1] More and more, this is the feature of the Catholic Church as well.  Australia remains committed to be a Country of settlement for migrants. The system of migration for settlement provides the best guarantees for the protection of the dignity of migrants and their families and the opportunity for development. This system is not without its backdrops: restriction to the access of certain benefits on the part of the newly-arrived migrants; restriction in the annual over all intakes of migrants; selection of migrants which privileges skilled ones; more recently, the new labor agreement and the new citizenship test.[2] 

Since the end of World War II, Australia's population shows a continuous growth each year. A high and steady level of migration represents undoubtedly a determining factor, though not an exclusively only one. Since 1901, we witness to a more or less 23% of Australia's population being overseas-born.[3]

Census data enables us to gain some understanding of migrant families residing in one specific Country or Region by examining, for instance, household composition by language spoken at home or religious affiliation.  In addition, an estimate of overseas born children and young people at the time of the census gives some indication of the migrant populations of children and young people in a given region, but it also raises questions related to some determining factors such as possible conflicts between first generation and second generation; ability in learning the idiom of the new Country; integration; values system; social cohesion; religious affiliation and practice; mixed marriages, just to mention a few. Data such as these show how important they are when engaging in theological reflection and pastoral planning.

According to some estimates mediated from the most recent 2006 Census, it shows that 4,400.000 individuals were born in a Country other than Australia, thus accounting for the 22.2% of the total population of 19,8 millions. On March 2008, the resident population of Australia is projected to be:  21,233,879.

Another factor worth noting is the changes in countries of origin that has happened over the year. In 2001 census data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that an estimate 26% of persons born in Australia had at least one overseas-born parent, that is, they were second generation Australians. Of Australian-born children with at least one overseas-born parent 43% had both parents born overseas, 35% had their father born overseas and 22% their mother born overseas.

To the extent of the topic of this Plenary Session, these figures are important factors in the understanding of the growing number of Australian families that is that a typical family in the Australia of today is the result of the encounter of different migration waves resulted in intercultural marriages.

The consequence of these different patterns of migration and their relevance on the family institution is best reflected on the religious profile of the family. The decade following World War II witnesses to a challenging rewriting of the religious identity of the Australian Nation.  Migration from Italy was a determinant factor for the growth of the Catholic Church. Those years saw an increase in affiliation of the Greek Orthodox Church according to her various Traditions as well as an increase in other Christian denominations. The increasing wave of migrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, Latin America and Sudan, just to mention a few is a visible factor in the multiethnic diversity of existing christian denomination and a considerable factor in the actual religious portrait of the Catholic Church. We cannot underestimate that as a result, a good 40 – 45 per cent of the total Australian Catholics is made up of people born overseas or of their children. Together with the most recent migration of people from traditionally Buddhist and Muslim Countries they contribute to the weaving of the variegated mat that is Australian Society.

The question of religious affiliation becomes delicate, sometimes a tender and sore issue when it comes to marriages and the education of children.

Finally, I must point out at the dynamic force between disintegration and cohesion of the second and third generation new migrants resulting, often, in a dysfunctional identity where home is not home anymore and where family-love gives way to a quick assimilation and consequent loss of a sense of family belonginess and meaningful ties.

Concluding this panoramic, one can say that Migration is at the base of the continuous transformation of the profile of Australia significantly, at all levels: social, economic, cultural and religious. The effects of these changes are inevitably reversed upon the family institution.    

2. Itinerant Families

A quick survey of the available bibliography on the subject reveals that the study of intergenerational family relations has developed as a major field of sociological research in the past decades. Sadly, not much at all is available outside the mere sociological scope. One of the reasons might well be that it seems almost impossible to find a common agreement as to what one understands by family, this is largely due to the different experience one has.

When tackling issues such as the itinerant family, it may help to intent a different approach: the itinerant family viewed as meeting point, or better a parable, for the effective encounter of peoples and civilizations, thus rather than being a social phenomenon to be studied, they become a social factor to better live on immutable values.

The decennial teaching tradition of the Catholic Church in matters of migration finds his best descriptive icon in the Flight into Egypt. (Pious XII, 1952)[4] This icon is displayed not simply to describe a situation of tyranny and injustice at the roots of migration, but, peculiarly, it intends to alert us to place the itinerant family at the centre of an ethical debate, of a theological reflection and of a pastoral action, namely, the disintegration to which the family, then and now, is exposed as a consequence of its itinerancy.    

 a) Itinerant Families: a common experience and necessary distinctions.

When families first arrive in a new Country, there are several primary needs that must be met. Pastoral experience teaches that the needs identified related to securing a house where to live as family  in a good, safe place, learning the new idiom, obtaining work, enrolling children in good schools and becoming familiar with the social and legal systems. But one cannot deny the strong demand to preserve the integrity of one’s spiritual tradition. Family and community support is always identified as a major factor in successful settlement. Consequently, family reunion and the availability of community support play an important role in the settlement of families particularly refugees who often have to deal with the effects of war and trauma and anxiety about relatives and friends they left behind.

b) Depending on the different migration contexts one can find different “models” of itinerant families. A tentative classification can be drafted as follows.

  1. Permanent immigration context: immigrant families and international spouses

  2. Temporary migration context: trans-national families with possibility of family reunification

  3. Contract workers system: trans-national families with no possibility of family reunification (families left behind)

  4. Refugees: different family settings according to contingent circumstances

As for any other human phenomenon, in the migrant families’ experience there are positive aspects as well as negative aspects to be considered. For pastoral purposes (migrant ministry), I would focus this presentation on the negative aspects (vulnerabilities / disintegration) which are calling for urgent pastoral responses. On a more positive aspect, I shall propose ways towards a more effective cohesion. I shall argue that the Church as the Community of the people on the move has the resources to trace the map towards a lasting cohesion. 

3. Vulnerabilities of families in the context of migration

According to the different models of itinerant families, vulnerabilities may greatly vary. The following considerations are resulting from the experience of pastoral agents in the migrant ministry in the Asia-Pacific region.

a) Vulnerabilities of immigrant families

  • In principle, the best scenario for families, but …

  • Difficulties in adjustment and integration of family members, especially adults. Immigrants experience the tension of adjustment much more than the society around them does. They are the ones coming into a new land with its laws, custom and languages and, therefore, great expectations are placed upon them in terms of expectations to be fulfilled as quickly as possible.

  • Prejudices and discrimination in the receiving society.

  • As it is true for Australia, so it is for other Countries as well. The experience of the tragedy of the Twin Towers, of Bali and of many other events likes these ones have undoubtedly left a mark in the way people perceive other cultures. On one hand, they struggle to keep a strong community identity amongst themselves; on the other, they struggle to convey the value of this identity to the society where they have chosen to live or into which they have resettled, in the case of refugees.

  •  Children’s tendency to quick assimilation, with consequent  dysfunctional identity.

  • The value system that is at the core of the migrants’ sense of identity and self-worth is often challenged by the style of life and the choices of their children.

  •  Language and cultural gaps inside the family.

  • More often than no, migrants live a double migration: they are objectively in another Country, but also inside their household they find they are not a part of their children interests, they don’t understand them when they relate to their peers.

b. Vulnerabilities of international families (foreign spouses)

The significant growth of international marriages in the Asian and Pacific region is an emerging trend with notable gender dimensions. Although it is not to be strictly considered as labour migration, such progressive increase of exogamy may indicate the use of marriage as a “back door” to obtain immigration visas. Due to the application of strict population policies and other unpredicted cultural developments, thousands of men in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are now looking for foreign brides, mostly from the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Mongolia and Thailand. In 2000, about 20,000 international marriages (2% of the total) were registered in Japan. In 2001 they rose to 5%, with those involving Japanese men and foreign women comprising 80% of all international marriages. In South Korea, the number of international marriages by February 2005 totalled 60,214, up 35% from December 2003. Local authorities are concerned that these marriages may be used only to obtain a resident visa and, eventually, Korean citizenship. Several fake marriage brokers have been discovered during the first months of 2005. In 2003, international marriages made up 31.9% of the registered marriages in Taiwan. Also in this case, speculations on the misuse of marriages for visa and nationalization purposes have been raised. Fake matchmaking agencies have been discovered offering to Taiwanese men Vietnamese brides for 300,000 Taiwan dollars. To consolidate the trade, “marriage-brokers agencies” have also been established in countries of origin. Many modern “virtual offices” for marriage consultancy have also appeared in the World Wide Web. Considering the factors mentioned above, it is not surprising that numerous cases of domestic violence, sexual harassment and breakdown in the relationship have been widely reported.

c) Vulnerabilities of trans-national families with possibility of family reunification: recurring scenarios

  • Families “multi-divided”: members are scattered in different countries (many Philippine families)

  • Children exposed to sudden changes to match the requirements of family reunification (example Italy and Australia)

  • Children often left to their own because both parents are working (example Italy and Australia)

  • Still temporary situation and visa always depending on the status of migrant worker (example Ireland, Australia)

  • Frequent break up of families, especially when spouse not allowed to work in hosting country (example Ireland)

  • Loss of identity of second generations (Example Australia, Italy)

d) Vulnerabilities of trans-national families with no possibility of family reunification

The Contract Worker System, which regulates most of the labor migration in Southeast and East Asia, represents a real threat to the integrity of family structures. Transnational families, where either the father or the mother or both parents are absent, are vulnerable and fragile. Stories of broken families or “the other family” though frequently mentioned have still not been quantified. However, we cannot just say that these are just exceptional cases. A lot of cases of abandonment or having second family abroad are some of the most common cases filed by the families left behind. The latter struggle to adjust to the new situation and the real socio-emotional costs of migration are not easily observable. The migration of mothers and the exchange of parental roles have been found particularly problematic. The most defenseless victims are children, the sons and daughters of emigrants. Moreover, in the countries of origin a worrisome increase of what can be defined as “migration mentality” has been observed. New generations are growing up with the conviction that emigration is the only way to achieve professional and personal fulfillment. As an example, a study carried out by Scalabrini Migration Centre in 2003-2004 in the Philippines revealed that almost half of Filipino children, aged ten to twelve, are already entertaining thoughts of working abroad.[5] The vocational orientations of youth appear to be influenced by the prospect of migration; their decisions about professional training are more and more conditioned by the opportunities offered by overseas labor markets. Such migration mentality is undermining the very foundations of sound nationalism.

e) Vulnerabilities of refugee families

In March 2002, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference published a Statement on Refugees and Asylum Seekers calling for a greater generosity in Australia’s Refugees Program and a more humane treatment of asylum seekers.

  • Serious dramas and psychological wounds in the members.

  • It is a case of compulsory exodus: adjustment and integration difficult and at times neglected.

  • Prejudices and discrimination in the receiving society, with the accusation that they are a burden to the hosting country. (An example comes from some statements uttered by community leaders in relation to the Sudanese community in Australia).

  • Children’s tendency to quick assimilation, with consequent dysfunctional identity.

  • Language and cultural gaps inside the family.

4. Towards a cohesion of the Family Institution: Pastoral considerations

a) Immigrant families. There is need of a specific pastoral care, aiming at social inclusion in the receiving society, but with cross-cultural sensitivity. Attention to the first and second generations and the relationships between the two. More than ever today we need to implement a cross-cultural pastoral care of youth. World Youth days are becoming a privileged agora for cross–cultural encounters that have the faith–sharing experience at heart. It is almost as acknowledging the existence of a common sacred ground able, in itself, to create a trans-cultural culture across different cultures: that is to say the culture of the Gospel.

b) Mixed marriages. Yong people simply fall in love and they decide to get married. More and more, pastors are challenged by this pastoral opportunity for cohesion and evangelization.  John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio reminds us that

In conformity with her constant tradition, the Church receives from the various cultures everything that is able to express better the unsearchable riches of Christ. Only with the help of all the cultures will it be possible for these riches to be manifested ever more clearly, and for the Church to progress towards a daily more complete and profound awareness of the truth, which has already been given to her in its entirety by the Lord. Holding fast to the two principles of the compatibility with the Gospel of the various cultures to be taken up, and of communion with the universal Church, there must be further study, particularly by the Episcopal Conferences and the appropriate departments of the Roman Curia, and greater pastoral diligence so that this "inculturation" of the Christian faith may come about ever more extensively, in the context of marriage and the family as well as in other fields. It is by means of "inculturation" that one proceeds towards the full restoration of the covenant with the Wisdom of God, which is Christ Himself. The whole Church will be enriched also by the cultures which, though lacking technology, abound in human wisdom and are enlivened by profound moral values.”. (FC, 10)

c) International spouses. This is quite a delicate issue. There are innumerable cases of abuses and domestic violence that need to be dealt with through professional counselling. To these, we add the cases of human trafficking, with all the consequences. Need of proper education and formation pre-marriage and post-marriage. Need of special pastoral support during the first years.

d) Trans-national families. In the main areas of origin of labor migration, diocesan and parish pastoral plans should include special programs of assistance to migrants’ families. Such programs should focus on fostering coping mechanisms in response to parental absence, exchange of parental roles, separation from the spouse and loneliness (see EMCC, 30). Moreover, the new family structures emerging due to labor migration, represent a real challenge to traditional pastoral care (catechism, preparation to sacraments, celebrations, etc.), which is generally addressed to two-parent families. Spouses abroad need special pastoral care aiming at creating coping mechanisms. A special attention needs to be devoted to children suffering sudden changes.

e) Refugee families. In many Countries, we witness to the many efforts of the Catholic Church and other agencies, through specific interventions, programs of immediate assistance like, for example, finding a house where to stay, providing furniture, clothing and food, advocacy and lobbying. It is this convinced and active support that is in itself a testimony to cohesion with the grater family of the Church and the human society. This, quite often, provides for that healing process that is at the base of any cohesion with the larger society. Special pastoral activities must be in place to curb all forms of discrimination.


A distinctive feature of today’s society and church is that we are confronted with a cultural and religious pluralism which has never been experienced before in such a conscious way.[6]

Migration is a hot issue everywhere and often times the political attitudes towards it determines the course of political leadership. In Countries such as The United States, Australia, the European Union, indeed the oil Countries Reserves of the Middle East and basically every Country, public sector, NGOs and Churches are struggling to find the right political solution towards immigrants and immigration. This debate ends, usually, in political strategies with inadequate if not disastrous sociological consequences. On the other hand, the Church, through its wealth of interventions, and other institutions as well are pushing forward a different agenda or, at least, different approach. This approach could be called ‘ethical” as distinct from “political” or “sociological” or economic”. This ethical approach aims at viewing the migrant not as a political, sociological and economical problem, but as person leaving out a specific human experience. Indeed Church’s Documents and Popes’ Messages raise issues and concerns that look straight at the migrant person and urge policy makers to look at the good of the person and the community as a priority over other considerations.[7] This, rather than being a possible optionis a must for we Christians are called to bear witness to the Gospel and become prophets of a new humanity. In this ethical approach “the suffering that goes with migration is neither more nor less than the birth-pangs of a new humanity, on the other the inequalities and disparities behind this suffering reveal the deep wounds that sin causes in the human family. They are thus an urgent appeal for true fraternity”. (EMCC, 12)

If it can be said that the judging criteria of every institution is whether it coerces or enhances the dignity of the human person, the judging criteria for the church is how she welcomes migrants for migrations offer individual local Churches the opportunity to verify their catholicity, which consists not only in welcoming different ethnic groups, but above all in creating communion with them and among them.[8]

Statements such as this one, sets the ground for those ethical questions, we must not avoid.

What are our basic attitudes on the current debate on migration, both at national and international level?

What is the orientation of this debate with respect to the family that our Catholic magisterial tradition views as the fundamental cell of both church and society?

The Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has dedicated one of his messages on the occasion of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees to the family in which he reaffirms the Church commits herself not only in favor of the individual migrant, but also of his family, which is a place and resource of the culture of life and a factor for the integration of values.[9]  This message on The migrant family is in continuity with those of 1980, 1986 and 1993 by the late Pope John Paul II as a show of the profound interest from the part of the Church on the cohesion of the family. After saying that no one and no law have the right to break the family, the Pope refers to the “International Convention for the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families, which was enforced on July 1st, 2003” this , “intends to defend men and women migrant workers and the members of their respective families. This means that the value of the family is recognized, also in the sphere of emigration, which is now a structural phenomenon of our societies”.[10]

For this reason, the Church openly and strongly defends the rights of the family against the intolerable usurpations of society and the State. The Post Synodal Exhortation Familiaris Consortio traces a chart of rights of the family, amongst which one finds the right to emigrate as a family in search of a better life.[11]

Certainly, the experience of Australia today and, I have no doubts of many other Countries, is that migrants account for or a considerable proportion of the members of any parish. In some areas in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, where I minister, some parishes have up to the 56% of catholic migrants in their territory. Where they are made welcome and a part of the daily life of the parish, their contribution is visible and engaging. For many of them, the parish is the only family they can get together with in time of joy and sorrow. I think, specially, of the international students, whose number is increasing by the day in Australia.

There are still cases in which migrants stand in our parishes in the shadow of unwelcoming attitudes. This does not advance the process of cohesion.

Another interesting pastoral phenomenon which interests migrants in Australia is the raise of many prayer groups or ecclesial communities: a witness of the profound desire for a family, a supportive community, a place to call home.

It will be more and more the duty of the Church to elaborate, within the biblical, theological, ethical and pastoral fields of migration a specific contribution to the debate on the itinerant family.

This Plenary Session is but a testimony to this genuine effort. The simple analysis of the itinerant family that we have conducted in this discussion leads to the conclusion that cohesion, in spite of the many causes for disintegration, is a peculiar ministry of the pilgrim people of God. This is a people aware of being on the move towards the encounter with God. In this pilgrimage people come to know one another, to share their hopes and their anguishes. Once the foreigner is encountered and welcomed, valued and respected, he is no longer a foreigner; he becomes the Christ (Mt 25:35) paving the way to a trans-cultural culture across different cultures that enables all to be transformed as one in Christ. (Gal 3:27-28).


[1] DIMIA, (Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Australia), 2005.

[2] Pettenà, Maurizio, Migration and Dynamics of the Scalabrinian Response, in: Migration and pastoral Models. Proceedings of the Scalabrinian Conference. Triuggio, MI, 25 May – 1 June 2005, p. 90.

[3]  For a better and more detailed profile of the Australian population statistics, refer to: Australian bureau of Statistics. For more information on Australian Demographics visit .

[4] For the relevance of this “Icon” in the teaching tradition of the Church on Migration, refer to: Bentoglio, Gabriele, Stranieri e Pellegrini. Icone Bibliche per Una Pedagogia dell’Incontro. Ancora. Milano, 2007, pp.178 – 184.

[5] See, on this subject: Laura Zanfrini e Marja M.B. Asis (A Cura Di), Orgoglio e Pregiudizio. Una Ricerca tra Filippine e Italia sulla Transizione all’Età Attiva dei Figli di Emigrati e di Figli di Immigranti. Franco Angeli, Milano, Italy, 2006.

[6] Marchetto, Agostino, Intervention at the presentation of the Pope Benedict XVI’s  Message for the World Day of the Migrant and Refugee in 2005: "InterculturalIntegration." Source: Vatican City, Dec 9, 2004 (VIS), quoting EMCC, 35.

 [7] Fabio Baggio & Laura Zanfrini, (Editors), Migration Managements and Ethics. Envisoning a Different Approach, Poilimetrica International Scientific Publisher, Milano 2006. Dr. Baggio argues for an urgent ethical challenge against a migration management policy that tolerates injustices, discrimination and abuses of human rights.

[8] John Paul II, Message for World Migration Day, 1988.                                                    

[9] Benedict XVI, Message for the 93rd World Migration day, 2007.

[10] Benedict XVI, Ib.

[11] Familiaris Consortio, 46.