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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 108 (Suppl.), December 2008





on the theme and programme


Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO

Secretary of the Pontifical Council

for the Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People



A booklet on homelessness produced by Caritas Italy in 2004 bears the title “Così Lontani, Così Vicini”[1]; in English: “So near, yet so far”. It is an excellent expression of  how contemporary society views those who are homeless. Every major city throughout the globe experiences in its midst some form of homelessness and street dwelling yet so often we fail to see or acknowledge the problem, let alone respond to it with adequate resources. For my introduction to the theme and the programme, I will begin by stepping back for a moment, reflecting from afar, considering

Housing as a basic human right

In fact:

 Â“ (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.[2]

May I also add a second, important principle, linked with the one just cited, the following.

 (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.”[3]

Both citations are from article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pope John Paul II, when speaking to the United Nations in 1995, called this “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time”[4]. Despite the fact that it is nearly sixty years since the Assembly called upon all member countries implement the Declaration, there are still today over one billion homeless people in the world. These are either directly homeless or they are those who do not have adequate access to housing or shelter. It is estimated that in the world’s cities there are more than 100 million street children and millions who live in sprawling slum settlements. Every day some 50,000 people, mostly women and children, die as a result of poor shelter, polluted water and inadequate sanitation.

The numbers are steadily rising. It is expected for the global urban population to double over the next 50 years from 2.5 billion to 5 billion, as a  result of rapid overpopulation and globalisation. Statistics in this field are never easy to gather, but they bear witness to the reality of a global pandemic. Western Europe is now seeing homelessness at its highest level since the end of the Second World War, with an estimated 3 million Europeans and in the United States there are said to be 3.5 million homeless with up to 1.4 million of these being children. Data for the developing countries is extremely sparse and scattered, due to the extensive and immense nature of the problem. However India is one of the few countries that has tried to make some census finding in 1981 nearly 2.5 million homeless. A similar census a decade later showed a drop in this figure of just over 1 million. Probably the greatest growth of mass homelessness is found in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is said that in these parts of the world around 30% of the population live in illegal settlements with little or no infrastructure or services or in overcrowded and deteriorating housing.[5] 

These statistics maybe are familiar to you. In any case, tomorrow Professor Mario Pollo will  present a summary of the information you have given, answering our questionnaire. Whilst this will inevitability not give the whole picture, it will express not only the data of your own countries but also your pastoral experiences. It is a good ground of knowledge of our own congress. Yet these analyses only begin to tell a story for they indicate the immensity of a problem that we face. The figures should startle, if not shock us, and they should goad us on to greater pastoral action. And it is to that pastoral action which is both human and ecclesial to which we will turn our attention over the next two days.   

An on-going  pastoral concern for those on the street

Our meeting comes as the third in a trilogy of International Meetings that makes up “The Pastoral Care of the Road”, of the Street. The First one, for the Pastoral Care of Street Children, was held on 25-26 October 2004[6]. This was followed by one on the Pastoral Care for the Liberation of Women of the Street, on 20th-21st June, 2005[7]. And so we come now to the third: the First International Meeting for the Pastoral Care of the Homeless. All these three interconnect at various points and are thus clearly related one to another, for many who are homeless are also those who are caught in the web of the various forms of prostitution and many are children of the street. In addition to these initial International Meetings, our Pontifical Council recently published the “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road”, of the Street,  in May of this year, in which a final and individual section is reserved for the homeless (clochards).  

Many expressions, yet one reality

Gathered as we are, on an international basis, we bring together many different experiences and realities.  It is clearly difficult to speak of homelessness as ‘one entity’, though the result is always the same – the loss of dignity and the fundamental right to housing. There are multiple causes to homelessness throughout the world. To be homeless in Europe, or in the ‘first world’ is to talk of a different expression of homelessness as to that in Africa or Asia. There are millions throughout the world who find themselves homeless due to natural disasters, unexpected emergencies, political and economic turmoil and increasing climate change. There are those who are wandering as refugees and migrants. Yet there is a also a specific type of homelessness to which we must turn: the ‘roofless’ and the ‘houseless’. There are those who sleep daily on the streets or wander between different shelters and places of refuge. Their ‘world’ is the street  and this existence has many manifestations.

So each person who is ‘homeless’ has their own particular story to tell. In any case, the poorest, those who are most marginalised, least educated and most vulnerable are the ones who are at the greatest risk of homelessness. Low literacy and innumeracy skills, drug or alcohol addiction, chronic health problems, mental illness and eccentricity are quite common. Many have been on the road for a number of years and indeed some have made it a particular choice, or even a ‘right’ to be there. Another component are young migrants (both internal and external) enduring a ‘rough’ existence in order to establish a new life and there are those who have been evicted due to domestic problems who endure short-term homelessness. Many others are caught in the trap of long-term poverty, eroding self esteem, affecting expectations and motivation. There are those who also turn to the street for affirmation and a sense of purpose.[8]

At this point, we might ask ourselves whether it is possible at all to encapsulate in one definition all the homeless. Caritas Italy having reflected gives four particular dimensions that appear characteristically in a person living on the street:

a)         A series of different and diverse problems and needs;

b)         Changing nature of a person, usually in a downwards spiral of heath and alienation;

c)         Difficulties in finding welcome and appropriate responses to need;

d)         Difficulties in maintaining significant relationships.

Having made these identifications, Caritas Italy have tried to sum up by giving a ‘possible’ definition as thus: A person in both material and personal poverty, in a situation of complex, varied and changing hardship.[9]

Homelessness can create too its own distinct culture. Whilst homeless people are clearly not a homogenous group, it has its own distinguishing ‘values’, behaviour and expectations. Among these may well be a disdain and suspicion of authority, a resourcefulness in sharing information and resources (where to find shelter and food), a greater tolerance of personal differences and a friendliness towards strangers in similar situations, and an ability to exist day to day with little or no planning. There are amongst many an unwillingness or inability to behave conventionally, a common and obvious defence against marginalisation and rejection.  Many of these expressions of homelessness only serve to push those on the streets further to the margins of society. 

Public perceptions

Homelessness can and does express itself in many and varied ways and countries, but almost universally those who are homeless are on the edge of society. Different languages and cultures have produced different words to describe them:  ‘barbone’, ‘clochard’, ‘tramp’, ‘pudel’, ‘hobo’, to name a few. Often these words can be used not only as a means of description but also as a form of stereotype and ridicule. In this respect, we always need to be careful in the use of our language when describing homeless people. 

Because of marginalisation and stigmatisation, many homeless face further social exclusion. Perceived anti-social behaviour, begging, a lack of conventionality only serve to create unsympathetic and uncooperative responses to need. Often legislation and State concern can shift readily between care and control and homelessness is understood as nothing more than ‘vagrancy’. The homeless can also serve to remind others of areas of society over which they have become ‘selectively amnesic’, especially of an imperfect, unequal and unjust social order. 

A human and ecclesial concern

Let us now turn to our theme: In Christ and with the Church at the service of the homeless (clochards). This immediately reminds us that homelessness has both a human, and, for us especially, an ecclesial dimension.  Homeless people are not only a reality within the human family, but are also part of the Body of Christ, in fullness or in destination. It therefore demands from us both a human and Christian response.  It is my hope that over these next two days we may listen, share, discern and help one another as we strive to be co-workers together in this pastoral expression of the love of Christ: “For the love of Christ overwhelms us...” (2 Corinthians 5:14). I would like to stress at this point the emphasis on ‘pastoral care’ as this is the specific concern of our Pontifical Council, even if we consider, this solicitude, in the broad sense of the word. 

An ecclesial response

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”[10].

These magnificent opening words of Gaudium et Spes remind us that the wounds of humanity  are also the ones of Christ and his Church. In fact, at the heart of the gospel message is a call to see and minister to Christ in the poor and the marginalised. It is this clear preferential option for the poor which is at heart of both Erga migrantes caritas Christi (The Love of Christ towards Migrants) and the Guidelines for the Pastoral care of the Road (Street).[11] We can here recall the words of Christ’s teaching in St Matthews Gospel:

“Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matt. 25:34-35)

In the homeless (clochards), Christ makes his presence known and calls us to that love and charity which are the hallmarks of his very life.

Whilst the responsibility to provide just and suitable housing for all belongs properly to the State, it is always been the duty of the Christian not to deny the plight of those who are homeless and have fallen to the margins of society.  Whereas the Gospel does not provide ready-made solutions to homelessness, our love for Christ and His Church calls us to care and to walk side by side with those who are homeless not only in their need for shelter but in their effort for a more dignified way of living.

It is a great blessing that many ecclesial responses are already underway, from individuals and small parish groups ministering to those on the streets, to larger groups and organisations offering shelter, housing and rehabilitation.[12] Mention here must be made of the many religious congregations whose vocation is specially to work with the poor, destitute and homeless.

This apostolate can take many forms as they respond to the many and varied levels of need.  There are also the various stages of growth and change. Our ‘Guidelines’ point out several initial ways of assistance, from blankets and hot meals, ways combined with human interaction of warmth, kindness and respect. Clearly identifiable is the need for basic housing, work, clothing, personal hygiene, health checks, social accompaniment and even help in coping with ‘free-time’ in a new and positive way.[13] 

“…For today I must stop at your house”

When, in St Luke’s Gospel, Zaccheus asks Jesus to come to his house, he was asking that the Lord share in more than his house.  He was asking him into his home and to begin to share his life. It reminds us that a home can so often become an important expression of an individual or a family. 

So another point of reference for understanding homelessness can be in asking the question:

What does it mean to have a home? To be ‘houseless’, or ‘roofless’ means not  merely  to have lost shelter and food.  It means also to be deprived of warmth, of belonging, of community and family. Gaudium et Spes expresses this in the terms of a basic human right for all:

“Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter.”[14]

Homelessness can also bring with it the loss of family and the ability to live within nurturing and loving environment. This is especially true for those who are either young or old.  Pope John Paul II spoke of the home in these terms:

“The home is the place of family communion, where from the love of husband and wife children are born and learn how to live; in the home children learn fundamental moral and spiritual values which will make them citizens of tomorrow.  In the home too, the elderly and the sick experience an atmosphere of closeness and affection and support, also in times of suffering and physical decline.”[15] 

Homelessness is therefore not just the absence of a house, it is the collapse of a world, of security, personal relationships and of dignity.  It is the loss of the ability to lead a life ‘truly human’. Where the house is very much the centre of family life, this carries with it the successive loss of important family ties and relationships. Caritas Italy puts it this way: “ To be without a dwelling means not to have any constant reference points for living and relationships”[16] An approach to the pastoral care of those who are homeless can and must begin with understanding what has been lost or forcibly removed. At its very heart must be a desire to restore the dignity and value of a  person made in the image and likeness of Christ.

Responding to needs

Just as the reasons for homelessness are manifold, so there is no one solution. However there does emerge clearly guiding principles which are directed by the values of the Gospel. These, I believe, can help to lead our discussions over the next days.

To come again to our Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road (Street), they remind us of two important principles: “Initiatives on behalf of the homeless should be innovative and twofold in order to give a response to the simple question of need and to recognise the value of  a person”[17]. Therefore, ‘needs’ and ‘persons’.

This begs two fundamental questions:

  • What are their needs?
  • In fulfilling them, how do we recognise the true value of the person?

Offering basic human needs -as we have said-: shelter, housing, food, clothing, warmth, health care and so forth, is only the beginning of the task. These are the immediate and necessary ‘needs’ for human survival, but deep down each homeless person has a greater need that of being accepted and treated with dignity. This is clearly what is meant by moving, as we have requested, from “waiting” to “meeting”[18]. A big question is: how does a community enable itself together to meet the needs of the homeless, especially in recognising those of a “person”. Once again Caritas Italy draws attention to this when it says: “The difficulty of understanding, of planning, of being along side in a very profound way, characterises the commitment of many Christian communities that ‘come into contact’ with the homeless. It is very difficult to transform this encounter and see beyond the needs of the person, as an organic  community, reflecting as one and actively involving itself together.” [19] 

The development of communities of welcome

Caritas Italy identifies as very important the development and preparation of ecclesial communities willing not only to receive the homeless but also to accompany them with commitment. First of all there has to be a new awareness and recognition not only of the problem of homelessness, but also of the homeless themselves. There needs to be a new vision which sees them as persons, a new understanding of just how ‘close’ they are and that they are not a problem to be sent elsewhere.[20] The homeless are  people of value, of infinite worth. For “Many of those who are in poverty ask for an opportunity to ‘walk together’ with the dignity of respect, that no misery or destitution can destroy.”[21] This is clearly the staring point for all pastoral care. The second follows by asking that this recognition look beyond material needs and see a person for who they truly are and what they truly need. So it  becomes more of  Â‘meeting’ rather than  a simple answer to a problem of need.  

Clearly stepping stones are required in the careful preparation of communities and pastoral agents working in this field, so  I want to reflect with you now on five particular themes that together we might find useful. 

(1) Breaking down the stereotype

The homeless person and those engaged in their pastoral care represent to each other two very different worlds. One is expressed through the many characteristics that accompany homelessness and the world the homeless occupy, the other may express someone with  security and even wealth. The latter may even come to represent the society that has created the conditions that has led to homelessness itself. It is important for Christian communities preparing to welcome the homeless to know what they themselves may represent to the homeless and to understand that “the homeless are like Lazarus”[22] close to them. Caritas Italy reminds us that “In order to have a  proper mandate, it is always important to remember that to be the Church, a welcoming community, they must share their hopes and fears and thus become ‘companions on a journey.’”[23] So it  is always important for pastors and communities to examine the depths of their own lives before they can understand the world of the homeless person, with its particular vision, understandings limitations, tensions and struggle for survival. It means also for pastoral agents and communities an interior search and reflection to existing prejudices and preconceptions of the homeless. Breaking down the stereotypes that each party may have conjured is an essential starting point for  true understanding, acceptance and possible future change. The clear need for the homeless to be understood at the point at which they find themselves in an essential stepping stone is restoring dignity and new life.

(2) Freedom for growth

In the world of homelessness, values and relationships are often very different. Long sustained homelessness can become a new way of living from which change, or even the desire to change, may not be easy, or in some cases undesirable. In the latter situation, when a homeless person claims a ‘right to crisis’[24], it creates its own pastoral difficulties. Sometimes this has its source in mental illness, addiction of one form or another or a simple desire to remain in the security of the known world of the street. Recognising the time scale and the personal decisions of each homeless person is essential. It means listening to their needs, their history and agenda, which may have very different priorities to that of the pastoral agents. It means keeping careful balance between help and freedom, nearness and distance.

(3) Specific Christian ministry

Proselytism, in the negative sense of the word,  should especially be avoided in pastoral care of those who are homeless, In any case each person who is homeless, and who so desires, has also a  right to the ministry, not only of care, but of Word and Sacrament. They have a right to hear the Word of God and to share in the fullness of the ecclesial life. Local communities should always be aware of welcoming the homeless at the Eucharistic celebration. The Sacrament of the sick should also be administered, as should the pastoral care of the dying. Reception of the sacraments and the love of God that is poured out through them is an important and specific way in which those who are homeless experience their dignity as sons and daughters reborn in Christ. Mention here also is for the use of the sacrament of penance and spiritual counselling, when desired, as a means of healing and binding up wounds. Our ‘Guidelines’ make a specific reference, for example, to Christian burial when we state: “In this regard, the merciful work of burial should not be overlooked. For those who die that have no family, pastoral workers should ensure that a funeral is held. Once a year it would also be good idea to remember, with people who live in the street, those who were known and have passed on to a better life, recalling their names one by one. May their names be recorded in the book of life!”[25]

(4) Beyond survival 

For many the desire for a new way of life and the reality of change may not be easy. It means loosing sight of the rhythms of the past and moving into an uncertain future. For many it may mean the distancing, if not the loss of friendships which have been bonded together whilst on the street. Change may also bring to the fore the old or continued vulnerabilities that have brought a person to being homeless in the first place. Reintegration or reconciliation with families and communities may not always be easy, possible or desirable. The specific pastoral agents always need to be aware that restoration to a new way of life for a homeless person has its own struggles, anxieties and complexities. What is absolutely essential is to continue the commitment of personal accompaniment  in the delicate journey of restoration and integration. Once again, Caritas Italy states: “whatever project you plan to undertake, every stage of change can be very delicate so it absolutely essential not to leave a person alone (social accompaniment) thinking that the task has already been completed.” [26] 

(5) Reflecting 

The Church and society cannot but reflect on the causes of homelessness and  poverty. Advocates for the homeless and specific agents of pastoral care can and must act as a leaven in society for change and renewal both at societal and governmental level. This may mean being involved with decision making that involves housing policy, employment, welfare, health care and State support for the homeless. It may also mean broad coalitions between secular and religious organisations in order to work for change and renewal. Once again our ‘Guidelines’ declare: “The hungry thus cross examine everyone’s conscience – secular people and believers – in the context of a  culture of solidarity.”[27] As Pope Benedict recently reminded us when speaking of the writings of St. John Chrysostom: “He realised that it was not enough to give alms, to help the poor sporadically, but it was necessary to create a new structure, a new model of society, a model based on the New Testament.”[28] With Christ and with the Church, the pastoral care of the homeless, in its many facets, becomes a  prophetic sign of this new model of society. 

The homeless: a sign of Christ and the Kingdom

“And the King will answer, ‘In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me" (Matt 25:40). At the heart of this teaching of Jesus in the Gospel is call for those who are to be his followers to see his face in the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised[29]. Above all the Church “attests that the human dignity cannot be destroyed, despite the marginalization, depreciation, misery, of disease, to which a person can be reduced”.[30] Thus the homeless become for us an icon of Christ, one that is continually casting a shadow over the world, the Church and society. For the Christian, to care for the homeless person, and to treat them as they would treat Christ, means to afford them the utmost dignity, care and reverence. It means to look on them not only as someone who needs our love and support but also as some who can also minister to us.[31] This understanding of reciprocity also gives a whole new dimension to the dignity of anyone who is homeless. It reminds us that we are together with Christ, on the road. We are only in temporary homes as we make our way to the heavenly city and the mansion of the Lord.  


I have referred to the booklet “Così Lontani, Così Vicini” many times. Although specifically targeting the situation here in Italy, it has a considerable number of universal points of particular interest and usefulness. I may just mention it again once more to say that  they have attached at the end an especially useful resource for the pastoral care of the homeless, listing documents, books, articles, films, television reports, internet links, research documents, national legislation (especially those effecting the homeless), prayers and related scriptural references. This is an excellent supply of helpful information and it may be that something similar can be produced in your  countries. I very much encourage you in this direction.

One of the great prophets of pastoral care in this field, is  Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who once said: “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it”[32]. So, let us together put oil into one another’s lamps, which are already lit, so that they may continue to burn in this specific and difficult pastoral care of the homeless, and may our prayers, discussions, conversations and companionship in these days make us more fruitful co-workers in His vineyard. Let us not underestimate the task ahead, for we have the “responsibility of taking up the task of being ‘home’ for the people, who weighed down with hardships, find themselves ‘homeless’.”[33]


Thank you!


[1] Caritas Italy,  Così Lontani, Così Vicinì,  Bologna 2004.

[2] United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, October 1948,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pope John Paul  II, Address to the 50th General Assembly of the United Nations Organisation, New York, October 1995 , §  2 address-to-uno_en.html

[5] World Health Organisation, Our Plant, Our Health, Report of the WHO Commission and Environment, Geneva 1992.

[6] Cf. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People: People on the Move, Supplement No. 98, August 2005, Vatican City.

[7] Cf. ID: People on the Move, Supplement No. 102, December 2006, Vatican City.

[8] Cf. ID: Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road (Street), § 145-147, Vatican City 2007.

[9] Caritas Italy, op. cit, p.19 § 2.

[10] Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 1 § 1.

[11] Cf. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, op. cit. §145.

[12] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, op. cit., §156.

[13] Cf. Ibid. § 156-162  & Caritas Italy, op. cit., p.52 ff.

[14] Second ecumenical Vatican Council op. cit., § 26.

[15] Pope John Paul II, Lent Message (for the first year of preparation for the Great Jubilee 2000), 1997. documents/ hf_jp-ii_mes_25101996_lent-1997_en.html

[16] Caritas Italy, op. cit., p.20.

[17] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, op. cit., § 152. 

[18] Cf. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Final Document, First International Meeting for the Pastoral Care of Street Children, § 4 (b): People on the Move Supplement 98, Vatican City 2005.

[19] Caritas Italy, op. cit., p. 37 § 4.

[20] Ibid., p. 37 § 1.

[21] Ibid., p. 41 § 4 & Cf. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road (Street), § 160.

[22] Ibid. p. 37 § 1.

[23] Ibid. p. 48 § 5

[24] Cf. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road (Street), § 154.

[25] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road (Street), op. cit., § 164.

[26] Caritas Italy, op. cit., p. 54 § 2.

[27] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, op. cit., § 160.

[28] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, § 5, 26 September 2007:                                                                                                                                                                       

[29] Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: “What Have You Done to Your Homeless Brother? The Church And The Housing Problem”, Cardinal Roger Etchergaray,  Vatican City 1987 & Cf. John Paul II: Letter to Cardinal Roger Etchergaray on the problem of the homeless:  Teachings of John Paul II, Vol. X, 3 (1987) 1352.

[30] Caritas Italy, op. cit.,  p.41 § 3.

[31] Cf. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, op. cit.,

§ 163.

[32] Cf. Brojendra Nath Banerjee, Religious Conversions in India, p. 89, Harnan Publications India 1982.

[33] Caritas Italy, op. cit., p. 45.