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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 87, December 2001


The Responsibility of a Diocesan Bishop
in the Pastoral Care of Migrants

Bishop Ramon C. ARGÜELLES
Chairman of the Commission for the Pastoral Care
of Migrants and Itinerant People of the 
Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines

You expect to hear about my pastoral work with migrants in my diocese. Mine is not a normal diocese. The faithful I minister to are the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police as well as their dependents. In a very real sense this is a diocese composed of internal migrants. The military and police personnel are by nature very mobile. They are often assigned to places most distant to their families. The approach of our pastoral team is one of accompanying the faithful, i.e. both the soldiers and their families.

Nowadays, especially in Mindanao, the uniformed personnel are blamed for having caused the displacement of people, who escape from war-torn areas. Less than five months after my installation as military bishop on September 30, 1995, I faced a serious problem involving refugees. Some Army officers reported to me that they were being forced to do something against their conscience, namely, to forcibly repatriate the remaining Indo-Chinese boat people in the Philippines. The only forced repatriation in the Philippines took place on February 14, 1996. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) vehemently opposed that policy and obtained from the authorities the pledge to renounce forced repatriation. 

I represent the bishops in the protection of the remaining Vietnamese refugees. I am given this task, not as military bishop but as Chairman of the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ECMI). It is about this experience as a diocesan bishop in charge of the pastoral care of people on the move that I am going to speak about. One of ECMIÂ’s apostolic arms is the Center for Assistance to Displaced Persons (CADP). Since 1975, the fall of Saigon, CADP has assisted the refugees from Vietnam who found themselves in Philippine shores. My first major test as head of the BishopsÂ’ Commission for People on the Move was this problem of the Remaining Vietnamese Nationals twenty years after.

Besides the Vietnamese Asylum Seekers, threatened with forced repatriation, ECMI attends to other ‘people on the move’, like tourists and pilgrims who enter the Philippines for leisure or, especially during this Jubilee year, for spiritual renewal through visits to our local Shrines. Joint projects of the Church and the government’s Department of Tourism are being adopted to improve our shrines and attract pilgrims from other nations. The bishops, urged repeatedly by ECMI, start providing pastoral care for holiday seekers in tourist spots located within their jurisdiction.

We have almost successfully worked together with the government to eradicate sex tourism, covertly promoted during the martial law period (1972-1986). The Pre-Evangelization Program (PEP) was undertaken, in cooperation with the Japanese BishopsÂ’ Conference, in view of introducing the Japanese tourists to Christianity in the Philippines.

The pastoral care of air travelers is seriously attended to in the growing number of international airports of the country. The local association of airport chaplains is being strengthened to enable sharing of and enhance pastoral experiences. This is the main thrust of the Apostolate of the Air (AOA).

The Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) has been going on for many decades. The need to expand it further in our 7100 islands is very obvious. The AOS concerns itself also with the improvement of the training of future Filipino Seafarers. The Filipino Seafarers, which currently total around 200,000 scattered in the whole world --the number continues to increase as, hopefully, the quality improves-- are willing to be called the Phoenicians of the Third Millennium. The AOS likewise strives to unite the seafarersÂ’ families for mutual economic security and spiritual growth.

The greater part of ECMIÂ’s concerns deal with migrant Filipinos. My sharing is to a larger extent about them. Let me begin with an overview of the situation.

The Philippines has become, in recent years, the third largest Catholic country in the world. Numerically our Catholic population lags behind Brazil and Mexico. We have however surpassed the USA and Italy. Of the 75.8 million Filipinos, 62.9 million are Catholics, roughly, 83% of the whole population of the Philippines.

The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic, nation in Asia. Numerically India comes second (15.7 million out of 1 billion), followed by China (10 million out of 1.2 billion). Percentage-wise, Vietnam is the second most Catholic nation in Asia (7.9% or 5.9 million Catholics in a population of 80.3 million), followed by South Korea (7.5% or 3 million out of a population of 47.1 million). The newly liberated country, East Timor, will soon be the only country in Asia that may have a higher percentage of Catholics than the Philippines (approximately 90%). Its population, however, does not reach half a million. Of the more than 100 million Catholics in Asia, almost 63 million are Filipinos.

Asian migrants originate mostly from the Peoples Republic of China, then from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Nepal. The receiving countries in Asia are the Middle Eastern countries, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand. Take note that I speak only of Asia. Obviously many, particularly permanent migrants, end up in the USA, in some European countries, Australia and New Zealand.

Government statistics indicate 7.2 million Filipinos overseas. Almost ten per cent of the entire Filipino population is outside their country of birth. Granted that the migrant has an average of four children -- and if we include the parents as dependents, which is normal in the Philippines -- it can be said that around seventy per cent of the population is migrant related or migration affected. Of the 14.7 million Filipino families, 9 million are affected by migration.

Since 1975, an increasing number of Filipinos are being deployed as overseas workers. Export of labor was adopted by the government as a “temporary measure” to solve the growing unemployment and economic problems brought about by the oil crisis in the early seventies. The Bishops of the Philippines bewailed this policy from the start and pleaded with the government not to make export of human labor a national policy to attain economic progress. Two pastoral letters in the last fifteen years have repeatedly appealed to the government to focus more on the creation of job opportunities at home in order to avoid the irreparable social costs of economic migration to the family and society. Many Church sectors and other non-government organizations see in the current labor-exporting scheme a modern version of slavery. A multitude of problems accompany economic migration abetted by the government. They include increasing number of family break-up, rise in the number of troubled children born of dysfunctional families, mounting cases of illegal recruitment which in turn expose the migrants to exploitation, government inaction in the face of injustices committed against undocumented workers by their employers, sexual harassment endured by women laborers, use of child labor, religious descrimination, etc. These are all Church’s concerns.

Deployment of legal or illegal Filipino migrant workers continues unabated. The 1999 records showed that Saudi Arabia is the first destination of Filipino labor, closely followed by Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Italy, Kuwait, Brunei and Qatar. Of the top 10 countries of deployment, five were Asian countries, four Middle East countries and one European. Noticeable in the ‘90s is the gradual shift of deployments from the Middle East to Asia. The ‘90s also indicate an increasing deployment of women. As of December 1998, most of the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) were in the Americas and the Trust Territories (3,248,825). Filipinos in the Middle East numbered 1,147,226, in Europe 725,925, in Oceania 257,586 and in Africa 40,291. From 1984 deployment of Filipino workers to Europe has progressively increased from less than 4000 yearly to almost 31,000 in 1999 although a slight decline is recognizable in 1986, 1990, 1993, 1994 and 1995. Italy tops as the destination of Filipino workers in Europe. Spain follows and then Greece and Austria. The OFWs have helped sustain the ailing Philippine economy by their remittances ranging from US$810 million in 1982 to almost US$7 billion in 1999.

Departures continue at an average of 2100 persons each day in 1999. While almost unnoticed is the average daily repatriation of more than 1.5 deceased OFWs.

According to the estimates of the Commission for Filipinos Overseas of the Department of Foreign Affairs, as of December 1999, there was a total of 7.2 million overseas Filipinos, out of whom 2.96 million were Overseas Filipino Workers, 2.33 million permanent migrants and 1.91 million undocumented migrants. Filipinos are found in 193 countries in the world.

For the pastoral care of the Overseas Filipino workers, ECMI/CBCP aims not only to provide assistance to the Filipinos scattered throughout the world. It also addresses the needs of the families left behind by the OFWs. ECMI appeals to the clergy and religious to assist in giving total spiritual guidance both to the Overseas Filipinos and their dependents back home. It undertakes formation and awareness programs for teachers and students on the advantages and disadvantages of migration. It also seeks contact and collaboration with the local churches in countries of destination to provide Chaplains and erect chaplaincies for Filipinos overseas. ECMI programs both in Chaplaincies abroad and among families back home include education and formation (catechesis), leadership training, pastoral and social services, linkages and networking, apostolatesÂ’ coordination, structure building for economic advancement, policy making, para-legal assistance, etc. Gradually the bishops in the Philippines recognize the importance of caring for the families of migrants and respond positively to ECMIÂ’s insistence to establish Diocesan and Parochial Migration Desks.

The ECMI network overseas is well in place. There are four centers in Libya, the only country in Africa so far reached by ECMI, 345 centers in four American countries, 333 centers in 19 European countries, 171 centers in 12 Asian nations, 31 centers in 6 Middle East Nations and 34 centers in 3 nations of Oceania.

From the year 1988 to this year, the ministry to Filipino migrants has been strengthened by national, regional and international meetings and consultations. On March 9 – 12, 2000, the 1st National Assembly on the Ministry to Migrants and their Families was held in Cebu, the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines, ending with the Eucharist celebrated in the presence of the pilgrim relics of the Patroness of Universal Missions, St. Therese of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, the youngest doctor of the Church. The occasion, also deliberately chosen, was the 14th National Migrants Sunday which is held every 1st Sunday of Lent in the Philippines. This event was attended by 113 delegates. The next Assembly is set for March 26-29, 2001. Two regional meetings were held in America, viz., the 1st Meeting of the Filipino Apostolate in the USA in 1988 in New Jersey, attended by 40 delegates. The second Meeting on the Filipino Ministry in the USA was held in Manhattan, New York in 1999. In Asia there have been two meetings, namely, the 1st Consultative Convention in 1988 in Tagaytay City, Philippines, attended by 50 delegates, and the 2nd Regional Meeting on the Filipino Ministry in 1999 in Manila, with 73 delegates. There have been four meetings in Europe. The 1st Consultation Meeting of Chaplains and Pastoral Workers for Filipinos in Europe was held in Rome in 1988, with 45 delegates. In 1989, a second Consultation Meeting took place in Berlin. The third Euro-Filipino Migrants’ Chaplains’ Colloquium took place in Rome in 1994 with 17 delegates. And in 1999, 23 delegates attended the Consultation meeting in Bonn, Germany. The Chaplains and Pastoral Workers of Filipinos in the Middle East met once in Beirut in 1999, a gathering attended by 36 delegates. In Oceania, the 1st Meeting of Pastoral Workers of Filipino Communities was held in Sydney in 1998, and the 2nd in Brisbane in 1999. The next meeting is scheduled for September 2001.

The 1st International Conference of Chaplains and Pastoral Workers of Overseas Filipinos was held in Rome in 1998, attended by 56 delegates. The 2nd was in Manila in 1999, attended by 116 delegates, and the last was held in June 2000 again in Rome, attended by 117 delegates. The 4th International Meeting is scheduled to take place in 2002 in Singapore.

National Conferences have been held in Japan (Â’99), South Korea (Â’99), Italy (Â’99), Taiwan (Â’99), Hong Kong (Â’99), Norway (Â’98), Malaysia (Â’97), Singapore (Â’99 and Â’00) and Brunei (Â’00). Before the yearÂ’s end, a National Consultation Meeting of Filipino Ministry will take place in Auckland, New Zealand.

The Church in the Philippines, represented by ECMI, recognizes that “man has the right to leave his native land for various reasons … and also the right to return … in order to seek better conditions of life in another country” (Laborem Exercens, #23). But she deplores the continuous deployment of Filipino labor and the lack of implementation of programs to create job opportunities in the country:“They are forced to seek their living in foreign lands because they see no viable future for themselves here” (CBCP 1995 Pastoral Letter). This notwithstanding, the Church sees in the presence of Filipinos in so many nations in the world an evangelical potential. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1991 recognized the missionary potentials of the growing number of Filipino migrants:“A growing awareness of the missionary potential of Filipino migrant workers abroad has also dawned upon us…” (PCP II, Part II, 108).The testimony of many bishops overseas appreciative of the presence and devotion of ethnic Filipinos in their local Churches add proof that God uses the present situation of Filipino migration in the service of Evangelization. The Church in the Philippines intends to prepare would be migrants to be bearers of the Gospel values and truths to the host peoples. In May 17, 1987, Pope John-Paul II told the Filipinos in Europe gathered in Rome: “Indeed, in Europe, you are called to be the new and youthful witness of that very faith which your country received from Europe so many generations ago.” The recently concluded NATIONAL MISSION CONGRESS (September 27 - October 1, 2000) in Cebu, Philippines reiterated the missionary calling of the Filipino Migrants. Someone remarked that Filipinos may be the missionaries of the third millennium, called to undertake evangelization work as demanded by the call for a new Pentecost. Like the first century missionaries, that is, every baptized Christian, the Filipinos are preaching the Good News not so much by word of mouth but by their simple witness to Christian love and joy amidst difficulties in life.

In the last few years, ECMI has emphasized this missionary vocation again and again. During the Jubilee for Migrants in June 2000 and preparatory to it, ECMIÂ’s cry, deliberately allowed to resound in all migrant centers in the entire world, was: FILIPINOS EVERYWHERE Â… KNOW YOUR FAITH Â… LIVE YOUR FAITH Â… SHARE YOUR FAITH. This slogan encapsulates the ECMI mission at this stage and the responsibility of a diocesan bishop who, in the name of co-responsibility among the local churches, looks further than the confines of his diocese.