Parish activities to help immigrants, migrants, refugees and people on the move

"For I was a stranger and you welcomed me."  Matthew 2535

The Catholic faith tradition has a long, rich history of hospitality and respect for the stranger or alien. The Church has developed a full body of teaching and a heritage of concern for immigrants and refugees, particularly in the United States – a land of immigrants. The Church calls us to pursue of a vision of unity in diversity as part of parish life by helping immigrants, migrants, refugees, and people on the move through:

  • Pastoral Care

  • Education/Advocacy

  • Social Ministry

Pastoral Care

”We cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception. It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity.... They should be welcomed in the spirit of brotherly love, so that the concrete example of wholesome living may give them a high opinion of authentic Christian charity and of spiritual values.”

Populorum Progressio
Pope Paul VI, 1967

As a leaven in the world, the Church is called to participate in human affairs and to recognize in the poor, the afflicted, and the oppressed the presence of the Lord summoning the Christian community to action. The mission of the Church, then, as the trusted and familiar home for many of the nation's newest arrivals, is a ministry of evangelization and service. The task of welcoming immigrants, migrants, refugees and people on the move into full participation in the Church and society with equal rights and duties continues the biblical understanding of the justice of God reaching out to all peoples.

This call to communion goes out to all members of the Church—bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay leaders, and parishioners—to prepare themselves to receive the newcomers with a genuine spirit of welcome. Simple, grace-filled kindness and concern on the part of all parishioners to newcomers are the first steps. This can be accompanied by language and culture study as well as constant and patient efforts at intercultural communication. The integration of incoming groups is complex because of multiple Mass schedules and lack of personnel or resources, but if the receiving parish staffs and parishioners are open to the newcomers and provide a bridge to join cultures to one another, the newcomers themselves will provide the leadership and show the way to a healthy integration.

Newcomers to our land will experience the Church's welcome most personally at the level of the parish. Pastors, parish staff, and parishioners accordingly, should be filled with a spirit of welcome, responding to new and perhaps little-understood cultures. They will be able to do so precisely to the extent that they have received the support of the diocese and the training that should go with it. A pastor with an open and welcoming spirit who insists that the whole parish participate in such a spirit can make a tremendous difference in relations among different groups. Pastors need to know about effective models for accommodating multiple cultural groups within a single parish structure. Parish and diocesan structures have not always been flexible enough to accommodate sudden influxes of new groups. Parishes have found themselves serving faith communities that draw members from far outside parish boundaries, raising questions about the sources and limits of parish resources.

The welcome and hospitality that parishes extend to newcomers must include active efforts on the part of the pastor and parish staff, individuals and families, parish councils, liturgy committees, social concern entities, youth groups, and other parish organizations to undertake the special effort necessary to learn about the cultures in their midst and to exchange visits with worship communities and parishes where different cultural groups make their homes. Special events such as international dinners, common social events, and multicultural parish feasts can help to introduce the various members of the parish to other cultures and can lead to greater exchanges between groups. The parish is encouraged to sponsor forums in which members of different cultures can openly share their unique backgrounds and identify areas of unity.

Both on parish and diocesan levels, the presence of brothers and sisters from different cultures should be celebrated as a gift to the Church through well-prepared liturgies, lay leadership development programs inclusive of all, the appointment of prepared leaders of newcomer communities to parish and diocesan positions, and special efforts to help youth find their way as they experience themselves often torn between two cultures.

Throughout the country, the liturgy and church decor increasingly reflect the cultural gifts of the newcomers, with their own images of Mary and the saints, their songs, and their distinctive celebrations taking their place alongside those of older generations of immigrants. The profile provided regarding the newcomers who are Catholic should not minimize the Church's overwhelming concern for all new arrivals, regardless of their religious tradition or lack of one.

In November 2000, the Bishops of the United States issued a pastoral statement entitled, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity. Designed for pastors, lay ministers and Catholic faithful at the diocesan and parish levels, this document challenges us to prepare to receive newcomers with a genuine spirit of welcome.


“When workers come from another country or district and contribute to the economic advancement of a nation or region by their labor, all discrimination as regards wages and working conditions must be carefully avoided. All the people, moreover, above all the public authorities, must treat them not as mere tools of production but as persons, and must help them to bring their families to live with them and to provide themselves with a decent dwelling; they must also see to it that these workers are incorporated into the social life of the country or region that receives them”.

Gaudium et Spes
Second Vatican Council, 1965

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to welcoming the stranger is that many Americans have forgotten their immigrant past. The strangers among us thus bring a richness that we are bound to embrace, for their sake and for our own. The Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction to the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration. Solidarity with migrants and refugees will take many forms, from participating in efforts to ensure that the U.S. government respects the basic human rights of all migrants, to providing direct assistance to them through diocesan and parish programs.

The Catholic bishops have committed themselves to continue to work at the national level to promote recognition of the human rights of all, regardless of their immigration status, and to advance fair and equitable legislation for refugees and prospective immigrants. Present efforts need to be strengthened and supported with new initiatives, both at the local level and at the national level as U.S. immigration law and practice change in the face of changing political pressures and social realities. In particular, Catholic lay people, diocesan officials, and bishops should continue to work together with community organizations, labor unions, and other religious bodies on behalf of the rights of immigrants in the workplace, schools, public services, our legal system, and all levels of government.

Many newcomers to the United States face discrimination in the workplace and on the streets, the constant threat of arrest and deportation, and the fear that they or their children will be denied medical care, education, or job opportunities. Many have lived in the United States for years, establishing roots in their communities, building their families, paying taxes, and contributing to the economy. If arrested and deported, they leave behind children and sometimes spouses who are American citizens. While the changes in the law over the last several years have enabled many in this situation to adjust their status to that of permanent resident, the 1996 immigration legislation made this option more difficult for the vast majority.

Without condoning undocumented migration, the Church supports the human rights of all people and offers them pastoral care, education, and social services, no matter what the circumstances of entry into this country, and it works for the respect of the human dignity of all—especially those who find themselves in desperate circumstances. The bishops recognize that nations have the right to control their borders, but also recognize and strongly assert that all human persons, created as they are in the image of God, possess a fundamental dignity that gives rise to a more compelling claim to the conditions worthy of human life. Accordingly, the Church also advocates legalization opportunities for the maximum number of undocumented persons, particularly those who have built equities and otherwise contributed to their communities.

Immigration policy should be designed to enhance and affirm the basic protection of human dignity. The primary aspects are as follows:

  • Persons fleeing persecution or other refugee-like situations have a special moral standing and thus require special consideration;

  • Workers have the right to work and live without exploitation;

  • Family reunification remains the appropriate basis for just immigration policy;

  • Every effort should be made to encourage and enable highly skilled and educated persons to remain in or return to their homelands;

  • Efforts to stem migration that do not effectively address root causes are not only ineffectual, but permit the continuation of the political, social, and economic inequities that cause it.

Parishioners can play a vital role in learning about domestic and international migration-related issues and raising their voices in defense of those who have no voice and are often denied basic rights and protection under the law.

Social Ministry

“The Church is ever mindful that Jesus Christ was himself a refugee, that as a child he had to flee with his parents from his native land in order to escape persecution. In every age, therefore, the Church feels herself called to help refugees.”

Pope John Paul II
Refugee Center, Morong Philipines February 21, 1981

Refugees are among the world’s most desperate homeless people. Many have faced horrors unimaginable to those of us blessed with freedom. They are individuals and families who have fled their countries of origin “because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

By assisting a refugee, an entire parish works together to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. Helping a refugee begin a new life in your community is one of the most tangible expressions of what our faith calls us to do, and it is social action that brings blessings to refugees and parishioners alike.

Refugees often arrive in this country with few material possessions. Their initial needs are many: they need food, clothing, shelter, jobs, English language instruction, help in adjusting to a new culture, and friendship. Helping to meet these needs may seem overwhelming, but parish volunteers have the support and guidance of professional diocesan resettlement staff to ease the challenges.

Parishioners make a difference in the lives of refugees who resettle in America. Newcomers who have such help become far more comfortable and self-sufficient, more quickly and completely, as they adapt to new surroundings.

Refugees are not the only ones who benefit when Catholics reach out to help them. These are just a few of the blessings that resettlement volunteers often recount:

  • The satisfaction of translating our Catholic beliefs into concrete social action;

  • The joy of helping disenfranchised people succeed in rebuilding their lives and becoming healthy, contributing members of our communities;

  • The privilege of personally observing and learning about other cultures;

  • The solidarity and community building that come from joining hands and forces to live the Gospel message;

  • The knowledge that any time or energy spent in helping a refugee is returned a hundredfold, for God can never be outdone in generosity.

“The refugees were a leaven in our parish life. As we opened our home to them, they opened our eyes and our hearts to God. They were a witness to the larger community that our faith community is larger than our local parish. Those working directly with them will never be the same; in giving, we received.”

—Rev. Msgr. Russell Bleich
St. Edward Parish, Waterloo, Iowa