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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 81, December 1999

Pastoral care of nomadic people: 
the Church’s response 

Msgr. Anthony Chirayath

[French summary, Italian summary]


It is difficult to speak generically of the nomadic world, so great are the differences between the groups which may justifiably claim to belong to it. Fundamental contrasts arise between those nomads in a state of permanent nomadism and those who have begun to adopt a more sedentary way of life; between those who still live in a primitive state, far removed from industrial society, and those whom, for natural or economic motives, find themselves, if not absorbed into the modern world, at least in contact with it, and so on. But I will limit myself today speaking on the Church’s response to the pastoral care of nomadic people. 

The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral care of Migrants and Itinerant People is one of the newer offices in the Roman Curia: it was in fact established on 28 June 1988 with the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus[1]. But its activity, under other names, began much earlier. We must go back to the first years of the century when Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of Piacenza (Italy) proposed to Pope Pius X the creation of a Commission for the care of emigrants.

In 1965 Pope Paul VI founded the ‘International Secretariat for the Direction of the Pastoral Care of Nomadic Peoples, again depending on the Concistorial Congregation, which will later take the name of Congregation for Bishops. On 15 August 1967, with the Motu Proprio “Regimini Ecclesiae”, the same Pontiff constituted “Apostolatus Nomadum”, under the authority of the Prefect of the Concistorial Congregation[2]. Two years later on 15 August 1969, the Pope signed the Motu Proprio Pastoralis Migratorum Cura[3], which is a revision of earlier norms on emigration pastoral and a few days later, on 22 August, with an Instruction De Pastoralis Migratorum Cura[4], he charged the Congregation for Bishops to ensure the concrete actuation of both documents. 

Thus the Church’s pastoral concern was directed to all persons without fixed abode: migrants, refugees, seamen and fishermen, airport workers and air travelers, nomads, pilgrims, tourists of various sorts, students studying outside their own country, road-transport workers, technicians and workers in projects or research at the international level who need to move from one place to the other and so on. No one is excluded. The Pope insists on the fundamental rights of the human person, on the basis of which the emigrant must be respected as such, with all his or her religious, social and expressive potential.

Ulterior development is swift. On 19 March 1970, Pope Paul VI with a Motu Proprio Apostolicae Caritatis[5] instituted the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migration and Tourism. Of great importance, a circular letter on the subject titled “The Church and People on the Move”[6] on 4 May 1978 and sent to the Bishops’ Conferences; a document offering updated insight into the migratory phenomenon and the new categories of mobility, giving also, in a pastoral key, its own point of view. Among other things we find useful indications for the welcoming of migrants by the local Churches and for inter-ecclesial cooperation for a new type of pastoral activity without frontiers.

Pope John Paul II, with the Constitution Pastor Bonus, issued 28 June 1988, on the new organization of the Roman Curia, elevated the Pontifical Commission to the rank of Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. This signified a step up in quality, in fact, while the Commission is born and exists with connotations of temporality for tasks of study and research at the dependence of a superior office, a Pontifical Council, juridically equal to other Roman Curia Departments, is autonomous and has its own functions of decision-making and administration.

At present, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People is presided over by Archbishop Stephen Fumio Hamao from Japan. It has among its members five Cardinals, some twenty Bishops, three Religious. The offices are in Rome, in Piazza San Calisto 16, in a building which has extra-territorial status.

Pastoral Care for Nomads

The Pastoral Care for Nomads commenced with an International Congress for Pastoral Care of Nomads held in Rome from 25-27 February 1964, presided by the late Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, Prefect of the Sacred Concistorial Congregation, and under the direction of Bishop Bernardin Collin, Bishop of Digne (France).

The encouragement given on that occasion by the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, was concretely translated in the institution of the International Secretariat ‘Opus Apostolatus Nomadum’ (27 October 1965) with offices in Rome, dependent on the Congregation for Bishops (then still the Sacred Concistorial Congregation). Bishop Bernardin Collin was appointed by the Holy See first Episcopal Promoter to animate this apostolate at the international level. 

With the Motu Proprio Apostolicae Caritatis, dated 19 March 1970, the Secretariat was incorporated into the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care for Migration and Tourism. This ensured the Church’s constant presence among Nomads and at the same time, this pastoral work acquired a stable basis at the very heart of the Church, a point of reference and propulsion. 

The need for specific pastoral care for Nomads was clearly expressed by the Second Vatican Council, in its Decree Christus Dominus, at number 18: “Special concern should be shown for those among the faithful who, on account of their way or condition of life, cannot sufficiently make use of the common and ordinary pastoral services of parish priests or are quite cut off from them. Among these¼nomads and others of this kind”[7].

The Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus , dated 28 June 1988, in Article 150 & 1, explains the role of the Pontifical Council in the apostolate for nomads: “must make every effort to ensure in the local Churches effective and appropriate spiritual assistance, if necessary also through suitable pastoral structures"

The concrete realization of this task consists in daily work of animation, promotion and coordination, and also through the presence of the Pontifical Council in the international activity of apostolate for nomads: international congresses, national meetings, pilgrimages.

To foster the diffusion and sharing of concrete experience in the different local Churches, the Pontifical Council has organized a series of International Congresses, meetings and seminars. Moreover it keeps direct contact with various international bodies: International Catholic Committee of Gypsies, International Romani Union, etc. 

Those to whom this type of pastoral care is directed are individuals, families or groups living a nomadic or itinerant life, either for ethnic reasons (nomadic peoples and gypsies) or for socio-economic reasons (fair and circus people) and also all those who have no fixed abode or work in circuses or other seasonal jobs (fairs) and do not receive parish pastoral care.

Pastoral Care for Gypsies

Gypsies constitute a world characterized by marked differences and contrasts. Many ethnic groups different from one another, each rich in their particular heritage and traditions, “live moving from place to place almost always estranged from society, which has difficulty in understanding their ethnic and cultural identity”[8]. Nevertheless they have also some features in common (ethnic identity, culture and psychology) which give them a certain degree of uniformity compared with the rest of the population. Neither welcomed nor accepted, they live isolated in their camps on the outskirts of cities, forgotten in their needs, rights and dignity.

It is estimated that there are about fifteen million gypsies in the world, but this figure is relative. This is due to the fact that in the category of peoples of gypsy origin we find itinerant groups, semi-settled groups and settled groups and in surveys the latter is not always included.

The numbers are estimated as follows: Europe, 4,036,000; India and South East Asia 8,000,000; United States and South America 1,652,000; elsewhere 1.312.000. 

Gypsies often consider the Church an institution for the majority in society and some see gypsies as a small group requiring no special pastoral care which will eventually integrate with the masses of the faithful. As a result few priests dedicate themselves full time to this pastoral work. Here are some examples: In France there are about ten chaplains, in Germany only two priests with one pastoral assistant caring for gypsies; in England and Wales there are seven full time pastoral workers and in Ireland only two; in Dublin there is a personal parish for the Traveling People. In Portugal there are thirteen pastoral workers, in Spain twenty-four and in Italy fifteen and in India there are thirty. In other countries they are given sporadic assistance in parishes on particular occasions (baptism, weddings, funerals).

This situation demands a pastoral care which involves the gypsies themselves, as subjects and protagonists. Representatives of a number of Particular Churches have proposed that seminarians of gypsy origin should be given suitable formation and receive ordained ministries, also because many people, often even priests themselves, engaged in this activity, are isolated because of their friendship with gypsies and their desire to live with them the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because they are constantly on the move it is extremely difficult for gypsies to be inserted in a local Church and this leads to a lack of ecclesial reference, sense of Church and community. Pastoral work therefore includes the necessity to integrate the family of nomads into the hosting parish community with full respect for the cultural differences and ethnic values of this minority and it is possible to open missions for the care of souls and personal parishes where the circumstances so require. 

Numerous chaplains of gypsies request special faculties to enable them to administer the sacraments all over the national territory in which they operate. On March 19, 1982, the Holy See granted special faculties to chaplains and privileges to the faithful of the various sectors of people on the move. These faculties are known as “Pro Materna”[9]

Many gypsies, because they lack sufficient religious instruction, are often exposed to pressure by religious sects which push them to abandon the Catholic Church and abjure their faith. Hence the need for solid religious formation, education, and above all “these brothers and sisters of ours must be helped to realize their dignity and their responsibilities.”[10]

Many positive values which characterize the gypsy world, such as fraternal and generous hospitality, a deep sense of solidarity, strong attachment to the faith and the religious traditions of their ancestors, should be given suitable revaluation in new pastoral programmes. It will be necessary to set up structures to guarantee the continuity of the process of furthering gypsies’ participation in society, and of their acceptance characterized by encounter, understanding and respect for their identity, by friendly dialogue and reciprocal help, also material. These matters were given in-depth attention also during the International Congresses organized by the Pontifical Council. 


I have presented here only one aspect of the complex phenomena of the pastoral care of nomadic peoples, namely the Church’s response to this problem. Pope Paul VI told the Gypsies: “You are in the heart of the Church”[11]. If so, our nomadic brothers and sisters have and should have a just and equal place within the Church like anybody else. In her maternal solicitude the Church, and through the Church all those who hold responsibilities within the Church, have a duty to promote the pastoral care of nomadic peoples. 

[1]Apostolic Constitution “Pastor Bonus” of Pope John Paul II, 28 June 1988
[2]Motu Proprio “Regimini Ecclesiae”, of Pope Paul VI, 15 Augsut 1967
[3]Motu Proprio “Pastoralis Migratorum Cura” of Pope Paul VI, 15 August 1969
[4]Instruction “De Pastoralis Migratorum Cura” of Pope Paul VI, 22 Augsut 1969
[5]Motu Proprio “Apostolicae Caritatis” of Pope Paul VI, 19 March 1970,
[6]Letter to Episcopal Conferences: “Church and People on the Move”, 4 May 1978
[7]Decree “Christus Dominus” on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, 28 October 1965
[8]Pope John Paul II to the participants at the 3rd International Meeting for the Pastoral Care of Nomads, 9 November 1989.
[9]Faculties for Itinerant Chaplains “Pro Materna”, 19 March 1982
[10]Pope John Paul II to the participants at the 2nd International Meeting for the Pastoral Care of Nomads, 16 September 1980.
[11]Pope Paul VI addressing the Gypsy pilgrims in Rome on 26 September 1965.

Pastorale des Nomades : la réponse de l'Église.


La pastorale des nomades bien que nouvelle dans l’église a commencé il y a déjà une centaine d’années durant le pontificat du Pape Pie X. Mais ce n’est que durant le règne de Paul VI, avec la création de la Commission Pontificale pour la Migration et le Tourisme en 1970, que le travail a vraiment commencé au niveau international. Le Pape Jean Paul II en élevant la Commission Pontificale au rang de Conseil Pontifical a donné à ce Dicastère plus d’autonomie et de liberté d’action. Aujourd’hui cette pastorale spécialisée est bien structurée dans la plupart des Eglises Européennes et s’étend aussi aux autres églises locales. Bien que le mandat donné au Conseil Pontifical concerne la pastorale de tous les peuples nomades, jusqu’à présent c’est des seuls Tsiganes que l’on s’est occupé jusqu’ici. Il y a 15 millions de Tsiganes dans le monde. Les Tsiganes considèrent souvent l’Eglise comme une institution faite pour la majorité de la société et certains voient les Tsiganes comme un petit groupe ne requérant pas d’attention spéciale. Le résultat est que peu de prêtres se consacrent à plein temps à ce travail pastoral. Cette situation exige une pastorale qui engage les Tsiganes eux-mêmes comme sujets et comme acteurs. Puisqu’ils sont toujours en mouvement, la pastorale des Tsiganes inclue la nécessité d’intégrer les familles aux communautés des paroisses hôtes, tout en respectant les différences culturelles et les valeurs ethniques de cette minorité. Il sera donc possible d’ouvrir des missions pour le soin des âmes et des paroisses personnelles là où les circonstances l’exigeront. Le Saint Siège a accordé des facultés spéciales, connues des aumôniers de Tsiganes sous le nom de “ Pro Materna Â”. 

Cura Pastorale dei Nomadi


La cura pastorale dei nomadi, sebbene costituisca un nuova espressione di apostolato, nella Chiesa ha avuto effettivo inizio un secolo fa, durante il Pontificato di Pio X. Ma fu soltanto sotto quello di Papa Paolo VI, con la creazione, nel 1970, della Pontificia Commissione per la Pastorale delle Migrazioni e del Turismo, che il lavoro iniziò praticamente a livello internazionale. Papa Giovanni Paolo II, elevando detta Pontificia Commissione a Pontificio Consiglio, diede al dicastero maggiore autonomia e libertà nelle sue attività. Oggi questo ministero specializzato è ben strutturato nelle Chiese europee e va estendendosi anche ad altre Chiese locali. Nonostante il mandato affidato al Pontificio Consiglio riguardi l’assistenza pastorale di tutte le popolazioni nomadi, al presente viene prestata un’attenzione speciale soltanto agli zingari, che nel mondo sono 15 milioni. Gli zingari spesso considerano la Chiesa un’istituzione per la maggioranza della società, mentre alcune persone vedono gli zingari come un piccolo gruppo che non ha bisogno di alcuna cura pastorale speciale. Come risultato pochi sacerdoti si dedicano a tempo pieno a questo apostolato. La situazione esige una pastorale che coinvolga gli stessi zingari, come soggetti e protagonisti. Essendo essi perennemente in movimento, la loro cura include la necessità di integrare le loro famiglie nelle comunità parrocchiali di accoglienza, nel pieno rispetto delle peculiarità culturali e dei valori etnici propri di questa minoranza; ove le circostanze lo richiedano, è anche possibile aprire missioni per la cura di anime e parrocchie personali. La Santa Sede ha garantito ai cappellani degli zingari facoltà speciali, note con il nome di "Pro Materna".