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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 109 (Suppl.), April 2009



Erga migrantes caritas Christi:

A Better Pastoral Response

for Migrants in Africa



Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino

President of the Pontifical Council

for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


It is a pleasure for me to be with you today to present the Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi[1], published by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. The Instruction is a reflection of the Church’s concern for more effective pastoral care for Migrants and Refugees, including here in Africa, at the beginning of the Third Millennium.

My intention in this address is to offer an historical perspective of this Document, to outline the comprehensive vision of EMCC, and to stress the importance of dialogue in this context, which is a prominent theme in the Document. 

An Historical Perspective

1.  Since the last century, the Holy See has systematically focused its attention on human mobility, recognizing the implications of changing social situations, and promoting pastoral initiatives aimed at the full integration of migrants and itinerant peoples into welcoming and supportive environments.

Realizing the many dangers associated with migration, including its impact on the social, economic, and political situation, the Holy See also has an insight into its spiritual and cultural potential, and the opportunities for human enrichment that exist for both migrants and the receiving countries.

2. After the Second World War, while various nations were launching welfare and religious initiatives for migrants, the Holy See recognized the need for a more concerted effort to revitalize and organize its vast and complex network of pastoral ministry in this field.

It was thus that the Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia[2] was published by Pope Pius XII in August 1952. With this Document, the Pope promoted a re-structuring of the assistance provided to migrants of various nationalities, thereby establishing common and universal regulations for the Catholic Church. Consequently, Exsul Familia is considered the magisterial magna charta on migration.  Indeed, it was the first official document of the Holy See that systematically and comprehensively dealt with the issue of spiritual assistance to migrants, from the historical as well as pastoral and canonical points of view.

The Document states, for example, that assistance should be provided by priests of the same language or nationality as migrants, who have been suitably trained and placed under the authority of the local Ordinary, while local priests must also provide care to them as requested within the scope of ordinary pastoral care.

It also recommended the establishment of missiones cum cura animarum (missions for the care of souls), in which the pastoral functions of the missionary/chaplain were to be combined with those carried out by the local parish priest. Therefore, the ethnic dimension was included in the pastoral care of the Universal Church.  Essentially, elements of pluralism were introduced into the Church’s assistance to migrants. Contrary to the trend towards immediate “assimilation,” the Church’s approach to migration included a deep appreciation and respect for the various languages, cultures, and traditions of migrants. This is the context in which pastoral care for migrants was born!

3. Needless to say, Exsul Familia was also influenced by the period in which it was written. Yet, its pastoral and prophetic tone allowed for further enrichment of thought and action. During the 1960s, the Church sought to provide a pastoral response to the many changes that constantly re-created the overall situation of international migration, namely the process of European integration, the stabilization of migration flows within Europe, together with the rise and spread of immigration from non-European countries, the advent of certain rapidly expanding oil-producing countries as migratory destinations, and the huge increase of refugees in regions of international conflict.

These were also the years when the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council took place, a time of continual renewal, in fidelity to tradition, of the structures of the Church and its growing commitment to evangelisation and human development. The Church put its efficacy to the test more profoundly in the context of the contemporary world, in a spirit of cooperation, while maintaining its own identity. The “signs of the times” were seen in the important events of human progress, and were to be interpreted in the light of the Word of God and Church Teaching.

Therefore, migration issues also had their place within the Council. Importance was given to the rights of migrants and to the cultural dimension of migration. The causes of old and new migrations, namely uncontrolled economic development and certain political and economic choices, were condemned. The conviction was expressed that the Church, in its universality, could become a sign and instrument of new rules based on the fundamental dignity of every person and their equality.

The spirit of renewal sparked by the Second Vatican Council led to an enhanced commitment by local churches to discuss the migration issue internally, and to prepare more suitable means of intervention, as they felt that they were primarily responsible for the related pastoral care. The foundations were thus laid for updating the pastoral care of migrants, taking into account the fundamental themes of development and peace in the context of Church teaching.

4. While Bishops’ Conferences and specific migration organizations were established at national levels, a reformulation of the whole issue also emerged at the central level. This was carried out by Pope Paul VI with the Motu proprio Pastoralis migratorum cura[3] and the related Instruction De pastorali migratorum cura (“Nemo est”) of the Congregation for Bishops in 1969[4]. According to these documents, in the process of integrating migrants into the host society, passive “assimilation”, as well as an undiscriminating integration that is harmful for the individual and the ethnic group, was to be rejected.   Immigrants should be respected for who they are, with all their, cultural, social and religious traditions. Migration entails rights and duties, above all the right to migrate, under certain circumstances, and the corresponding duty of migrants to make a responsible and honest contribution to the development of the countries in which they settle.

5. In 1970, the framework of initiatives in favour of migrants was expanded with the creation of specific structures in the Roman Curia by Pope Paul VI, including the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migration and Tourism (which became the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People in 1989[5]), which were made responsible for important tasks of pastoral coordination, animation and promotion, above all in relation to the Bishops’ Conferences. Regarding the pastoral care of migrants, many Diocesan Synods also manifested an active concern for and raised human and Christian awareness of the integration of migrants within the civil and ecclesial life of the host country.

6. This awareness also marked the teachings of Pope John Paul II who, in his Encyclicals and numerous speeches and messages, made constant appeals for human and Christian solidarity with migrants.

Based on a broad consensus, as mentioned above, the Bishops’ Conferences of individual nations generally organised themselves to assume their responsibility for coordinating the pastoral care of migrants in their own countries. Moreover, in response to the appeal for the effective participation of everyone in evangelisation and human promotion, Catholics – in accordance with their respective vocations, including clergy, religious, lay people and those associated with new movements – tackled together the problems arising from inflows of migrants from increasingly distant regions, thereby leading to inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.

Pope John Paul II, in his frequent speeches on the human, social and religious aspects of migration, has also left a special personal mark on what has become a permanent phenomenon, characterised by the strong Christian humanism of his Encyclicals. The defense of fundamental human rights has thus become one of the privileged ways of proclaiming the Gospel. The cultural heritage of each ethnic group has become therefore a special link with the Christian message.  Consequently, in a certain sense, the defense of the cultural heritage of a people is a way of protecting their very existence, their unique place in history, and the undeniable relationship between faith, culture and civilisation.

7. Exsul Familia, Gaudium et Spes, Pastoralis Migratorum cura and now Erga migrantes caritas Christi all indicate the continuity and relevance of Church teaching, and the substantial contribution of our Church to the question of migration.

It is clear that the Church has taken an interest in this human phenomenon, and has called for more widespread recognition of the human right of mobility for people of all walks of life.  In addition to economic migrants, I am referring to refugees, tourists and pilgrims, sailors, gypsies, circus and fairground workers, road users and street dwellers, people who travel by air and foreign students. The Church has entered into dialogue with Islam and with Muslim migrants, as well as migrants belonging to other religious groups. Internally, it has “awakened” Christian lay people, calling on them to take on a specific responsibility of animation in their community, in deep communion with their bishops and priests. The Church has created new pastoral structures to assist migrants spiritually, and has developed new and creative ways to build more just, peaceful, and integrated communities. With this view in mind, the Church has proposed a universal and dialogical-missionary dimension for pastoral action, at a time when ethnic and cultural pluralism is becoming a characteristic feature of many contemporary societies.

The Church, therefore, does not merely look inward, but outward, at the whole world, contemplating the faces of men and women of all colours, races, nationalities and religions. With the new Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi, the ecclesial community is called upon to become increasingly aware of its universal mission in the world and in history, before God and mankind, trusting that, in the end, migrants will be a vehicle of unity and peace in a world that is ever more united by the bonds of solidarity. 

A Comprehensive Vision of the EMCC

8. By way of a contemporary analysis, allow me to recall that the phenomenon of contemporary migrations constitute the greatest movement of people at any time in history. In recent decades this phenomenon, which currently involves more than two hundred million people, has become an event that affects the structure of our society and comprises a complex, social, cultural, political, economic, religious and pastoral realities.

9. The Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi aims to update the Church’s vision of the pastoral care of migrants in this contemporary milieu, thirty-five years after the publication of the Motu Proprio Pastoralis migratorum cura by Pope Paul VI.

The Instruction also aims to provide an ecclesial response to the new pastoral needs of migrants, in order to turn the migratory experience into an opportunity for dialogue and mission for the purpose of new evangelisation. Moreover, it is designed to facilitate the precise application of the legislation contained in the CJC and the CCEO in order to respond better to the particular requirements of the increasing numbers of believers who have emigrated from Eastern Catholic Churches.

10. The composition of current migrations, as well as the development of ecumenism itself, also calls for an ecumenical vision of this phenomenon, due to the presence in traditionally Catholic areas of many Christian migrants who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. Inter-religious dialogue also comes into play, due to the growing numbers of immigrants who belong to other religions, especially Muslims.

This places a pastoral obligation on all Catholics, namely the duty to promote an action that is faithful to ecclesial tradition and at the same time open to new developments regarding pastoral structures.  This means making these structures suitable for guaranteeing communion between specific pastoral workers and local hierarchies, who play a vital role in the pastoral care of migrants, and who often have the prime responsibility for them. 

11. After a brief review of the special features of contemporary migration (globalisation; demographic changes underway, especially in developing countries; the widening inequality gap between North and South; the proliferation of conflicts and civil wars), the Instruction underlines the severe hardships that migration causes among families and individuals, especially women and children. This phenomenon also raises the ethical issue of the search for a new international economic order in which the world’s goods are more equally distributed, with a vision of the global community as a family of peoples, and the application of international law.

The Instruction then sets out a precise biblical and theological framework of reference for migration, by contemplating migration in the history of salvation, which is a sign of the times and the presence of God in the history of mankind, with a view to universal communion.

12. As I mentioned before, the Instruction offers an historical overview of the Church’s care for migrants and refugees as expressed in ecclesial documents, such as Exsul Familia and the Instruction De Pastorali migratorum cura, as well as subsequent canonical legislation.  These texts reveal important theological and pastoral principles, such as the central importance of the human person; the defence of migrants’ rights; the ecclesial and missionary dimension of migration; the pastoral contribution of lay people, Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; the value of cultures in the work of evangelisation; the safeguarding and promotion of minorities, including within local churches; the importance of intra and extra ecclesial dialogue; as well as the specific contribution that migration could make to universal peace.

13. Other points – such as the need for “inculturation” of the Christian message; the vision of the Church as communion, the continual importance of specific pastoral care for migrants; and the dialogical and missionary commitment of all members of the Mystical Body of Christ and the consequent duty to foster a culture of welcome and solidarity toward migrants – introduce an analysis of specific pastoral requirements to be met, regarding both Catholic migrants (from Latin and Eastern rites) and those who belong to various Churches and ecclesial communities, as well as other religions in general, and Islam in particular.

14. The pastoral and legal aspects of pastoral ministry is then further explained and reaffirmed – specifically with regard to chaplains and missionaries and their national delegates (coordinators), diocesan and eparchial presbyters, religious and lay persons from lay associations and movements – whose apostolic commitment is seen and considered within a vision of a pastoral care of communion.

15. The integration of pastoral structures (whether already in place or to be established in the future) and the ecclesial “assimilation” of migrants within ordinary pastoral care – with full respect of their legitimate diversity and their spiritual and cultural heritage, also with a view to forming an increasingly “catholic” Church – is another important characteristic that the Document aims to emphasize and propose to the local Churches. This integration is an essential condition in order that pastoral care, for and with migrants, may become a meaningful expression of the Universal Church and the missio ad Gentes, (mission to peoples), a fraternal and peaceful dialogue, a house for everyone, a shared and welcomed school of communion, reconciliation that is called for and given, mutual and fraternal welcome and solidarity, as well as authentic Christian and human development.

16. Updated and precise legal and pastoral Regulations round off the Instruction, setting out in appropriate language the duties, tasks and roles of pastoral workers and the various ecclesial organisations involved in the pastoral care of migrants, with a view to bringing them as closely into line as possible with the needs of migrants and the expected outlook for the future.

17. Ideally, the Document is to be considered in the light of Exsul Familia, and underlines the continuity of its inspiration, but at the same time points to the new questions that arise from today’s migration. Therefore, the Church is constantly reflecting on how best to approach current realities, and how to respond appropriately with sound pastoral planning. Tradition and innovation thus go hand in hand.

Dialogue: one of the Characteristis of EMCC

Throughout the Instruction there is an underlying theme: dialogue. Human mobility, and especially migration, means that “we are face to face with a cultural and religious pluralism never perhaps experienced so consciously before” (no. 35). Encounters between people and groups who have historically lived apart, inevitably give rise to many problems that necessitate the creation of a new life together.  Dialogue is an indispensable element in such a project, and indeed is a non-negotiable requirement, particularly because migration involves the interaction of people and groups on deeply human, religious and cultural levels.

What is dialogue?  The Instruction does not aim to fully explain the term. Rather, it presupposes knowledge of the other ecclesial documents that promote it (for example, GS, DH and NA from the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, as well as other documents from various Dicasteries of the Roman Curia). It is clear, however, that dialogue assumes various concrete forms. A meeting of experts belonging to different religions, for example, is only one of these forms, which include the so-called dialogue of life. This is perhaps the most common form, as it is the one in which people from various religions seek to live together as neighbours, sharing their joys and sorrows, and their problems and concerns. There is also the dialogue of action, which involves Christians and non-Christians in a collaboration aimed at promoting the integral development of society. Likewise, in the dialogue of sharing religious experiences, people who are deeply rooted in their religious traditions share their spiritual aspirations, such as prayer and contemplation, faith and the paths that lead to God and the Transcendent.

The Instruction also emphasizes other aspects of dialogue, such as the fundamental pastoral attitudes and their characteristics necessary for peaceful co-existence. Paragraph no. 36, on the inculturation of the Gospel, for example, describes the process of dialogue: “[It] begins by listening, which means getting to know those to whom we proclaim the gospel ... Tolerance is not enough; needed is a certain feeling for the other, respect as far as possible for the cultural identity of one’s dialogue partners. To recognise and appreciate their positive aspects ... is a necessary prelude to its successful proclamation. This is the only way to create dialogue, understanding and trust.”  

The Church addresses today’s cultural and religious pluralism on three levels:

First, dialogue within the Catholic Church

We should bear in mind that our Instruction is addressed above all to Catholics, priests, religious men and women, and the lay faithful, whether members of the host community or migrants themselves.  Dialogue should take place among them. Its purpose is “to build up the Church and make it grow in and with the migrants, to rediscover together and reveal Christian values and form an authentic sacramental community of faith, worship, love and hope” (no. 38).  The Instruction is concerned not only with pastoral care in favour of migrants, but “in and with” them as well. Therefore, the document attaches great importance to migrants’ mother tongues “in which they express their mentality, thought and culture, and the characteristics of their spiritual life and the traditions of their Church of origin” (no. 38).   Pastoral experience teaches us that when migrants feel understood and at ease, they integrate more easily into the community and enrich it.  In this regard, the popular piety that migrants bring with them warrants particular attention, as it is “a fundamental link with their Church of origin and with their ways of understanding and living the faith” (no. 46). In order to appreciate this fact, intense pastoral dialogue must take place.

Catholic migrants also include “ritual groups” (cf. no. 38), especially those from Eastern Catholic Churches. “The sacred liturgy celebrated in the rite of their own Church sui iuris is important as a safeguard of the spiritual identity” (no. 46) of these migrants.  Therefore, ensuring that there are pastoral workers and structures that promote their identity in the host countries is a duty of the host Church (cf. nos. 53-54). This also requires dialogue, especially between Churches of origin and host Churches and with the Congregation for the Eastern Churches (cf. no. 55).

As with any authentic dialogue, the one within the Catholic Church is based on values and beliefs and, in particular, on a theological vision of ecclesial communion and its “true Catholic spirit”, as we may read in LG 13.  

Second, dialogue with other Churches and ecclesial communities

Among migrants, Christians from other Churches and ecclesial communities are also found. This provides an opportunity for dialogue, especially in “everyday ecumenism”, which strengthens ties of unity, as far as possible, as well as love, and promotes greater mutual understanding. Like any authentic dialogue, this is also based on keeping to one’s own Catholic identity and not neglecting the need to take account of existing problems among Christians who unfortunately are still separate. Therefore, “facile irenicism”, and at the other extreme, proselytism, in the negative sense of the word, should be avoided (cf. no. 56). The Instruction also deals with certain more delicate issues that may arise when migrants are not only far from home, but also from their Church or ecclesial community. Indeed, in interpreting the existing rules, no. 56 mentions, for example, the use of Catholic churches by Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. No. 57 deals with communicatio in sacris, whose regulations provide for some cases in which it is allowed. The dialogue that precedes and follows specific decisions in this regard is obviously important for Christian unity. 

Third, dialogue with members of other religions

Migration also changes the religious aspect of host societies, as is the case of countries with an age-old Christian tradition, where a formerly unknown religious plurality now exists. Our pastoral care is also concerned with their “human development and with the witness of Christian charity”. “The Church is thus called upon to open a dialogue [that] should be conducted and implemented in the conviction that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation and that she alone possesses the fullness of the means of salvation” (no. 59).  Therefore, it is a dialogue that is based on our identity, giving rise to mutual respect and the discovery of others’ religious and human values.

Living together with believers of other religions also requires an awareness of and a respect for certain contexts, especially holy places and Catholic schools, marriage rituals and traditions, and reciprocity, which are discussed in paragraphs 61-64. All of these contexts require a mutual seeking of solutions, with respect for the identity and religious freedom of both migrants and host communities.

Especially important is dialogue regarding Muslim migrants (nos. 65-68), who have become so numerous in some countries that groups have been formed which are particularly distinguished by their identity. Paragraph no. 65 reminds us of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s attitude towards them, while paragraph 66 summarizes the similarities and differences between Christians and Muslims. Numbers 67 and 68 mention specific problems relating to marriage and its preparation, the status of women, baptism and the religious affiliation of children.

The specific problems that arise between Christians and migrants from other religions require that everyone should adopt an attitude and spirit of dialogue. However, this is not an easy matter. An encounter between people with deeply held beliefs and customs that are not shared with Christians can be difficult. In any case, it calls for a great deal of patience and perseverance. Pope John Paul II, who well understood the problems that arise during dialogue, said that “[it] must continue. ... it is obvious that this dialogue will be especially important in establishing a sure basis for peace and warding off the dread spectre of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history. The name of the one God must become increasingly what it is: a name of peace and a summons to peace.”[6]                                   

This requires a “solid formation” for pastoral agents and “information on other religions so as to overcome prejudices, prevail over religious relativism and avoid unjustified suspicions and fears” (no. 69), which generate many negative consequences.

Finally, I would like to add that dialogue and evangelisation are not opposed[7]. The dialogue of life, which bears witness to Christian charity, also requires an explanation. Saint Peter urges Christians: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). These words enable us to understand the conclusion of our Instruction, entitled “Universal Mission” (nos. 96-104), with its reflections on semina Verbi (seeds of the Word) and dialogical and missionary pastoral care, which should also be exercised in lands that have an age-old Christian tradition. “With great respect and attention for the migrants’ traditions and culture, we Christians are called to bear witness to the gospel of love and peace in our dealings with them and also to proclaim the Word of God explicitly to them so that the blessing of the Lord, promised to Abraham and his descendants for ever, may reach them” (no. 100).

As I conclude these remarks, I invite each of you to study deeply the Instruction EMCC, so that you may work together as disciples of the Lord in witnessing to the Gospel, in welcoming the stranger among you, and in finding solutions to the challenges facing your daily apostolate here in Africa.   

Thank you!


[1] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi: AAS XCVI (2004) 762-822; People on the Move XXXVI (2004, 95) 105-172.

[2] Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia : AAS XLIV (1952) 649-704.

[3] Paul VI, Motu proprio Pastoralis migratorum cura : AAS LXI (1969) 601-603.

[4] Congregation for Bishops, Instruction De pastorali migratorum cura (Nemo est): AAS LXI (1969) 614-643.

[5] John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia Pastor Bonus, 149-151: AAS LXXX (1988) 899-900.

[6] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte: AAS XCIII (2001) 266-309, n. 55.

[7] Cfr. Walter Kasper, Ecumenical Movement and Evangelization: People on the Move XXXVIII, N. 102 (December 2006), 157-168.