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Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 90,  December 2002, p. 77-83.

Migrants and Refugees in the World*

H. E. Archbishop Stephen Fumio HAMAO,

President of the Pontifical Council for the

Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

There are many things I could say about the estimated 200,000,000 migrants, refugees, and displaced people -- or about one person in forty-five – throughout the world. Your interest, however, surely goes beyond statistics and definitions by giving names, faces and stories to the figures. It is much more about how the Church, and your Congregation in particular, can be and is present among people who, voluntarily or by force, set off on a difficult “pilgrimage”.  Their hope is to find another place where they can settle, temporarily or even permanently, in dignity and begin a new life.  For many of them, as we know, that new place remains elusive.  For many migrant workers, the expiration of a contract or a work-related accident can mean being discarded as something that is no longer useful.  Likewise, in the world of refugees, there is a disconcerting tendency for a temporary flight from danger to become an indefinite exile without any hope for change. 

It is encouraging to note that Religious Congregations are including activities among migrants and refugees in their planning, in some cases even with the backing of general chapters.  Surely one of the basic steps in the continual renewal of religious life is a careful attention to the “signs of the times,” which the Church is called to scrutinize and interpret in the light of the Gospel. The special role of the Religious in this field was also recognized at a meeting which our Council organized in 1998. It called for the founding of “lay, religious or presbyterial associations with a special charism for the pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people, of refugees and forcibly displaced persons” in Africa.[1]

Nearly forty years ago, the Vatican II Council Fathers said the following, in the context of the signs of the times: “It is also noteworthy how many men are being induced to migrate on various counts, and are thereby changing their manner of life. Thus a man's ties with his fellows are constantly being multiplied, and at the same time ‘socialization’ brings further ties, without however always promoting appropriate personal development and truly personal relationships.”[2] That statement of Gaudium et Spes was prophetic and has lost none of its importance for today.

Encouraging the presence of the Religious in the world of migrants and refugees

In 1986, the predecessor of our Pontifical Council, the then Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, organized an International Meeting for Religious on the theme: “Religious and the Pastoral Care of People on the Move.”[3] As a follow-up it published, jointly with the Congregation for the Religious, two documents that are still relevant even for us, today. The first is a “Joint Instruction: A Call to Pastoral Commitment in Favour of Migrants and Refugees.” The second is a circular letter: “To all Religious throughout the World.” Allow me just to point out some of their main thoughts.

  • First, they support the increasing involvement of the Religious in this sign of the times.
  • Second, virtually every Religious Institute can be part of this apostolate without, of course, changing charism, spirituality, or structures. This is because of the long tradition of hospitality in religious communities, as well as their preferential option for the poor, among whom are migrants and refugees. It can even be said that the “credibility of many Institutes, in their preferential option for the poorest, can be verified through the attention they are able to give to migrants and refugees” (Joint Instruction, no. 10).  
  • Third, religious Institutes have personnel with specialized training, as well as ease in transferring their members to situations where there is a need.  I would comment that this “transnational” and “globalized” dimension of Religious Institutes gives them flexibility that is not always found in diocesan structures.
  • Fourth, regarding “ecclesial motivation,” religious men and women are at the heart of the Church.  They are an essential part of this sign and instrument of the unity of the human race, that shares in the joys and hopes, the griefs and anguishes of our times4, which are particularly reflected in the plight of people on the move.
  • Fifth, regarding motivation arising from the nature of religious vocation, there is a certain “correspondence between the intimate expectations of ... persons who are uprooted from their homeland and the pastoral dimension of religious life. These are often the unexpressed expectations of the poor without prospects of security, of the emarginated discouraged in their yearning for brotherhood and communion, of those abandoned in their precarious situation and deprived of their rights. Solidarity with these people, on the part of one who has voluntarily chosen to live poor, chaste and obedient, is not only a material support in their difficult condition, but also gives witness to values which can enkindle and cause hope to flourish in very sad situations” (Joint Instruction, no. 8)

From our point of view, your Congregation is certainly moving in the right direction by the reflection you are doing these days.  Studying  the problem and taking fresh impulses from your experiences, wherein I believe the Holy Spirit is at work, will help your Congregation contribute to the life of God’s People as a whole. In this regard, I would also like to mention something we have often stressed in our discussions, namely, formation towards the pastoral care of human mobility. This sign of the time has to become a part of the way we think and feel. The privileged place where those attitudes can be cultivated is in formation programs. I do not mean multiplying courses in program that are sometimes already too heavy.  Rather, it is about giving this sign of the time its rightful place in academic and pastoral formation. As a help in this reflection, I am also leaving copies of a document we have often recommended over the last years, the 1986 “Letter on the Formation of Future Priests for Human Mobility.” It is not difficult to extend, its considerations mutatis mutandis, to issues of basic and ongoing formation of religious men and women.

Identity of the Church’s presence among migrants and refugees

A few years ago, an Official of our Pontifical Council was on visit to the Oxford Programme for Refugee Studies, where he also met its Founder. In their conversations, she told him something surprising, to some extent unexpected. Speaking out of a vast academic and field experience, she said something like this: “Don’t lose your identity as Church. Don’t become just another NGO.” While that was certainly not our first reflection on identity, this exhortation was particularly encouraging precisely because it came from outside our usual ecclesial circles. The question of our identity is something important, and I would like to dedicate a few minutes to it.

Let me illustrate the problem with a couple of examples. When migrants and refugees get into the media, they are commonly linked with two issues: (1) the arrival and control of irregular movements of people and the political and social psychology associated with it; and (2) the need for generous assistance, as we might find in the advertising of UNHCR or the appeals of Caritas. In fact, people oftentimes ask: What do you do for these poor people?  Their question presumes that our service means distribution of humanitarian aid.

I do not want to play down these issues. Illegality has many consequences. And there is no doubt about the need of many migrants and refugees to receive emergency assistance as an expression of our solidarity. What I would like to add, however, is that this is not sufficient to describe the Church’s presence, or the presence of religious men and women, among migrants and refugees. 

Allow me to add another observation. When we consider the vast number of migrants of other religions we meet, we cannot avoid the world of inter-religious dialogue and the discovery and appreciation of other religions, their values and spiritualities. That leads us to justly put emphasis on sensitivity for the convictions of such migrants, thus avoiding anything that gives the impression of proselytism or of taking advantage of people in vulnerable situations, on respectful dialogue, and on the witness of charity. All of this is correct and, in fact, obligatory for us. At the same time, we also touch a dimension of our identity as Church, which exists to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Our just concerns can sometimes block us in carrying out this mission, which is not an option among others in the Church. Here, too, we need to constantly reflect and look for ways of respectfully giving an account of the hope that is in us (see 1 Peter 3:15), not simply in the sense of sharing “common values” but rendering explicit testimony on how the love of Christ, the Living and Risen One, urges us to be among migrants and refugees. The Holy Spirit does the rest in his own mysterious time and ways.

From these observations, it should be clear that we are dealing with a pastoral-missionary presence.  It is a complex of activities and ways of being that focus on the deepest dimensions of communities and individual human beings. When we deal with Christian migrants and refugees, this presence explicitly touches on everything that affects life in Christ, the means for growing into Him, including worship and celebration of the sacraments, and day to day progress as Body of Christ. Thus, without being exhaustive, it includes

  • evangelizing activities among and by “people on the move”,
  • assuring that communities can worship together and celebrate the sacraments,
  • promoting community building activities like education, including religious instructions,
  • accompanying families, women and children, being those most affected by the often traumatic effects of mobility, particularly when forced,
  • defending the rights, including that of non-discrimination, of migrants and refugees, including those in irregular situations,
  • assuring that migrants and displaced people find welcome in Christian communities,
  • organizing and practicing solidarity towards those in need of food, clothing, and shelter,
  • binding the physical and spiritual wounds of people through medical and psychological services,
  • the physical protection, as well as spiritual and psychological accompaniment, of victims of trafficking in human beings,
  • fostering attitudes needed for reconciliation in societies whose social fabric has been destroyed by internal and external conflicts and consequent flows of refugees and other displaced people (see this year’s Message for Mission Sunday),
  • providing potential migrants with correct information on what to expect in their countries of destination, including legal issues, and preparation for entering into the new cultural and religious situations that are involved.

It is important for us to keep all these dimensions in mind, as well as the motivation behind our activities, which is basically about the love of Christ and his Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts that urges us on (see 2 Cor 5:15 and Eph 3:19). Reducing the presence and activities of the Christian community to only one or the other of these dimensions distorts the meaning of our presence.  

Let me give another example of what I mean. Most religious Institutes have a Commission or a similar structure for justice and peace, which does important work in keeping the religious attuned to issues that today are more crucial than ever. In many Congregations, questions of forced and voluntary migration go to that Commission. It may provide good information regarding causes of population movements, the issues of human rights and laws that are behind them, and various actions that come under the expression “advocacy.” All of this is necessary. But what is important to keep in mind is that advocacy and related justice and peace activities do not exhaust the way Church needs to be concretely present among migrants and refugees. We need to keep these issues in the wider perspective of the many activities listed above.

Presence of the power of the Cross

These observations bring us face to face with the particular nature of pastoral-missionary presence in the world of human mobility. They also put pastoral agents into a certain crisis, especially when he or she is from a culture that values efficiency and “getting things done.”  Pastoral-missionary care often means dealing with the symptoms and consequences of experiences of human mobility. The family that needs resettling, the child separated from parents in a chaotic flight as refugees, the migrant who has to tell her story over and over again without solving her problem – all these are symptoms of something deeper that oftentimes we can hardly control. We may know, better than the victims themselves, why they are in such a situation, but they will hardly be consoled by our analysis. While we need to insist with organizations and governments to help find emergency and lasting solutions, there is often little more that we can do than live with them their experience of helplessness. Getting at the causes that are so evident goes beyond our possibilities. The only thing we may be able to offer is our solidarity, which is no doubt an experience of the Cross. It is not by chance that the prayers and rituals that accompany that experience include the sign of the cross. This is a presence that clearly relies not on what we succeed in doing but on the power of the Cross in us – “the power of powerlessness”.

Some pastoral guidance

Some valuable pastoral orientation for migration comes every year in the Holy Father’s Messages for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. On the list you will note the many pastoral reflections that Pope John Paul II has shared with the whole world. Our experience is that these messages are greatly appreciated by the various Episcopal Conferences throughout the world. Today, when bishops and their Commissions for Migration take positions that go contrary to popularist perceptions of migration, promoted by the media and the politicians, the Messages have often been a support for pastors in their serious efforts to discern the sign of the times. They deal with the Church and refugees, often with themes related to your seminar this week (internationality and inculturation), pastoral care, the issue of irregular migrations,  the identity and the dignity of the individual migrant, the family in migration, the problem of proselytism and migrants, and migrant women.

Let me just offer you a sample of the themes of the most recent messages. For example, the 1997 Message reflects on the question of the missionary dimension of presence among migrants.  In the end we will be judged on love, on the acts of charity we have done to the ‘least’ of our brothers and sisters (cf. Mt 25:31-45) as well as on the courage and fidelity with which we have explicitly witnessed to Christ. This is important for understanding our identity in the world of migration.

The 1998 Message lays strong emphasis on the relation of communities and their pastors to Christ. “For the Christian, acceptance of and solidarity with the stranger are not only a human duty of hospitality, but a precise demand of fidelity itself to Christ's teaching. In this regard, it cites the example of Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini.

The 1999 Message emphasizes the parish, “which etymologically means a house where the guest feels at ease, welcomes all and discriminates against none, for no one there is an outsider” (no. 6).  In that way, parishes contribute to the catholicity of the Church. 

The Message for 2000 is about the "year of the Lord's favor" (cf. Lk 4: 18) and the beginning of a new era of brotherhood and solidarity.  In line with the conversion motif of the Jubilee Year, it notes that “the misunderstandings that foreigners sometimes experience show the urgent need for a transformation of structures and a change of mentality” (no. 1).

The Message for 2001 again takes up the evangelizing mission of the Church with respect to the vast and complex phenomenon of migration and mobility and how the pastoral care of migrants is a way of accomplishing the mission of the Church today.

The Message for 2002 concerns “Migration and Inter-religious Dialogue,” especially the dialogue of life that builds everyday relationships between migrants and hosts of different religions and thus contributes to real peace. The Church is a privileged space where that dialogue can take place.


Finally, we are waiting for the Message for 2003, which will be on the Church, discrimination against migrants, and xenophobia.

All these are rich texts that require time for reflection and prayer, which I warmly recommend to you, as individuals and communities.


These are a few reflections, which I hope will useful for your meeting.  I take the occasion to ask you to continue this contact with our Pontifical Council. We would also be happy to receive a delegation from your Congregation and offer you the possibility of a more in- depth dialogue with the various sectors of the pastoral care of human mobility.

I thank you for what you are doing for the world of human mobility and wish you God’s blessings and the guidance and courage of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

* Talk to the Mission Secretaries of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, Rome, October 23, 2002.

[1]  Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of  Migrants and Itinerants, Three 1998 Consultations  for a More Coordinated Pastoral Response of the Church in Africa to the Present Refugee Crisis, Vatican City, 1999, p. 10.

[2] GS 6

[3] Vatican, 4-6 December 1986. See Proceedings in People on the Move, no. 48, July 1987.

[4] See LG 1 and GS 1