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Vol 37 No 3



John Leary

John Wilcken SJ

Tony Paganoni CS

Andrew Murray SM

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


The Italian Experience


Fr Tony Paganoni CS has just published his book entitled Valiant Struggles Benign Neglect. Italians, Church and Religious Societies in Diaspora. The Australian Experience from 1950 to 2000.1 We asked him to share with us some of his pastoral insights.

NO MATTER HOW thorough one has been in researching a specific subject, no matter how accurately the data has been described and interpreted, there remains, even in the best of circumstances, the gnawing feeling that further investigations could have been carried out, more insights could have been gleaned from extra archival search and additional light thrown on a particular event and/or person.

This is true in normal circumstances. It is even more valid in some fields of inquiry—and migrant and ethnic ministry is, without any doubt, one of them—where the evidence is often scattered and interspersed among the more pressing issues of the world in which we live or of the Church we are all trying to serve. Migrants are very much birds of passage, from one nation to another or multiple others, from one culture to multiple others, and from one world view to a mosaic of world views of unparalleled balance and beauty. We often refer to the concept of cross-fertilisation of ideas and ideals, of different modes of living one’s existence and one’s own relationship with the transcendent, or in the case of Christianity, with an ever-present Paternal Father.

The many unresolved issues, the countless details that could have been given much more comprehensive treatment, and perhaps a closer configuration of the many faces and actors comprising the cast of human events and episodes in the past, along with the sense of achievement and satisfaction that flows from a fait accompli, all evolve in the course of time into a mix of feelings and reactions that propel the mind into taking stock and distancing itself from recent engagements—in my case, from Valiant Struggles Benign Neglect. Italians, Church and Religious Societies in Diaspora, the Australian Experience from 1950 till 2000.

Yet, there is a fact that remains indisputable: there are imbalances that need to be addressed over time; there is ample space, at least in one’s own consciousness, to pose further questions and widen the boundaries of one’s own understanding of the dynamic relationship that has existed, in so many shapes and forms, between the second most numerous Catholic migrant grouping, and the Church in Australia and the many Religious Societies that, over the years, have ministered to the Italian diasporas, both worldwide and nationally.

Pastoral Insights

The first and most obvious insight, to my mind, is that the ethnic ministry cannot be guided by highly-regimented principles and assumptions which in due course may turn out to be simple delusions. While we need abstract statements of intent and purpose as well as relevant and consequential guidelines and orientations in providing pastoral care for migrants, it is also important to be attentive to the needs of the person who is being cared for. The urgency of keeping in touch with the baseline cannot be sufficiently stressed today, when the movement of people across national boundaries has risen to gigantic proportions. On the basis of detailed reports from the countries concerned, the International Labour Organisation in Geneva (ILO) estimates that there are approximately 160 million migrants and refugees on the move.

Because of the volatile and ever-changing mindset in which the migrant or refugee person finds him or herself at any given stage of the unchartered journey into the new frontiers of the very delicate process of integration, the carer ought to pay close attention to how strategies and programs impact on the individual migrant or migrant communities.

Church leaders, migrant chaplains and pastoral workers must be perennially checking the pulse of migrants’ sensitivities, moods, anxieties, achievements and setbacks. Too often official statements and pastoral strategies—and field workers themselves—run the risk of losing contact with the human realities they are supposed to address, simply because they attempt to apply a remedy that is not needed any longer, or, worse still, was never expected or required.

That the pace of change may overtake even the best programs is to be expected in the world of international migrations. The continuing unsuccessful attempts by the industrialised nations to stamp out highly illegal recruitment practices in many Third World Countries, and the clandestine movements of both migrants and refugees, is a clear indication that a lot more cooperation between non-governmental organisations, private institutions and national governments must be placed on the political agenda. Traditional, one-dimensional ad hoc policy responses are proving inadequate. More governments are now recognising that the way forward in an increasingly mobile world may lie in a multi-dimensional approach to migration management that benefits individuals and society, while minimising irregular and abusive types of migration.

What should be avoided is distancing oneself from the migrants’ goals, that is devising statements that, while reiterating former policies and practices or testing new ones, may turn out to be devoid of any relevance to the people that the Church, or any other institution, is called upon to help. We know the results of statements and programs that are never subjected to the close scrutiny of social science, that are not assessed in relation to their beneficial influence on the very people for whom they were written or devised. The central mystery of the Incarnation seems to suggest that the dispensation and economy of the plan of salvation must be mediated by human agents. In our case, if we lose touch with the God who journeys with His own people, we lose contact with the very mission that God has entrusted to us, as His ministers in the world. Unknowingly, we may end up building and thriving on a world of illusions, and being indirectly responsible for the hardships we are meant to remedy.


The second point is that the migrants are carriers of ‘treasures’ and their worth cannot be measured on the basis of catering for their immediate needs. And usually these are many. If the migrant or refugee is identified with the notion of physical, emotional and social necessities, the giftedness of the migrant person will be sidelined and his or her value-system disregarded and, in some circumstances, nullified.

I remember what a bishop from the Philippines used to tell me. His diocese was in one of the poorest and most depressed areas of the Philippines. To sustain his social projects, he had become largely dependent on generous donors from Europe, particularly from Germany. While grateful for all the help given by many Catholics living in affluent countries, he was still at a loss to know how he could convince the funding agencies and First World Catholic communities that any help given was not a one-way street, but a two-way channel. Even the recipients could help the donors to appreciate cultural practices and customs that could be of benefit to their well-being. The donor mentality of having to fill a vacuum, of having to give, without the possibility of receiving from their beneficiaries was an eternal challenge and dilemma for the Philippine bishop.

In the field of pastoral care for migrants, a greater sensitivity could perhaps be fostered by engaging in an exercise of self-examination, an introspective analysis of how the two parties, both the donor and the recipient, interact and in the process become instrumental in mutually enriching one another. Some people have gone so far as to espouse the view that a theology of migrations could be formulated.2

Talking of a theology with regard to migrants may seem surprising. Yet, according to biblical revelation, God speaks through the whole of creation and a divine plan of salvation is accomplished in all human events. It is the duty of Church leaders and ministers to discern God’s transcendent design also in the human and historical phenomena of migrations and to survey their role in the general plan of salvation. This is what could loosely be called a ‘theology of migrations’. It aims at initiating the reading of international migrations, or some aspects of them, in the light of humankind’s supreme destiny and ultimate vocation, as disclosed to us by Revelation.

A theological reading takes place at a different level from a sociological or a political reading of the same facts. It is not just a question of understanding the appeal to a ‘God-truth’ as a source of unity and meaning of history, but of deriving inspiration from the example of the prophets and their readiness to recognise the voice of God in specific events and adapt their message to them.

Though theologians, sociologists and political scientists address themselves to the same phenomena, they aim at clarifying different dimensions of a single reality, dimensions which must be harmonised but not confused. The ways of God are accomplished in the ways of men and women, but are not identical with them. God’s justice may even be accomplished through human injustice, just as the act of our supreme redemption was accomplished by means of Judas’ sin.

Perhaps a further question could be elicited from these initial considerations: is a genuinely pastoral approach to migrations, or effective pastoral action, possible without a true theology corresponding to them?

Theologising on an ever-changeable phenomenon such as international migrations implies a good grasp of the historical character of Revelation and the equally dynamic concept of Tradition. The communion of life and love that Revelation establishes between God who reveals Himself and those who believe, is all history in the making, with the old, its fleeting moments, and the new which is always emerging mixing together so much of what is human with what is divine. A sort of stretched out Pentecost! Event and word, doctrine and life are inseparably linked from the Old Testament times and succeed each other in a single process which is centred and personified in Jesus Christ, but which remains open-ended.

The deposit of faith must be continually explored in study and contemplation, both in practical life and official proclamation. And this is necessary ‘in good times and in bad’, when everything seems to be going well and also when relationships hit the rocks of misunderstandings and tensions. As Populorum Progressio (par. 10) states, migrations reinforce the unity of the human family on a global scale, but in the process cause suspicion, rivalry and conflicts. Perhaps at no other time in the history of the Church has the call to universality been more pertinent. International migrations offer the Church an historical opportunity to exercise its unifying power in the common Spirit that binds us all.

The Italian Experience In Australia And The New Migrant Groups

In looking at the dynamic relationship that has resulted from over a century of migrations from Italy to many regions of the world, and more specifically to Australia over the latter half of the past century, one cannot isolate that experience from the experience of other Catholic migrants who have settled in Australia. All are migrants and all have initiated a process of integration, in their own way and from a different language and cultural perspective, which will eventually see them at some future stage joining hands in marriage or in business or in politics.

There are, however, some striking differences in the possible outcome regarding their perception of a sense of belonging to the same Church.

Broadly speaking, the Irish migrants brought with them bishops and priests, and in the course of time were instrumental in creating, out of their meagre savings, much of what constitutes the present structure of the Church, that is, a formidable network of churches, schools, orphanages, hospitals, hostels and a host of Church-oriented organisations, which were particularly active until the Second World War.

The massive number of Italians arriving after the Second World War found that physical structures were already in place and that they were asked to contribute to the expansion of this network. Their mixed reaction was understandable, as their previous experiences with Church and Church-related agencies had been premised on voluntary donations. Perhaps not enough time and effort was devoted to explaining to the new ‘guests’ how and why the whole array of facilities had come about; perhaps the new ‘guests’ were bringing with them a whole new set of aspirations, which as time passed would materialise in the construction of social clubs and in the creation of lay organisations, which, both in and out of the Church, would serve to engender a feeling of cohesiveness.

However, the Italian experience of the last fifty years in Australia would never reach the level of physical output, nor the crusading mentality, that had characterised the presence of the Irish in Australia. In the case of the Italians, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Italy was never urged to care for its own nationals who had emigrated to Australia. In collaboration with local churches, the Italian bishops were responsible for staffing a network of Italian Catholic missions in many Northern European countries (e.g. Germany, Switzerland, England, Belgium, France) since the conclusion of the Second World War. They are still in place, though in decreasing numbers.

Church leaders in Australia supported the view that Italians, and other European Catholic migrants along with them, would soon be assimilated into the mainstream of Australian Catholic life. The religious needs of Italian migrants would be cared for by Religious Congregations, which had come from Italy for this specific purpose or had decided to act so by choice or because some of their members had begun to heed the plight of Italian settlers in Australia. The settlers’ sense of belonging to the Church was reaffirmed and reinforced through the convergence of efforts by congregations, and by local clergy who, benefiting from their period of studies in Italy, had engaged their pastoral energies in serving the Italians, and, in most cases, by the passive acceptance of some of their customs, as exemplified in the celebration of funerals and remembrance Masses and, peculiarly of Saints’ festivals.

All in all, after half a century, speaking at the level of at least nominal adherence to Catholicism, one cannot but express satisfaction at the Italians’ level of retention.

In the post-war period, more than any other immigrant group, it is the Italian Catholics who have made Roman Catholicism the largest religious group in Australia. And they have remained remarkably loyal. Of the total number of Italian-born in Australia, over 95% are Catholic, a figure marginally ahead of Maltese and considerably better than other comparable groups such as the Filipinos, the Irish and the Chileans. They are unlike the Latin American groups, ten percent of whom within two years of their arrival had changed their religion.3

Minority groups, such as the Latin Americans (Chileans, Salvadorenos, Columbians, Argentinians, Brazilians etc., all speaking Spanish, yet with different historical and cultural backgrounds), Asians (Indonesians, Filipinos, Chinese, Indians, Sri Lankans etc., all with their own language and cultural traditions) and Africans share one thing in common. They all come from young and/or relatively recently-established Churches, with a shortage of indigenous priests. While there are signs that the situation may improve in the future, their local Churches’ dependence on priestly and religious personnel born and trained in Europe and North America is a fact.

The early Irish settlers were accompanied by their own priests and bishops, when Ireland could very well spare them. The Italians were joined by members of Religious Congregations or local priests acquainted with both their language and culture. The newer groups run the risk of having to cope on their own, with very little support, in terms of personnel coming from the Church of their home country or being assigned from the Catholic Church that is in Australia to look after their spiritual needs.

It is true that a good proportion of students in Australian seminaries hails from Asian, Latin American and African countries and a good number of them are recruited from the country of origin. I believe, however, that their future deployment will follow the present pattern of assigning them to parish duties with little or no regard for the people who nurtured their vocation.

Because of their limited number, these newer groups of migrants will find it very laborious indeed to build and run facilities (clubs, homes for the elderly, etc.) to cater for their social and recreational needs, as the much larger Italian community has done.

The smaller the group, the greater the need to maintain a sufficient level of social cohesiveness. Social disintegration, with its inevitable fragmentation of extended family loyalties and community support groups, will spell danger also for the Catholic Church. Already some worrying signs have appeared on the walls of homes inhabited by the newer waves of Catholic migrants, who are being lured by the strong proselytism of Protestant groups.


History can give some insights, but not ready-made solutions. A migrant, any migrant, is vulnerable for multiple reasons. If deprived of sympathetic Church workers, the migrant will find it rather strenuous and burdensome to retain a socio-cultural heritage. It is equally hard to imagine at the moment that the Church in Australia, in coping with so many problems of credibility, will show sufficient organizational and administrative flexibility to attend to so many cultures in its midst.

There was a time when the Catholic Church in Australia was fairly confident of defending itself from both secularised Protestantism and the ideology of consumerism. Then Catholic European migrants, along with the new winds of the Second Vatican Council, came to disturb a relative complacency, born out of indescribable struggles. By challenging the Irish hegemony, the Italians and other European migrants added substance and meaning to the words diversity and Catholicity. Undoubtedly, this is a field that needs a lot more investigation and closer scrutiny.

After the major turning point in immigration policies initiated by the Labor government in the early 1970s, the Catholic landscape in Australia has been further enriched and diversified. Now, as Pope Paul VI remarked very wisely: ‘New needs demand new strategies’.

Tony Paganoni is Episcopal Vicar for Migrants, Archdiocese of Perth. He has worked in the USA, England, the Philippines and Australia. He has published widely on aspects of international migration.


1. Tony Paganoni CS, Valiant Struggles Benign Neglect. Italians, Church and Religious Societies in Diaspora. The Australian Experience from 1950 to 2000. The Center For Migration Studies, Staten Island, New York. Distributed by Fr Adrian Pittarello CS, 378 Nicholson St., North Fitzroy 3068. (See Compass 2003/2, p. 47.)

2. Giacomo Danesi, ‘Towards a Theology of Migration’, in Migrations. Interdisciplinary Studies, Vol. 1, Pontifical Commission for the pastoral care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Vatican City, 1985, pp. 27-101; and the significant anthology of essays, written in several languages, contained in the two volumes published by the Direzione Generale dei Missionari Scalabriniani, Teologia e Mobilità Umana in Dialogo, 2 vols, Rome 1998, pp. 665. Of interest is also the Scalabrini International Migration Institute, based in Rome.

3. Desmond Cahill, ‘Paradoxes and Predictions: Italians and Catholicism in Multicultural Australia’, in Pietro Genovesi & Walter Musolino (eds), In Search of the Italian Australian into the New Millenium,Gro-set, Thornbury (Vic.), 2000, p. 510.