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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 107, August 2008





The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, no. 86). For this reason, the Church’s commitment in favour of the individual migrant and itinerant person includes his/her family, which is a place and resource of the culture of life and of true love, and a factor for the integration of values (cf. Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2007). Family is “the union of life and of love, founded on marriage between a man and a woman” and designates “an irreplaceable good for the whole society, which should not be confused with nor considered equivalent to other types of union” (Benedict XVI to the participants in the Forum of Family Associations, 16 May 2008).

The family is the way of the Church and pastoral care directed at the migrant’s and itinerant’s family particularly aims at the integration (which is not assimilation), and/or the cohesion of the family in migration and itinerancy. At times, the maintenance of family unification or its reunification is a fundamental goal, because its members could be separated by distance or its disintegration.   

Pastoral Care of Migrant Families

The Plenary Session discussed during these days the factors needed for an effective programme to care for the family in the context of migration and itinerancy, identifying the latest Instruction of the Holy See on Migration Erga migrantes caritas Christi (EMCC) as a real impetus to plan for this pastoral mission. This ministry should enable us to be in communion, to be in mission, and, most importantly, to be people and family of God. 

The Family of Migrants and Itinerant People

As we take the directions for pastoral care from the aforementioned Document of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, approved by Pope John Paul II on the 1st May 2004, we also must look more carefully at families of migrants and itinerant people, which by definition are most often experiencing temporary disruption for a short or long period, as the case may be. While a migrant or an itinerant person is far from home, he/she leaves the other partner alone to take care of and educate the children and somehow compels her/him to discharge the responsibilities of both parents. This could cause tension in the family. A permanent breakup could also ensue, as in cases when the migrant or itinerant person would fall into other relationships, either casually with many persons or permanently with one person. This can ruin the relationship with the family that is left behind. This is a challenge to these families and also to those who give them pastoral assistance.

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.

Many families, or one or more of its members, migrate because they cannot live with dignity in their own country or society. People find employment in jobs that cause mobility, to support themselves and their families. Especially undocumented or irregular migrants leave their country without their whole family, with the intention of sending remittances back home. Since they are all a resource to the societies where they work, in spite of their legal status, it is their due to have their problem of temporary or prolonged family separation addressed.

This can be done first by encouraging reunification with their families in their host countries. However, receiving countries are restricting this process more and more, and family de-unification will have long-term effects. It is therefore suggested that a study be conducted to identify these psycho-social consequences, and to ask whether they outbalance the economic benefits. In this regard, the participants in this Plenary Session support the Bishops’ Conferences who, given their prophetic role, are calling on their governments to review thoroughly and revise their immigration policies. 

The way public opinion perceives the integration or non-integration of migrants plays an important role in setting up migration policies, especially the admittance or non-admittance of family members. In this regard it would be important to make the Church’s programmes in welcoming migrants known, including its spiritual and social services, advocacy and mediation work, especially in the major countries of destination. There is also a need to study and develop better legal frameworks — both in the international and the national levels — with the aim to make societies offer real possibilities for integration (which is not assimilation), rehabilitation for those who return, social stability and cohesion both for nationals, itinerant people and migrants, with their families. In this regard, it is necessary to recall and build awareness of the fact that integration is not a one-way process.

The separation of the members of the family could also be addressed  by looking into the root causes of migration and itinerancy, and the role of development in finding solutions. If people do not migrate, or can go back to their own families in their country of origin because of a significant change in its level of development, family separation could be avoided or family reunification could take place in the home country. The need to address the root causes of migration and the role of development is a call that the Church raises distinctly, with particular fidelity and at national and international levels. In fact, people have the right not to have to emigrate to realize their integral wellbeing. Aid to legitimate development is therefore a basic need also for the achievement of harmony and peace in the international arena.

The Church has also an important role to play in further defending “the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality” (Centesimus Annus, no. 47), and to promote the numerous social rights related to the situation of the family of migrants and itinerant people. 

Migration Related Problems 

There are two basic approaches that must be utilized in the pastoral care of migrant families. First, to assist the family to maintain cohesion and, second, to find ways to assist the inculturation process (incarnation into different cultures), which is closely linked with integration. This implies dialogue which leads to understanding one another. Intercultural dialogue can take place between people of different nationalities, religions, denominations  or even “rites”.

Moreover, there could be tension between spouses, or between parents and children who seem to inculturate at faster rates than their parents. In general, a pastoral approach to assist family cohesion can be developing parental support groups for those families whose knowledge of the host language is limited. This will ensure communication between parents, their children and others, be they teachers, other social agents or pastoral ministers who assist migrants’ families. This will also facilitate social integration of migrants.

The inculturation process certainly involves programmes where the acquisition of the new host-country language is facilitated, while at the same time fostering the maintenance of the migrant’s native language, for his/her children. Programmes of marriage counseling in their native language can also be a help to family cohesion when stress threatens the stability of the family unit.  

Inter-generational conflicts are frequent, especially in regard to new mores and customs of the host country. Another source of difficulty is Catholic education of immigrant children in host countries, which involves tuition payments that may be alien to the migrants’ experience.  Whatever can be done to assist migrants in the area of education is a valuable pastoral approach.

Women should be given, in any case, the real possibility to educate their children personally and thus choose not to work, without being compelled to find a job because of the existing economic conditions. 

Human Trafficking and Undocumented Migrants

Human trafficking, especially that of women and children, and the undocumented, or irregular, status of immigrants are other pastoral challenges to which the Church must respond.  Programmes of protection for the trafficked individuals, with the aim of eventually unifying them with their families, and projects to assist in regularizing the illegal status of immigrants can be maintained by the Church. We cannot stress too strongly the fact that migrants are people with their inherent human dignity irrespective of their nationality, culture or legal status. Their human rights must be protected.

Integration of immigrants into the local labour market is usually a slow process, except for those who come with significant skills. Immigrants are often forced to take multiple jobs, sometimes leaving their children unattended or involved in child labor practices. Attention to the working conditions of new immigrants, programmes of economic assistance, especially job finding services, are also powerful pastoral tools, without forgetting what is specifically pastoral. 

Throughout the Life Cycle

Families, including those of migrants and itinerants, are greatly affected especially by two events in the life cycle: its beginning, birth, and its end, death. Closely related to the first is marriage. New mentalities and concepts regarding religion, marriage and the family, related to relativism and subjectivism, are presently circulating and conditioning the behaviour also of migrants and itinerant people. It is important for the Church to formulate a valid answer to these new ideas, also to protect people’s native culture.

The Church must speak out without fear and with vivid language and images against what may be going on in the different countries, and clearly explain its views regarding ethical questions that assail families today, using appropriate expressions in addressing the media or the governments.


Studies of the birth rates of migrant families in host countries have shown that although they are, in general, initially higher than those of the local population, over time they tend to conform to that of their countries of arrival, with the use of methods practiced there. Thus, although contraception and abortion may be commonplace in some host countries, resorting to them should be countered among migrants and itinerant people through programmes that promote an understanding of natural family planning and by re-visiting important conciliar and pontifical documents such as Gaudium et Spes and Humanae Vitae.

The pastoral care of children, who are born in a country different from that of their parents, is certainly linked to the administration of the sacrament of Baptism and preparing their family for it. Understanding the customs of countries of origin will be imperative for pastoral ministers to assist families of migrants and itinerant people. It is known that the Church provides for a specific pastoral care for the first and second generations of migrants, with the presence, if possible, of chaplains and pastoral agents having the same language and culture as the migrants. 


Respect for the marriage customs of the new immigrants, outreach in marriage preparation, and facilitating sacramental marriages, and respect for the Sacrament of marriage among itinerant people, are an important pastoral approach.

There is an intrinsic relationship between marriage, the family and the Eucharist. The indissoluble, exclusive and faithful bond uniting Christ and the Church, which finds sacramental expression in the Eucharist, corresponds to the basic anthropological fact that man is meant to be definitively united to one woman and vice versa (Sacramentum caritatis, no. 28; cf. Benedict XVI to the participants in this Plenary Session, 15 May 2008).

Religion, tradition and culture are also important aspects to consider in marriages between persons of different religions, of different Christian denominations or of different Catholic rites. With regard to these different forms of marriages, Erga migrantes caritas Christi gives precise guidelines.

It is also urgent to stress, in catechesis and theological formation, the necessity to prepare Catholics to face the challenges to families involved in human mobility, especially in inter-religious marriages. People should be made fully aware of and strong in their religious identity, and formed in the extreme richness and beauty of the Church’s concept of marriage and family.

Catholic women who are married to non-Christians, especially Muslims, must be given support by the local Christian community, difficult though it may be, through meetings of groups of married women or in any other way, like contacts with ecclesial movements and lay associations. The Catholic communitarian support is more and more important in today’s society.

Migrants and itinerant people must be prepared to bear witness to and proclaim the Good News and give good example in milieus that are “hostile” to the family. The youth should be formed such that they would be capable of taking life-long and permanent decisions, like that of forming a family. Indeed special attention must be reserved for the youth because they are the future of our families. 


At the other end of the life cycle, the experience of death for migrant families is always a difficult one. It may be the death of loved ones left in their home countries, or, less frequently, the death of someone in the migrant’s family itself amidst unfamiliar circumstances. The pastoral approach must always be one to comfort those in situations of grief and to accompany those who are entering new stages in life as they become widows or widowers.  

Pastoral Approaches

A pastoral programmes of welcome is perhaps the best pastoral tool that the Church can use to assist families in the context of migration. In a new society everything is different -- language, culture and customs. There is one thing constant, namely, the Church itself and this is important amidst the big changes to which migrants are subject. The Church can serve as a powerful protector for migrants by advocating on their behalf in the host society. However, it is necessary to underline that pastoral action should not stop at being a social service or therapeutic means, but should have a transcendental, Catholic dimension.

A culture of welcome must be one that begins at the most frequent point of contact; namely, the local parish Church, taking of course into consideration the specific pastoral care provided for by the Magisterium and confirmed by the Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi. Most important is the kindness of native people in accepting migrants. This important attitude aids a family-oriented pastoral approach. Given the situation of temporary and permanent family breakup, possible or actual, and many other social, cultural, religious, economic and legal problems, the setting up of a family ministry at the Churches of origin and destination is imperative.

Such a family ministry has to be in dialogue with migrants and itinerant people 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 a dialogue an effective family ministry can be set up. Without it a pastoral response can be misdirected and irrelevant.

Dialogue towards recognizing and practicing reciprocity in the field of freedom of religion (see EMCC 64) is a task needing utmost mutual respect, openness, persistence and determination. To promote and ensure this reciprocity is a paramount responsibility of national and 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 between the Churches of traditional “partner” countries/regions of origin and destination, with the participation of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People when necessary, should be strengthened and facilitated. It should not be forgotten that when the migrant’s or itinerant’s human and labour rights are safeguarded, this has positive repercussions also on his/her family life.

In communion and solidarity, both the Church of origin and of destination have to work on empowering migrants and itinerant people to become evangelizers. Thus, in the Churches of arrival, migrants and itinerant people could follow a designed program of catechesis and have on-going faith and biblical formation. But regarding this issue, a significant initiative is the training of pastoral agents: priests, religious men and women and lay people, who could then effectively accompany migrants and itinerants and their families too. Formation on this topic should also be included in the curriculum of Major Seminaries and Religious Congregations’ Formation Houses.

 Ecclesial movements, lay groups and Catholic family associations can be a good support for families of migrants and itinerant people, and can assist them individually in maintaining and deepening their faith, while at the same time strengthening their family bonds.

As far as migrants are concerned, three particular situations in the world were mentioned: the Middle East, Africa and Romania. In this context, it was affirmed that National Episcopal Conferences could draw up their own national “Directories” based, in this regard, on the previously mentioned Instruction EMCC, published by this Pontifical Council.  


That the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People hold a Plenary Session, or at least a Symposium, on “mixed marriages” among migrants and itinerant people;

That the PCPCMIP periodically hold a meeting for Continental and Regional “Councils” of Episcopal Conferences to discuss one or more themes related to migration and itinerancy;

To organize, maybe jointly with other Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, a Meeting on Families in Mobility.  


In general, the pastoral approach to families in mobility demands flexibility and attention to the family unit as a whole. Interventions on behalf of parents must always include children and vice-versa. The family must been seen as a dynamic unit of interchanging communication. This dynamism demands constantly changing support systems for families of migrants and itinerant people as they mature in their new environment. 

Although the situation of migrants and itinerant people varies from country to country, some of the common elements described above demand action so that a true pastoral care and welcome to families of migrants and itinerant people might be the hallmark of the attitude and praxis of the Church towards people in mobility. “In fact, in advancing diverse methods and proposals, it is necessary not to lose the common fundamental guideline, which is that of fulfilling God’s plan, which has willed that man and woman form one flesh (cf. Mt 19: 6) in the bond of matrimony and that the family be a sign of the great mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5: 32)” (John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 1987, no. 6). The Catholic Church has a beautiful teaching about marriage and the family, which we must endeavor more and more to pass on and translate into life among the people, pilgrims in our contemporary world.