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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 98, August 2005 



Aspects of Culture and Migration




H.E. Msgr. Nicholas A. DiMARZIO, Ph.D., D.D.

 Bishop of Brooklyn


“The love of Christ towards migrants urges us to look afresh at their problems, which are to be met with today all over the world”. With these words the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People begin their instruction updating previous documents on the pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people. The document takes into account over 35 years of experience since the last major pastoral instruction, De Pastorali Migratorum Cura. These last decades have ushered in a globalized world community in which the phenomenon of migration takes ever a more important role. 

The issue of culture in this instruction is critical to understanding both its structure and intent. Culture, as intimated in the document, is the sum and substance of who migrant peoples are. It must be maintained because to eradicate it would destroy the persons of the migrants. The phenomenon of migration, however, entails movement and encounter which means dialogue. Dialogue becomes the means of creating a multi-cultural exchange and, in fact, multi-cultural societies. It is through dialogue that inculturation of the Gospel message can take place for migrants in new societies. There is a certain missionary aspect to this dialogical exchange which produces a unity of culture from a diversity of cultural experiences. True dialogue implies the ability to understand and, in fact, change. When we dialogue we learn of others and ourselves. This leads to intercultural exchange and a creation of a culture of welcome (see Romans 15:7).

This matrix gives a visual and typological form to the structure of culture in the institution with the appropriate dynamic. 







The challenge of migration is to integrate these three various culture aspects of the migrant experience, the preservation of culture, multi-cultural dialogue and intercultural exchange. The phenomenon of migration impels migrants in societies to move from mono-cultural to multi-cultural settings. There is a certain universality that migrants bring with them in the situations in which they integrate. 

With the general introduction, the various aspects of this instruction can enlighten us on the Church’s approach to meeting the challenge of migration and these cultural aspects. 

The Church’s approach comes not from a sociological understanding of society, but rather a theological understanding of itself as the new Pentecost. In the instruction, we find the clear reference to migration as seen with the eyes of faith. “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Mt. 23:35). As the document states, “Migration brings together the manifold components of the human family and thus leads to the construction of an ever vaster and more varied society, almost a prolongation of that meeting of peoples and ethnic groups that, through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, became ecclesial fraternity”.1

The Church of Pentecost today is manifested in the phenomenon of migration that occurs in almost all nations where the Church exists. The Church understands itself in relation to migrants as a constant element, a reminder of the universality that is always part of the Church. The document is clear in embracing this aspect of migration. 

Perhaps the most important paragraph in the entire document, vis-à-vis culture, is the discussion of the pastoral lines of the Magisterium. In this section, it is stated that the Magisterium is entrusted with guaranteeing the rights of all migrants, while at the same time it has the responsibility to judge aspects of culture and evaluate the congruity with the Christian faith. The Church, as seen in this instruction, should foster the formation of multicultural societies that occur through migration because there, in these societies hospitality, solidarity and sharing, can truly be supported. All remnants of xenophobia and racism can be excluded. A multi-cultural society as understood by the instruction is a matrix in which a culture of welcome can grow. Cultural plurality, however, also involves dialogue. Dialogue not only between host and migrant cultures, but also between the Church and the migrant. “Openness to different cultural identities does not, however, mean accepting them all indiscriminately, but rather respecting them – because they are inherent in people – and, if possible, appreciating them in their diversity”.2 This clearly states the Church’s responsibility as both the defender and the judge of culture. 

The section concludes by stating, “Plurality is a treasure, and dialogue is the as yet imperfect and ever evolving realization of that final unity to which humanity aspires and is called”.3 Cultural plurality leads to dialogue and intercultural change. Understanding this key construct leads us to understanding better the concrete recommendations given by the instruction. 

Cultural and religious pluralism must be understood from the context of inculturation. The instruction states: “This fluidity of cultures makes ‘inculturation’ even more indispensable, as it is not possible to evangelise without entering into serious dialogue with cultures”.4 Again, that is, the main construct is at work. The interchange of cultures and their confluence makes it necessary for them to dialogue. Again, “‘Inculturation’ begins by listening, which means getting to know those to whom we proclaim the gospel”.5 It means to put on another’s culture, and in a certain sense to wear their shoes and clothes, to understand them as they understand themselves. And then the culture of the Gospel truly becomes operative.    

The Magisterium has the constant responsibility not only of maintaining dialogue with the culture of migrants, but also to recognize their positive aspects as well as shortcomings. Only in this way can a fertile field be prepared for the sowing of the seeds of truth which come from the Gospel. 

The culture of welcome must be established, again as the affirmation of the person of the migrant. By not affirming the migrant, they cannot be himself or herself. 

“Man is that strange creature”, says Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist. This is the root of the phenomenon known as hospitalism”.6 This notion of hospitality is clearly supported by this instruction. It is reinforced by citing the document on The Church in Europe which says, “Christians must in fact promote an authentic culture of welcome capable of accepting the truly human values of the immigrants over and above any difficulties caused by living together with person who are different”.7

The instruction goes on to say, “Christians will accomplish all this by means of a truly fraternal welcome in the sense of St. Paul’s admonition. ‘Welcome one another then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God’”. (Romans 15:7).8 The cultural encounter, in fact, creates a new culture, hopefully the culture of welcome which may not have pre-existed. 

The culture of welcome consists in short-term and long-term methodologies of welcome. They range from social assistance to more complex integration strategies. The Church, through its pastoral workers, becomes an agent of cultural mediation, a kind of bridge between the newcomers and the whole of society. This bridge very often is formed by previous waves or generations of migrants from the same cultural group or, if they do not exist, from others who have undergone this same experience. This is clearly supported by the instruction.

Another aspect of cultural recognition and support is the attention given to the various non-Roman Catholic rites which are brought by migrants to their new situations. By all means, the religious culture must be respected even to the point of obligating the local Latin bishops to provide religious assistance for the other Catholic rites until such pastoral care can be provided by bishops and priests of their own rite. 

Also, another phenomenon, which this new instruction has taken into account which is not as clear in the previous instruction of 35 years ago, is the existence of multi-cultural parishes where the integration phenomenon and multi-cultural dialogue and intercultural exchange truly takes place. The older phenomenon of missionaries for migrants and the establishment of separate parochial structures give way in light of this new instruction, to a more integrated approach for pastoral care. 

Another cultural aspect that is manifested in the instruction is the treatment of Muslim migrants and the profound cultural differences that exist between Christians and Muslims, which manifests itself particularly in the desire for some for intermarriage. The instruction warns against an undiscerning approach that minimalizes the vast cultural gap that exists. 

In a practical vein, we read of the intercultural communication which is the responsibility of those who would engage in pastoral work among migrants. The pastoral worker must safeguard “the migrants’ ethnic, cultural, linguistic and ritual identity…while at the same time giving guidance on the way to authentic integration…incarnating a missionary and evangelising spirit”.9 This special approach to intercultural communication demands far more than surface dialogue and enters into the aspect of intercultural change. 

A striking contrast is made further on in beginning to describe the structures of missionary pastoral care. “Unity and plurality: the problems”10 is an apt title for the complex phenomenon of respect for differences. 

Migrants as humans, must be able to have the freedom to be themselves and create their own culture. If we were to apply this to the situation of migrants, a migrant person also cannot do without culture. He or she often straddles two cultures and not only must maintain his or her own, but also acquire all that a new culture entails: language, customs, and all the accidentals but also the ability to gift himself in faith. Migrants become the purveyors of diversity which contributes to the ultimate unity of the human family. There can be no unity without diversity, for then what is there to unify?

The instruction understands the problems which the Spirit of Pentecost presents in particular churches. The tensions, difficulties and challenges in a particular way become clear as new pastoral structures are created to deal with the ethnic, linguistic and cultural needs of new immigrants. The new structures that are recommended, take into account most importantly the preservation of culture.  

Most striking is one of the last paragraphs of the document which states, “Ethnic and cultural pluralism in the Church is not just something to be tolerated because it is transitory, it is a structural dimension”.11 As the document continues to say, “The unity of the Church is not given by a common origin and language but by the Spirit of Pentecost”12 which brings together a diversity of people from all nations to form the one Church of Jesus Christ.  

This new instruction gives clear support to the new phenomenon of migration in a globalized world and to the pastoral care which is adequate to meeting the spiritual needs of these migrants. The instruction truly identifies these cultural aspects and makes them part and parcel of the pastoral plan of the Church for caring for them which manifests the love of Christ towards migrants.

1 Instruction , Erga migrantes caritas Christi ( The love of Christ towards migrants), Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, 2004, n. 12.
2 n. 30.
3 ibid.
4 n. 36.
5 ibid.
6 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, (Ignatius, 1987) pp. 79-80.
7 Instruction, Erga migrantes caritas Christi n. 39.
8 n. 40.
9 n. 78.
10 n. 89.
11 n. 103.
12 ibid.