Paul Steffen, SVD
The Evangelizing Power of Migrant Ministry
Towards a Theology of Migrant Ministry



In the Papal Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, dated 21 September 2011, Pope Benedict pointed to an issue which should orient us to a mission we often overlook:

"The phenomenon of migration today is also a providential opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel in the contemporary world". "Migrants themselves have a special role in this regard because they in turn can become 'heralds of God's word and witnesses to the Risen Jesus, the hope of the world' (Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, n. 105)".

The Pope stated in his Letter that the increasing number of migrants and their mobility create the need to develop more structures and methodology for our migrant ministry.  To this statement,  I would add that an ardent love for the migrants should inspire us to develop our talents and creative capacity. In this way our vision of migrant mission should guide and empower us to employ the most appropriate and relevant methods. We know there is no perfect ready-made methodology, no exact recipe to make a nice cake. The only way is to have the courage to realize a dream, follow one's vision, and risk venturing into mission with the migrants and journeying on with them. It always depends a bit on trial-and-error, learning from experience and from one's mistakes, and so re-adjusting and improving one's method.

European Migrant Communities

We need to distinguish between the different linguistic and cultural, Christian and religious groups of migrants. We have to discover the richness of their cultural roots in order to relate to each particular culture and learn mutual respect. What kind of leadership model do they have? What is their cultural approach to a stranger? How is 'otherness' and being different understood in a particular culture?

We see in the migrant communities we encounter in Europe a rich variety of people who have migrated to this continent from beyond the geographical and cultural borders of what is commonly understand by the term "Europe".

In his paper Ludger Mueller describes the Spaniards from a Catholic background who migrated to Germany. They originated from a society and culture where, up to the 1970s,  the Catholic Church had enjoyed the status of a State religion, but since then, owing to the process of secularization, the religious affiliation has changed tremendously, so that now practicing Catholics are in the minority. What do the Spanish Catholics who went to Germany in the 1960s in large numbers as Gastarbeiter, guest workers, expect from the Church? Do they contribute to the Church's mission to evangelize people and their respective cultures in our time?

Then there are the Tamil Catholics, mainly from Sri Lanka, who landed in Germany as a result of a cruel civil war in their homeland, and the Vietnamese Catholics who from fear of repression and persecution escaped from their country as 'boat people'. To the former East Germany Vietnamese workers came with the ideological premises of international fraternity arrangements between two Socialist Governments. The so-called 'boat people' went to West Germany to escape from the Communist paradise of their country of origin. However, they were strictly segregated by a society that was afraid of these foreigners. After the reunification these Vietnamese remained in Germany. Nowadays Vietnamese students in Germany are known for their outstanding academic achievements, well ahead of the Turkish, Arabic or Italian students. In my opinion this highlights the differences in the family background and culture of the different ethnic migrant communities.

The Filipinos are another very present migrant community in Germany as in many other European countries. Lack of work, legal security and a dignified life has brought them in their millions to all parts of the globe.  Even Jewish families from Israel and Christians from Lebanon hire them as domestics, as do Italian families in Rome. Germans often take them as wives.

What about the Chinese communities in all European societies? Their silent presence is felt and accepted when they offer us their food at a decent price. Increasing numbers of Chinese come to study at European Universities, etc.

My Way to Develop a Spirituality of Inter-culturality, Mission and Social Ministry

As a student I used to go every Saturday to one of the Caritas Centres in Rome where lunch is served to migrants and poor locals alike. It is amazing who one can meet there! eople who certainly represent our global village.

Do they represent the losers of the globalization movement or — at least to a certain degree — are they the people who will infuse new life and energy into Europe's aging societies? Are they people of hope or have they lost all hope?

In describing this multifaceted reality of the migrants in Europe, I feel there is no easy answer to all the questions we have to ask ourselves if we want to understand the complex reality of the people who make up the migrant communities better, who for whatever reason, have come to Europe.

My own experience with migrants had to do with my own life journey as a person, a Christian and a missionary priest of the Society of the Divine Word. That journey led me in 1977 to join the SVD. Actually, it began much earlier in my childhood and youth at home and with the people with whom I became friends on my journey. Openness to others, I have to admit, I first learned at home by participating in family life. Not only was there a bunch of brothers and sisters with all their friends who came to our house to play in our courtyard and garden, in addition there were many visitors, from every social background, who came to see the family, either as patients of my father or friends. The seed of intercultural spirituality fell very early into fertile soil long before I decided to join a missionary society and leave my country and culture of origin, which had nourished me so well in the first part of my life. Going away, leaving behind all that meant security and familiarity, was to have the guts to take a huge risk. What would be waiting for me on the other side of the world?  Somewhere I knew I would be expected to live with strangers, people I did not know, whose language and culture I was by no means sufficiently prepared to understand?

My experience which has enabled me to develop a spirituality of interculturality, mission and social ministry developed gradually. It was based on the first, foundational formation I got before entering the seminary and a mission society. Life as a member of an international mission society brought me into contact with confrères from different cultural backgrounds as well as the missions in foreign lands, different people and cultures. Encountering the "other" even became the focus of my life and life-style wherever I lived, in countries such as Papua New Guinea, Italy, Germany and the Philippines. Even during home leave in the town where my parents lived, I soon discovered the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and contacted them; they were mainly Hindu. Cultivating "unusual" friendships became my hallmark. While I was studying in Rome I got in touch with the huge wave of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and Northern Africa. In the last ten years I have made contact with the successive waves of migrants from Afghanistan, mainly composed of the Hazara people of that nation. Effective ministry is always based on incarnational communication, not on any of the artificial substitutes for it.

Migrant Ministry. A Relational Approach

Edward Hahnenberg called one of his books: Ministry — a relational approach. Migrant ministry, if it is authentic, enables people to experience the life-enhancing power of the Good News of Jesus Christ. It will make people free. The openness to be evangelized, and in turn being enabled to evangelize, is based on receiving and giving. The evangelizing migrant ministry ensures mutual enrichment and by its very nature is nothing less than life-enhancing care and love.

The French Church told her fellow-citizens from a North African background: "Nous avons besoin de vous — We Need You". The Church wanted to point out to the French their need of the migrants to challenge them to greater openness and hospitality and so help to prepare the country's future. In the same way we, at the European Migrant Conference and all European Churches, should tell our migrants from all parts of the world: We need you, nous avons besoin de vous! We need them in our aging societies and we need them in our aging church communities. Once again our faith communities need the heat of the fire of faith that can warm us and ban all the coldness from our European churches and societies. That means that migrants have a mission in our European societies!

In the first place our ministry should not start by imposing our prefabricated models and answers to problems as we have understood them. The 'others', in our case the migrants, have a right to be listened to! They are the main agents in our migrant communities.

Our ministry is first of all to listen to them patiently and to hear them. Only listening can put us on the right track and help us to learn from the migrants, from their life stories, from their faith experience and so forth. We have to go with them to discover their potential.

In telling and sharing their histories, God's Spirit is at work in the migrant narrators and in the listener's mind. Both the migrant minister and the migrant himself are invited to discover God's Spirit as the main agent of God's mission in each one's respective our life, activities and faith experience. Being led to discover how God is present in our lives is what theologians like Rahner have called the art of mystagogy. In the first place every pastoral worker has to be a person who can introduce people to the mystery of God's presence in each one's life (mysterion and agein in Greek mean to introduce into the mystery).

A German philosopher described the difference between Christians and Muslims with the words "cold" and "hot". To him the first appears a "cold" and the second a "hot" religion.  In the West religions are seen in rational terms. Indeed many Christians talk more about religion and Christianity, instead of sharing their own faith among themselves. It is as though we were studying the ashes of a previous fire, but we do not know how it feels to get warmed by the fire of faith. Is there still a glow under the ashes in our Western Christianity? Nearly all of our migrants come from societies, cultures, religions or churches where the glow of the fire is the very core of their lives, and it gives them peace, comfort and orientation for their daily commitments in the family and society.

A look at the different migrant communities in Europe will prove this. Catholic Filipinos, Vietnamese, Tamils, Africans and many more start building up faith communities long before the official Church gets involved.

Having many migrant communities in Europe's societies is a fact. Another point is whether they understand the native communities and vice versa: do the local native communities understand the migrants and their cultural communities? Naturally most Europeans were never given a chance to get to know the migrants and their cultures. The same is true for the migrants. Getting to know each other takes time and patience, and people of good will on both sides. An Italian author entitled his book on migrants: Migranti come noi. Per una reciproca accoglienza (Migrants like us. For  mutual acceptance). Eighteen French Catholic and Protestant organizations have started a programme called:  "A la rencontre du frère venu d'ailleurs —  Meet the brother from another world". In my opinion migrant ministers are basically missionaries; they are mediators between people from different societies and cultures, and they have to be bridge builders (pontefici) between different worlds!

My own intercultural experience and my friends from all over the world have taught me that human nature, apart from all linguistic and cultural differences, is basically very similar. We all have the basic human needs; we all experience being loved, accepted and having friends who can listen to us and we can listen to them. We are all relational and communicative human beings. We all suffer if we are deprived of such basic needs. The dignity of the human person, the right to work, to found a family and raise children, the freedom to move and protect one's life and family is a universal human right, which we are called to acknowledge and to promote and defend. The right to mobility cannot be taken away by any Government. Pope Pius XII already declared this in 1952 in Exsul Familia and the recent Vatican Document Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi confirmed it and developed it further.

The Emerging Theology of Migration

We should go to the school of Martin Buber, Paul Ricœur and H.G. Gadamer if we want to learn more about the need to relate to the other human being. Actually a missiologist like Theo Sundermeier from Heidelberg University has written a very important and helpful work called, Den Fremden verstehen. Eine interkulturelle Hermeneutik (1996) on how to understand the stranger.

The American theologian Daniel Groody wrote an article on "A Theology of Migration and Refugees":

"One of the initial challenges in the immigration debate deals with language. A great divide exists between the problem of migration and migrating people, between those who are labelled and their labellers, between the political and social identities of migrants and refugees and their human and spiritual identities".

The debates we have had in recent years in all European countries strongly support his statement. Migrants are labelled and judged, because of their different culture, language and religion. Stereotypes dominate the fears and public debates in the media. Obviously we Europeans have forgotten our own history of migration. We have forgotten that the French Huguenot families who settled in their thousands in different German States up to Prussia were given the freedom to keep their language, culture and religion. For generations they spoke French, worshiped in their French churches in French, etc. and the majority community was ready and able to accept their new citizens and their different culture, language and religion. They enriched the economy with their skills and new trades which enabled them to found industries for the manufacture of porcelain and textiles for the benefit of the whole community. Learning to understand and speak the local language is an important stage for a successful integration into the host country that will guarantee that this country will become the home country of the migrants. But that does not mean that the migrant communities have to give up all that they could bring along: their language, culture and religion.

Groody made another statement which I would like to quote, because I believe it has something to teach us: "Migration issues are so complex and far-reaching that understanding them demands a broad range of interdisciplinary research. Economics, politics, geography, demography, sociology, psychology, law, history, anthropology, and environmental studies are foremost among the disciplines that shape the emerging field of migration studies and migration theory. Theology, however, is almost never mentioned in major works or at centers of migration studies. Some research has been done on migration and religion from a sociological perspective, but there is virtually nothing on the topic from a theological perspective. Theology seems to enter the academic territory from the outside, as if it were a "disciplinary refugee" with no official recognition in the overall discourse about migration".

We cannot just work for and with migrants without developing a theology of migrants and refugees, as Groody calls it. I would call it a practical theology of migrant ministry. At present Gioacchino Campese is writing a doctorate in the faculty of missiology at the Pontifical Urbanian University. As a member of the Scalabrinians, he has worked with migrants in the United States of America, and he recently contributed to the need of developing a theology of migration with an article on that topic.

Fifty years ago awareness of the marginalized people in society received unmentioned attention in the Church and it inspired the new-born contextual theology. The newly coined expression "irruption of the poor" symbolizes that new awareness. Campese therefore makes this observation:

"Today the world is witnessing another phenomenon related to that more extensive and massive reality of the irruption of the poor that has now assumed planetary dimensions and has become a common feature of the global village in which we are living: the irruption of migrants. The numbers speak clearly: there are 214 million migrants worldwide, 15.2 million refugees, and 27.1 million internally displaced people. The impact of the irruption of these "people on the move" on the contemporary scene has finally gotten the attention of Christian theology, as is evidenced by the growing number of publications and conferences organized on this subject".

Poverty and human mobility or migration has always been part of the human experience and the Old and New Testaments have a lot to tell us about it. God reveals himself in this human history built up with experiences of poverty, exploitation and migration. Nevertheless the topic was nearly completely ignored by systematic theology and not sufficiently reflected upon by practical theology. This changed only recently. "Today's rapidly changing social and political realities challenge Christian churches and theology to deal seriously and urgently with the phenomenon of human mobility". Not only Scripture and tradition are seen nowadays as loci theologici, but human history and experience in context as well. Campese is convinced that the goal of theology is:

"not simply to understand, but to understand in order to transform the reality of oppression, violence, and sin in which people live as they journey toward the realization of the reign of God".

Following up this current in theological reflection, "migration, as one of the central aspects of current human history and experience, can become one of the privileged sources or loci theologici of contemporary theological reflection."

That leads to pastoral-practical theological reflection.

"It emerges principally in the constant quest for spiritual and theological enlightenment by those pastoral agents who work within the numerous structures that the church has established to minister to migrants, as well as by the many believers who take the questions related to human mobility seriously".

With his books: A Promised Land, A Perilous Journey. Theological Perspectives on Migration (2008) and Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice (2007), Daniel Groody has contributed a lot to the new theological awareness and reflection on the migrant ministry and theology of migration. He has

"proposed four conceptual foundations for a theology of migration: imago Dei, which allows a reading of human mobility starting from the fundamental humanity of the migrants created in God's image; verbum Dei, which shows Jesus Christ as the "migrant Son of God", the One who, in the mystery of Incarnation, crosses the border between the human and the divine worlds; missio Dei, which indicates the participation in the universal mission of God whose will is that in any human being, especially the most vulnerable ones such as refugees and irregular migrants, people would recognize the image and the dignity as children of God; and finally visio Dei, which underlines the eschatological dimension of Christian faith, which teaches that to be disciples of Jesus here on earth, in the different geographic and cultural contexts, means to journey in the direction of God's Reign".


My intention in this short reflection is to throw light on the migrant ministry as an evangelizing power. That ministry should not fall into the trap of giving priority to building up structures, organizations and institutions. That could divert it from the real mission which goes far beyond that of being effective managers of institutions. Migrant ministers are first of all bridge builders for the sake of other human beings. With their leadership style they can influence the migrant Christian community for good or for bad. We as migrant minsters should avoid the trap of just becoming busy pastors, being preoccupied with the administration of the sacraments and office duties. We are needed much more as animators, educators and reconcilers in the Christian community.

The migrants themselves, according to Pope Benedict, have a special role in the proclamation of the faith. Christian migrant communities, living in a plural and secular context, have a very significant mission to fulfill  with their faith, which is still energized by the glow of faith, in the aged European churches. European Christians can learn from them what it means not only to talk about the church and faith, but to be empowered by a faith that is lived out and a faith that is experienced as life-enhancing! Faith is not just a term or area for reflection, but as Jim Fowlers sees it, it is an "active mode-of-being-in-relation to the 'other' or others, accompanied by belief, commitment, love, and risk".

God works in an incarnational way. In our reflection this means that migrant Christians act and move as Christians from a particular culture, language and ethnic community. That is their richness. With their humanity based on their particular culture, they can contribute a lot to the plural and secular societies of Europe. The learning process of relating to the societies they have migrated to is not a one way street; it is reciprocal.  Both sides have to learn and to get to know each other; it is a communicative and relational process of mutual enrichment. And in order to do this we have to develop a contextualized spiritualty of interculturality, mission and social action. Theology cannot only take Scripture and Tradition into consideration, because it is called to see human history and experience as equally important in its reflection. The right of cultural and religious alterity is corresponding to the duty of intercultural and interreligious communication, which today we call dialogue.  Dialogue is much more than an approach; it is a way of relating and hence of living as a Christian. The Christian community has to be understood as a relational community which forms its members in the likeness of Christ.

The Acts of the Apostles calls the Apostolic Church simply "the way". The modern pluralistic and secular world will recognize us again, if we re-discover this basic dimension for ourselves. The Church could take the migrant communities as the model for her mission in accompanying human-kind on its way.


End Notes

  1. Message of Pope Benedict XVI  for the World Day of  Migrants and Refugees (15 January 2012) in:  
  2.   Cf. P. Steffen, Migrant Youth and the Mission of the Church. A pastoral-theological reflection, in SEDOS Bulletin 43:2 (2011) 76-84; Id., Migrant Ministry: The Kairos for a Pastoral-Missionary Work, in Verbum SVD 51:3 (2010) 313-340; Id., The Universality of Mission: Methods and Structures of Missionary Migrant Ministry, in Quaderni Universitari, Pontificio Consiglio della Pastorale per i Migranti e gli Inteneranti, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Roma 2008, 88-115.
  3.   Cf. Rüdiger Safranski 2010, 119ff. in: Hermann Mückler, Mission in Ozeanien, facultas.wuv: Wien 2010, 10.
  4.   Theo Sundermeier,  Den Fremden verstehen. Eine interkulturelle Hermeneutik, Vandenhoeck u. Ruprecht, Göttingen 1996. — Id., Comprendere lo straniero, gdt 263, Queriniana: Brescia 1999.
  5.   Daniel G. Groody, C.S.C., A Theology of Migration and Refugees, in Theological Studies 70 (2009) 638-667.
  6.   Ibid., 641.
  7.   Gioacchino Campese, The Irruption of Migrants: Theology of Migration in the 21st Century, in: Theological Studies 73 (2012) 3-32.
  8.   Ibid., 4.
  9.   Ibid., 6. - U.S. theologian Kevin Burke aptly summarizes this way of understanding and doing theology: “Theology not only ‘thinks’ about God, but commits to God’s way and acts on God’s word. It integrates conceptualization, commitment, and praxis” (ibid).
  10.   Ibid., 6.
  11.   Ibid., 21.
  12.   J. Walsh, Evangelization and Justice. New Insights for Christian Ministry, Orbis Books: New York 1982, 3.
  13.   Cf. M. Sievernich, Die Christliche Mission. Geschichte und Gegenwart, Darmstadt 2009, p. 228 — id., La missione cristiana. Storia e presente, Queriniana, Brescia 2012.

Ref.: Text given from the author, 03/01/2013.







SEDOS (Rome - 2015)