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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 107, August 2008






Bishop Nicholas DiMARZIO

Diocese of Brooklyn




For the past two days, we have listened to many interventions on the theme of the migrant and itinerant family. This last intervention in its preparatory state did not have the advantage of the completed interventions as presented. Hopefully, however, this last intervention will serve as a summary or recapitulation of what has gone before with some direction for pastoral care of the family in the context of human mobility. 

The general situation of the family today has been presented for us, especially the family as the way of the Church. It goes without saying that the integration, and/or the cohesion of the family in migration, is the particular aim of pastoral care directed at the family. At times, the maintenance of family unification and/or reunification is a goal, either because the separation is caused by distance or disintegration. There then followed interventions on the specific circumstances of particular family groups in migration. All of the specific circumstances of families of international students, Roma, seafarers, fishermen, truck drivers, street children and women of the street, airport workers, tourists, pilgrims, service workers, those families in mixed marriages, especially families in situations of disintegration have been discussed.   

Pastoral Care of Migrant Families

Information on pastoral programs to care for the family in the context of migration recognizes all the factors that have already been discussed at this Plenary Session. Perhaps the impetus to plan for pastoral ministry can be the latest document of the Holy See on Migration, Erga migrantes caritas Christi.  In the document, we hear that the moment of migration is a kairos, a graced moment, both for the migrant and those who assist them. These instances of graced opportunity enable us to direct pastoral attention to those most in need. Most certainly, the issue of inculturation, which implies dialogue which leads to understanding, is the most important element in devising a pastoral plan for families experiencing the phenomenon of migration. As Erga migrantes caritas Christi tells us, our pastoral ministry must enable us to be in communion, to be in mission, and, most importantly, to be a people and family of God.

A culture of welcome must be built, not only one which offers mere assistance, but rather one which leads to genuine acceptance and integration. The pastoral care of the welcome of migrants can take many forms. Certainly, it must be concrete and directed towards a particular ethnic or ritual group. It must safeguard the unity and universality of a group enabling them to maintain their cultural identity, while at the same time allowing the migrants to worship in their mother tongue and assisting them to learn the host language. Continual interaction with the host community is also suggested by Erga migrantes caritas Christi.  Pastoral care will always be expressed in the availability of liturgy and a respect for popular piety.   

The Migrant Family

As we take the directions for pastoral care from this momentous document, we also must look more carefully at migrant families, which by definition are most often experiencing a period of disruption. The very fact of migration involves their movement and disorientation. It involves a challenge to migrant families and those who will assist them.

From the sociological point of view, the three demographic variables that impact most on families are birth, death and migration. The issues of fertility, mortality and migration effect migrant families in different ways.  They are the key moments that can define a pastoral approach to migrant families. 


Studies of the birth rates of migrant families in host countries have produced a conclusion that over time the fertility rates of migrant families correspond to those of the host country. Programs that promote an understanding of natural family planning can counter the use of contraception, and even abortion that becomes common place in some host countries.

Another curious phenomenon however, has also been discovered that the health and well being of newly-born immigrant children is at times more positive than that of the host society, notwithstanding initial situations of poverty which decline as the children age. An outreach to pregnant migrants can be a good welcoming program that will insure the continued well being of newly-born immigrant children.

The pastoral approach to the birth of new children certainly takes its first intervention in the administration of the sacrament of Baptism.  Facilitating the administration of this sacrament and the preparation of the family to receive it in a new country can be a pastoral challenge.  Understanding the customs of countries of origin will be imperative for pastoral ministers to assist migrant families in requesting the sacrament of Baptism for their children. 

Respect for the marriage customs of the new immigrants is also an important pastoral approach. In many countries, civil marriages are a pre-requisite before religious ceremonies can take place. For many new immigrants, this civil ceremony becomes the only marriage ceremony and the couple fails to solemnize their sacramental marriage because of cultural and financial considerations. Outreach in marriage preparation, facilitating sacramental marriages, is another important pastoral approach. 


At the other end of the life cycle, the experience of death for migrant families is always a difficult one. On the one hand, they may be experiencing the death of loved ones left in their home countries, or, less frequently, the death of someone in the migrant families themselves amidst unfamiliar circumstances. The pastoral approach must always be one to comfort those in situations of grief. Making available the celebration of the Eucharist for someone who has died a long distance away is a wonderful pastoral approach to easing the grief of migrants who may not be able to return to their home countries to grieve for their loved ones. If on the other hand the death occurs in the migrant family itself, either a spouse or a child, suitable intervention and assistance usually is necessary. 

Migration Related Problems 

Migration, itself, puts the migrant family always at some type of disadvantage. 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. 

The assistance of families to maintain cohesion is a difficult task.  There are always built in tensions in migrant families, many times between spouses who may not be in agreement regarding the necessity of migration itself. Or, the experience of tensions between parents and children who seem to inculturate at faster rates than their parents. The circumstances of many countries, however, are different. In general, a pastoral approach to assist family cohesion can be aimed at assisting parents and children by developing parental support groups for those families whose knowledge of the host language is limited. This will insure communication between parents, their children and others, be they teachers or other social agents, who assist migrant families, especially pastoral ministers. In this context, pre-school and special programs of assistance, as well as after-school activities, can be a valuable means of pastoral care for families experiencing stress. Programs of marriage counseling in their native language also can 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. For example, the care of the elderly in certain populations is always a function of the family in the home. While in many host countries this is impossible because of working conditions. This can often be a source of great conflict. The provision of assistance, and even nursing care, in these circumstances is a wonderful pastoral approach.

Another source of conflict is the experience and value of a Catholic education of immigrant children in host countries. Many times, new immigrants lack an understanding or experience of a Catholic education in their home countries. The concept of a Catholic education which involves tuition payments is alien to their experience. Whatever can be done to assist newly arrived and needy immigrants to obtain a proper Catholic education, or at a least religious education, for their children is another valuable pastoral instrumentality.

Another aspect of the inculturation process involves programs where the acquisition of the new host-country language is facilitated, while at the same time fostering the maintenance of the migrant’s language, especially for the children of these migrants. Enhancing the means of communication within the family is a ready-made means of supporting family cohesion. 

Specific attention must be given to the issue of family separation, especially one which may be caused by the migration  phenomenon itself.  In many countries, especially among undocumented or irregular migrants, family separation has become institutionalized whereby mostly males, and sometimes single females, may migrate without the complete family unit. Their intention is to send remittances back to families in their home countries to assist with their daily maintenance. This phenomenon of family separation is particularly troublesome. Although as it has existed for many decades in various migrant sending countries, its impact continues to be disastrous on some families. Anything that can be done to assist separated families to maintain communication is a powerful pastoral tool to maintain family cohesion.  

Human Trafficking and Undocumented Migrants

The growing phenomenon of trafficking, especially that of women and children, becomes another pastoral challenge to which the Church must respond. Programs of protection for these trafficked individuals can be maintained by the Church with the aim of eventually unifying them with their families. Another common problem is the undocumented, or irregular, status of immigrants which causes them to hide their identity and also life’s problems. They live in constant fear and in poor working conditions. In many places, they have become a permanent underclass without being able to rise above the constraints of their status. Special attention to programs in which the Church can assist in regularizing the illegal status of immigrants can be very useful. 

The demands of the integration of immigrants into the labor market of host countries is usually a slow process, except for those who come with significant skills. Poverty and marginalization force immigrants to take multiple jobs, sometimes leaving their children at times unattended, and also having their children involved in child labor practices. Attention to the working conditions of new immigrants, programs of economic assistance, especially job finding services, are also powerful pastoral tools. 

Pastoral Approaches

A pastoral program of welcome is perhaps the best pastoral tool that the Church can use to assist families in the context of migration. Life in a new society is a new challenge, since everything seems to be different and new -- language, culture and customs. There is one thing constant in the migrant experience that is the same; namely, the Church itself. The Church must act as a mother who welcomes her children to a new land and a new life. Immigrants must be protected at times from discrimination, either because of their migrant status or because of their race, or nationality. The Church can serve as a powerful advocate and protector for migrants by advocating for immigrants in the host society.  The Church necessarily does not have to advocate for a specific immigration policy. Rather, the Church does advocate on behalf of immigrants.  Policies that do not discriminate against immigrants should be part of the advocacy of the Church.

A culture of welcome must be one that begins at the most frequent point of contact; namely, the local parish Church and the communities and Churches themselves. Although dioceses may propose programs of assistance, it is usually at the local level that programs which truly exhibit welcome, happen. Parishes can let migrant groups use its Church for liturgies and language instruction, as well as Church halls for gatherings.  Most important is the kindness of native people in accepting migrants.  All of these can be powerful tools and aids to a family oriented pastoral approach. 

There are many specific programs that have been developed in the pastoral care for migrant families in various countries. For example, Couples for Christ is a family support system developed especially for Filipino migrants in the various countries where they migrate as intact families. The Marriage Encounter Movement also has been a valuable assistance for many migrant families in various countries to assist in maintaining communication and foster family cohesion. Other apostolic movements can assist individual migrants in maintaining and deepening their faith, while at the same time strengthening their family bonds.  


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

Although the situation of migrants varies from country to country, some of the common elements described above demand pastoral action so that a true pastoral care and welcome to immigrant families might be the hallmark of the attitude and praxis of the Church towards new immigrants.