header icons

The Charity of Christ Toward Migrants (Erga migrantes caritas Christi)

(Excerpted from the new document from the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People)

Today’s migration makes up the vastest movement of people of all times. In these last decades, the phenomenon, now involving about two hundred million individuals, has turned into a structural reality of con-temporary society. It is becom-ing an increasingly complex problem from the social, cultural, political, religious, economic and pastoral points of view.

Taking into consideration the new migration flows and their characteristics, the Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi aims to update the pastoral care of migration, thirty-five years after the publication of Pope Paul VI’s Motu Proprio Pastoralis migratorum cura and the Congregation for Bishops’ related Instruction De pastorali migratorum cura (Nemo est).

The Migration Phenomenon Today: The Challenge of Human Mobility

The love of Christ towards migrants urges us (cf. 2 Co 5:14) to look afresh at their problems, which are to be met with today all over the world. In fact nearly all countries are now faced with the eruption of the migration phenomenon in one aspect or another; it affects their social, economic, political and religious life and is becoming more and more a permanent structural phenomenon. Migration is often determined by a free decision of the migrants themselves, taken fairly frequently not only for economic reasons but also for cultural, technical or scientific motives. As such it is for the most part a clear indication of social, economic and demographic imbalance on a regional or world-wide level, which drives people to emigrate.

The roots of the phenomenon can also be traced back to exaggerated nationalism and, in many countries, even to hatred and systematic or violent exclusion of ethnic or religious minorities from society. This can be seen in civil, political, ethnic and even religious conflicts raging in all continents. Such tensions swell the growing flood of refugees, who often mingle with other migrants. The impact can be felt in host societies, in which ethnic groups and people with different lang-uages and cultures are brought together with the risk of reci-procal opposition and conflict.

Migration, however, also helps people get to know one another and provides opportunity for dialogue and communion or indeed inte-gration at various levels. Pope John Paul II drew attention to this in his Message for the World Day for Peace 2001: “In the case of many civilisations, immigration has brought new growth and enrichment. In other cases, the local people and immigrants have remained culturally separate but have shown that they are able to live together, respecting each other and accepting or tolerating the diversity of customs.”

The challenge confronting us in today’s migrations is not an easy one because many different spheres are involved: economics, sociology, politics, health, culture and security. All Christians must respond to this challenge; it is not just a matter of good will or the personal charisma of a few.

We must not, however, forget the generous response of many men and women, associations and organisations which, seeing the sufferings of countless persons caused by emigration, are struggling for the rights of migrants, forced or voluntary, and for their defense. The commitment of these people can be attributed above all to that compassion of Jesus, the Good Samaritan, that the Spirit stirs up everywhere in the hearts of men and women of good will and in the Church too, which “relives once more the mystery of her Divine Founder, the mystery of life and death”. Moreover the task entrusted by our Lord to His Church to proclaim the Word of God has been interwoven from the very beginning with the history of the emigration of Christians.

We therefore thought of writing this Instruction. Its prime purpose is to respond to the new spiritual and pastoral needs of migrants and to make migration more and more an instrument of dialogue and proclamation of the Christian message. In addition this Document sets out to provide an answer to certain important present-day needs. This includes the necessity to take into due account the new norms of the two Codes of Canon Law now in force for the Latin Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches, thus answering the particular needs of the growing numbers of emigrants of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Then there is also the need to bear in mind the ecumenical aspect of the phenomenon, owing to the presence among migrants of Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, and also the interreligious aspect, owing to the increasing number of migrants of other religions, in particular Muslims. Finally our pastoral care must be open to new developments in pastoral structures themselves, while at the same time guaranteeing communion between pastoral workers in this specific field and the local hierarchy.

International Migration

The ever-increasing migration phenomenon today is an important component of that growing interdependence among nation states that goes to make up globalisation, which has flung markets wide open but not frontiers, has demolished boundaries for the free circulation of information and capital, but not to the same extent those for the free circulation of people. No state is any longer exempt from the consequences of some form of migration, which is often strongly linked to negative factors. These include the demographic changes that are taking place in countries that were industrialised first, the increase in inequality between north and south, the existence of protectionist barriers in international trade, which do not allow emerging countries to sell their products on competitive terms in the markets of western countries and, finally, the proliferation of civil wars and conflicts. All these factors will increase migration flows in the years to come), even though the appearance of terrorism on the international scene will provoke reactions for security reasons. These reactions will inevitably obstruct the movement of migrants who dream of finding a job and security in the so-called wealthy countries which, for their part, require more manpower.

It is not surprising, therefore, that migration meant and still means enormous hardships and suffering for the migrants. Yet, especially in more recent times and in certain circumstances, it has often been encouraged and promoted to foster the economic development of both the migrants’ host country and their country of origin (especially through their financial remitt-ances). Many nations, in fact, would not be what they are today without the contribution made by millions of immigrants.

The emigration of family nuclei and women is particularly marked by suffering. Women migrants are becoming more and more numerous. They are often contracted as unskilled labourers (or domestics) and employed illegally. Often migrants are deprived of their most elemen-tary human rights, including that of forming labour unions, when they do not become outright victims of the sad phenomenon of human trafficking, which no longer spares even children. This is a new chapter in the history of slavery.

However, even without such extremes, it is necessary to reiterate that foreign workers are not to be considered merchandise or merely man-power. Therefore they should not be treated just like any other factor of production. Every migrant enjoys inalienable fundamental rights which must be respected in all cases. Furthermore the migrants’ contribution to the economy of the host country comes together with the possibility for them to use their intelligence and abilities in their work.

In this regard, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and the Members of their Families – which entered into force on 1 July 2003 and whose ratification was strongly recommended by Pope John Paul II- offers a compendium of rights that give migrants the possibility to make such a contribution. What the Convention foresees therefore deserves the adherence partic-ularly of those states that benefit most from migration. To this end, the Church encourages the ratification of the international legal instruments that ensure the rights of migrants, refugees and their families. The Church also offers its advocacy, which is more and more necessary today, through its various competent institutions and associations (as centres for migrant needs, houses open to them, offices for necessary services, documen-ation and counselling, etc.). Migrants are often victims of illegal recruitment and of short-term contracts providing poor working and living conditions. This is because they often have to suffer physical, verbal and even sexual abuse, work long hours, often without the benefits of medical care and the usual forms of social security.

The precarious situation of so many foreigners, which should arouse everyone’s solidarity, instead brings about fear in many, who feel that immigrants are a burden, regard them with suspicion and even consider them a danger and a threat. This often provokes manifestations of intolerance, xenophobia and racism.

The growing presence of Muslims, as well as followers of other religions, in traditionally Christian countries falls under the broader and more complex heading of the meeting between cultures and interreligious dialogue. In any case, Christians are also present in significant numbers in some nations whose populations are in the vast majority Muslim.

In the face of the widespread migratory phenomenon, with aspects profoundly different today from what they were in the past, policies on a purely national level would be of little value. No country today may think that it can solve migration problems on its own. Even more ineffective would be purely restrictive policies, which, in turn, would generate still more negative effects, with the risk of increasing illegal entries and even favouring the activities of criminal organisations.

International migration must therefore be considered an important structural component of the social, economic and political reality of the world today. The large numbers involved call for closer and closer collaboration between countries of origin and destination, in addition to adequate norms capable of harmonising the various legislative provisions. The aim of this would be to safeguard the needs and rights of the emigrants and their families and, likewise, those of the societies receiving them

At the same time, however, migration raises a truly ethical question: the search for a new international economic order for a more equitable distribution of the goods of the earth. This would make a real contribution to reducing and checking the flow of a large number of migrants from populations in difficulty. From this there follows the need for a more effective commitment to educational and pastoral systems that form people in a “global dimension”, that is, a new vision of the world community, considered as a family of peoples, for whom the goods of the earth are ultimately destined when things are seen from the perspective of the universal common good.

Migration today furthermore imposes new commitments of evangelisation and solidarity on Christians and calls them to examine more profoundly those values shared by other religious or lay groups and indispensable to ensure a harmonious life together. The passage from monocultural to multicultural societies can be a sign of the living presence of God in history and in the community of mankind, for it offers a providential opportunity for the fulfilment of God’s plan for a universal communion. This new historical context is characterised by the thousand different faces of humanity and, unlike the past, diversity is becoming commonplace in very many countries.

Therefore Christians are called to give witness to and practise not only the spirit of tolerance – itself a great achievement, politically and culturally speaking, not to mention religiously – but also respect for the other’s identity. Thus, where it is possible and opportune, they can open a way towards sharing with people of different origins and cultures, also in view of a “respectful proclamation” of their own faith. We are all therefore called to a culture of solidarity, often solicited by the Magisterium, so as to achieve together a real com-munion of persons. This is the laborious path that the Church invites everyone to follow.

Domestic migration

Recent times have also seen a considerable increase of domestic migration in various countries, sometimes voluntary, as that from country districts to cities, sometimes forced, as in the case of evacuees and of persons fleeing from terrorism, violence and drug-trafficking, especially in Africa and Latin America. It is estimated that world-wide the majority of migrants today remain within their own nations, in some cases moving about on a seasonal basis.

This type of mobility, left for the most part to evolve unattended, has encouraged the rapid and disordered expansion of urban centres unprepared to take in such masses of people and has fomented the growth of slums where conditions of life are socially and morally precarious. It compels migrants to settle in an environment that is very different from their place of origin, thus creating considerable hardship and grave danger of social uprooting with serious consequences for the religious and cultural traditions of these populations.

Nevertheless domestic migration keeps arousing great hopes, unfortunately often unfounded and illusory, in millions of persons, although it separates them from their family bonds and puts them in places with different climate and customs, even if the language may still be the same. If these migrants later return to where they came from, they take with them a changed mentality, a different way of life, and not rarely another outlook on the world or religion, and divergent behaviour. This also challenges the pastoral action of the Church as Mother and Teacher.

In this field too, today’s situation thus requires of pastoral workers and host communities, in other words, of the Church, loving attention to “people on the move” and to their need for solidarity and fellowship. Through domestic migration too, the Spirit launches a clear and urgent appeal to renew and intensify our commitment to evangeli-sation and charity. This calls for well-designed forms of welcome and pastoral activity, that is, continuous, thorough and adapted as closely as possible to the actual situation and specific needs of the migrants.

Migration as seen with the eyes of faith

In migrants the Church has always contemplated the image of Christ who said, “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” (Mt 25:35). Their condition is, therefore, a challenge to the faith and love of believers, who are called on to heal the evils caused by migration and discover the plan God pursues through it even when caused by obvious injustices. Migration brings together the manifold compon-ents 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.

If, on the one hand, the suffering that goes with migration is neither more nor less than the birth-pangs of a new humanity, on the other the inequalities and disparities behind this suffering reveal the deep wounds that sin causes in the human family. They are thus an urgent appeal for true fraternity.

This vision leads us to approach migration in the light of those biblical events that mark the phases of humanity’s arduous journey towards the birth of a people without discrimination or frontiers, depository of God’s gift for all nations and open to man’s eternal vocation. Faith perceives in it the journey of the Patriarchs, sustained by the promise as they moved towards the future homeland, and that of the Hebrews, freed from slavery, as they crossed the Red Sea in the Exodus, that formed the People of the Covenant. Again, in a certain sense, faith finds in migration an exile, in which every goal reached in fact is relative. In migration faith discovers once more the universal message of the prophets, who denounce dis-crimination, oppression, depor-tation, dispersion and persecution as contrary to God’s plan. At the same time they proclaim salvation for all, witnessing even in the chaotic events and contradictions of human history, that God continues to work out his plan of salvation until all things are brought together in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10).

Migration and the History of Salvation

We can therefore consider the present-day phenomenon of migration a significant “sign of the times”, a challenge to be discovered and utilised in our work to renew humanity and proclaim the gospel of peace.

The Holy Scriptures show us clearly what all this means. Israel traced its origins back to Abraham, who in obedience to God’s call left his home and went to a foreign land, taking with him the divine Promise that he would become the father “of a great nation” (Gn 12:1-2). Jacob, a wandering Aramaen, “went down into Egypt with a small household and lived there as an alien. But there he became a nation, great, strong and numerous” (Dt 26:5). After its long servitude in Egypt Israel received its solemn investiture as the “People of God” during its forty-year “Exodus” through the desert. The hard test of migration and deportation is therefore fundamental to the story of the chosen people in view of the salvation of all peoples: Israel knew the return from exile (cf. Is 42:6-7; 49:5). With these memories it could take new heart in its trust in God, even in the darkest moments of its history (Ps 105 [104]: 12-15; Ps 106 [105]: 45-47).With regard to the foreigner living in the country, the Law enjoins the same commandment on Israel as applies to “the chil-dren of your people” (Lv 19:18), that is, “you must … love him as yourself” (Lv 19:34).

Christ the “foreigner” and Mary, a living symbol of the emigrant

In the foreigner a Christian sees not simply a neighbour, but the face of Christ Himself, who was born in a manger and fled into Egypt, where he was a foreigner, summing up and repeating in His own life the basic experience of His people (cf. Mt 2:13ff). Born away from home and coming from another land (cf. Lk 2:4-7), “he came to dwell among us” (cf. Jn 1:11,14) and spent His public life on the move, going through towns and villages (cf. Lk 13:22; Mt 9:35). After His resurrection, still a foreigner and unknown, He appeared on the way to Emmaus to two of His disciples, who only recognised Him at the breaking of the bread (cf. Lk 24:35). So Christians are followers of a man on the move “who has nowhere to lay his head (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58)”.

In the same way Mary, the Mother of Jesus, can be equally well contemplated as a living symbol of the woman emi-grant .She gave birth to her Son away from home (cf. Lk 2:1-7) and was compelled to flee to Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-14). Popular devotion is right to consider Mary as the Madonna of the Way.

The Church of Pentecost

Contemplating now the Church, we see that it was born from Pentecost, fulfilment of the Paschal Mystery. It was a real and symbolic meeting of peoples, which later led Paul to declare, “There is no room for distinction between Greek and Jew, between the circumcised and the uncircumcised, or between barbarian and Scythian, slave and free man” (Col 3:11). For Christ in fact “has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart” (Eph 2:14).

To follow Christ means to walk behind Him and be in transit in the world because “there is no eternal city for us in this life” (Heb 13:14). The believer is always a pároikos, a temporary resident, a guest wherever he may be (cf. 1Pt 1:1; 2:11; Jn 17:14-16). This means that for Christians it is not all that important where they live geographically, while a sense for hospitality is natural to them. The apostles insist on this point (cf. Rm 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1Pt 4:9; 3 Jn 5), and the Pastoral Letters enjoin this particularly on the episkopos (cf. 1Tim 3:2; Tt 1:8). In the early Church, hospitality was the Christians’ response to the needs of itinerant missionaries, of religious leaders in exile or on a journey, and of poor members of various communities.

Foreigners are also a visible sign and an effective reminder of that universality which is a constituent element of the Catholic Church. A vision of Isaiah announced this: “In the days to come the mountain of the temple of Yahweh shall tower above the mountains… All the nations will stream to it” (Is 2:2). In the gospel our Lord Himself prophesied that “people from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Lk 13:29), and the Apocalypse sees “a huge number… from every nation, race, tribe and language” (Ap 7:9). The Church is now toiling on its way to this final goal; today’s migrations can remind us of this “huge number” and be seen as a call and prefiguration of the final meeting of all humanity with God and in God.

Migrants’ journeying can thus become a living sign of an eternal vocation, a constant stimulus to that hope which points to a future beyond this present world, inspiring the transformation of the world in love and eschatological victory. The peculiarities of migrants is an appeal for us to live again the fraternity of Pentecost, when differences are harmonised by the Spirit and charity becomes authentic in accepting one another. So the experience of migration can be the announcement of the paschal mystery, in which death and resurrection make for the creation of a new humanity in which there is no longer slave or foreigner (cf. Gal 3:28).

To read the entire document go to


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, November-December 2004.