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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 111, December 2009




H.Em. Cardinal JEAn-BaptistE Pham Minh MÂn Archbishop of THŔN-PHô Hô Chí Minh - Vietnam


1- General view of the situation

Over the last two decades (1990-2008) Vięt Nam has undergone great changes. The ‘open-door’ policy of the socialist regime, that formerly had closed itself to the outside world, has brought about new directions in both the economic and social fields. Vietnam encouraged foreign investment in industries which were in fact pouring in at very high rate. In a few years factories were growing in and around many cities, especially in Hochiminh City (the former ‘Saigon’). Civic regulations were also loosened: people could now move about more freely within the country (in addition to overseas travel) to make their living through study and work, something that had been denied to them for many years in the past. Because of the industrial development in big cities, there was a great influx of people from rural areas looking for jobs or higher studies. The process of urbanization in Vietnam was indeed phenomenal. A rough estimation of this internal migration is as follows:

In the last decade (1999-2009), overall, there have been about 6 million (1/12 of the population) Vietnamese who have moved to new settlements for the sake of a better life, among them over 3 million have moved to big cities and industrial zones looking for jobs or to engage in their studies (most of them are very young).

Hochiminh City and its surrounding provinces (Dong Nai, Binh Duong, Baria-Vung Tau and Long An), together form the largest and most prosperous industrial zone of the country and have regularly the presence of about 2.5 million internal migrants, among them approximately over 300,000 Catholics, at a reasonable estimate.

These movements have affected the life of people either in big cities or in the rural areas, both socially and religiously. The numbers of the catholic population are being diminished drastically in some rural parishes (particularly in the North) while they are prodigiously increasing in the big cities. The cases of these two parishes are typical: Khiet Tam parish at Thu Duc district, HCMC, had a faithful numbered normally at 4,150, but because it was situated near Song Than industrial zone within just a few years, people attending Sunday Mass and receiving Sacraments had risen to more than 10,000; Saint Paul parish in Phu Lam, Binh Tan district, because of the industrial zone nearby, the local catholic population of 3,500 grew -counting those registered only- to over 8,000.

2- Pastoral Response

Facing this problem and serving the new needs of catholic migrants both in the country and overseas, or foreigners who come to Viet Nam to live and work, following the directives of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, the Bishops Conference of Vietnam at the twenty seventh annual meeting in 2006 set up “a migration sub-commission”. This sub-commission belongs to the ‘Commission for the Laity’ of CBCVN. In 2007, at the tenth General Assembly of CBCVN this sub-commission was promoted to be “Commission of Pastoral Care for Migrants”. H.E. Jean-Baptiste Cardinal Pham Minh Mân, Archbishop of Thŕn-Phô Ho Chi Minh was appointed as its Chairman. But even before that, as early as 2003, the Diocese of Hochiminh City had set up its own diocesan “Commission of Pastoral Care for Migrants”. Experiences are hereto presented that are practically based on the reports made by dozens of parishes where this pastoral care for internal migrants has been well advanced.

a) Regarding the proclamation of the Word of God

Most parishes organize groups for the sharing of the Word of God for migrants, both at the Church and at their rented lodgings. An adapted form of Lectio Divina also has been applied for leaders’ group. A simpler form, preferred by many, is the guided Rosary, together with some practical instructions that follow. Since most of the migrants come from rural areas where they have received but little religious instruction, many parishes came up with courses on Bible study and catechesis. In this way it might be useful for them once they come back to their native village. Night prayer in the boarding apartments, followed by reading the Word of God of the following day (especially Sunday) becomes a common practice.

b) Regarding the administration of the Sacraments

The Vietnamese Catholics are very much practicing, and so are the migrants. Most of parishes are over burdened with the sacramental administration, when the migration triples the number of parishioners, or even quadruples them within just a few years. In these cases religious clergy are of of great help. Most of parishes have Eucharistic Celebrations expressly for migrants in which they  can take part in all liturgical ministries (lectures reading, choir, altar serving…).

Confession at their available time is of great concern in many parishes since the number of penitents is still high in Vietnam. At these, other priests of the deanery or religious communities in the locality come to help.

Some parishes even have an annual spiritual retreat for migrants on the occasion of great solemnities.

Catechism, especially for those preparing for baptism and marriage, has been frequently opened, since there was a demand for it far and wide. We need to remember that most of the migrants are very young and single, so therefore inter-faith marriage is unavoidable.

c) Experience of Diakonia and welcome

In most of the parishes the lay people have surpassed the initial state of inertia or attitude of xenophobia once they have come into direct contact with the migrants. Nevertheless it can still be observed that in general the attitude of the clergy has not much changed.

In Vietnam the most diffused form of welcome and diakonia is providing boarding houses. Since this field is left open to the initiative of the laity, parish priests encourage their faithful to open and run boarding houses (for rent) with better living conditions and hygiene and at a more affordable price. This system is open to all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and been followed up by the parish priest himself or by some responsible parish’s leaders. The morality of the migrants can be very much upheld in this way. In fact for many years the Archbishop himself had very much encouraged parishes to open hostels for students (especially for girls) whenever possible and confide the running to nuns, or open up all available parishioner facilities to help university students who, for the first time, come to the big city for their entry exams.

Some parishes even opened skill training courses in order to prepare the migrants for jobs in factories but also to provide for them more qualified jobs once they return to their native villages where there will be no mass production. Other various forms of Diakonia are served depending on the needs and conditions of the migrants. The most applicable are: providing distilled water, opening a dispensary, low cost and safe meals and counseling. Classes of alphabetization and asylum for the children of migrants are very much encouraged and bear great fruits. Even non-Catholic volunteers can join in these services hand in hand with Catholics.

From time to time some form of recreation and cultural exchange among groups of migrants has been thought of: picnic, popular library, cultural show… But we need to respect above all the working and study time of the migrants. 

3- Experiences of Advocacy

In the actual situation of Vietnam, for various reasons, any form of public advocacy would be non-productive. Nevertheless we generally use ways of private advocacy: direct interventions with the owners (investors) of the factories on the conditions at work or with the landlord concerning the living conditions. The fact that priests and religious still have prestige in the society makes this possible. 

4- Experiences of inter-religious dialogue

We have no formal form of dialogue but rather practical engagement. In all these services to migrants the Buddhists in particular are much closer to us, not in a spirit of competition but rather through cooperation. In these cases we learn from each other. Furthermore, all our services are open to all those who are in need, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Coming together in this way causes many non-Catholics to join in religious activities with Catholics, and may be the reason for many sincere conversions. 


Still infants in the field of Pastoral Care for Migrants, we would like to offer you these very first experiences whilst at the same time we have much to learn from yours. Nonetheless we are hopefully advancing in the right direction. There are still much to do ahead.

Urbanization and internal migration creates problems, in fact serious ones, not only to the receiving site, but at times even more serious to the departing site as well. Therefore we would like to come into dialogue with the Dioceses from where the migrants are coming. Furthermore pastoral care for post migration will be indeed one of our serious concerns in the near future. Dialogue between the two parties will be very much needed.