The Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants is scheduled to have its annual meeting on April 25-26 in Sibu, in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. Approximately 28 leaders from 11 dioceses covering Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are gathering to evaluate, deliberate and plan the commission's direction and activities. It promises to be an exciting event, more so because new commission members have been recently appointed in several dioceses. The commission was initiated under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei in November 1996 but remained virtually dormant until its current president, Bishop Paul Tan of Melaka-Johor, in January 2009 called for a meeting of representatives from the 11 dioceses that come under the regional bishops’ conference. The meeting produced the first election of the Executive Committee that was tasked with seeing to the setup and functioning of the commission proper. Since then, much has been done to ensure that the aims and objectives of the bishops are carried out in favour of migrants in the region. The commission has been working quietly behind the scenes to ensure that the Catholic Church in these three countries is better equipped to serve migrants who have come in large numbers. The first objective of the commission is to serve as a forum for representatives of the 11 dioceses to collaborate in addressing migration issues. It also aims to create awareness of the plight of migrants and make available training and formation programs for Catholics who are interested in serving migrants in their respective dioceses or parishes. Another objective is to assert the official position of the Church in contemporary migration situations, as well as network with other like-minded organizations – NGOs, governmental agencies, and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. One of the first things the commission embarked on after its revival in 2009 was to draw up guidelines on the role of the diocesan offices or agencies charged by their respective bishops to look into the pastoral care of migrants in their areas. The project, which took approximately a year to complete, saw the publishing of the 103-page Diocesan Migrant Ministry Guidelines and its distribution to all 11 dioceses. The guidelines comprehensively state the distinctive role of the diocesan agencies, enumerates its relationships with parish-based organizations and even offers ideas for staff recruitment and funding options. In November 2009, the commission for the very first time organized the Exodus Camp, when more than 60 Catholics involved in parish-based migrant ministries came together at the Majodi Centre in Johor for three days to share and learn from each other. The program was an instant hit, and was organized again in December 2010, as Exodus 2, in Cameron Highlands. Exodus 3 will be offered in December 2012 in East Malaysia. An important feature is the presence of consultants in its executive committee appointed by the president to advice the commission on specific issues. One such is a media consultant who has successfully begun and maintained a regular flow of migration related information in most major Catholic publications. This is geared to meet one of the commission’s objectives of creating awareness among the Catholic population on the plight of migrants in this region. The commission has also worked tirelessly to promote the development of parish-based migrant ministries that are better placed and equipped to respond to migrants who come to the parish church or its vicinity. The parish is also where Catholics meet, pray and come for formation. Thus, how effective the Catholic Church is in reaching out to migrants depends substantially on the efficacy of its numerous Parish Migrant Ministries. To this end, the Diocesan Migrant Ministry Guidelines devotes a whole chapter to encouraging dioceses to set up and actively support Parish Migrant Ministries. Furthermore, the development of Parish Migrant Ministries features prominently in all of the commission's annual conferences. Each diocesan representative is required to make a written and verbal report as to efforts made to promote and develop Parish Migrant Ministries. In the three years since the commission was revived, it has met its fair share of challenges. The first being the diversity within which it is required to operate. The 11 dioceses are spread over three different countries with different cultures, economies, forms of migration and associated problems. In fact, the variation is apparent even when comparing East and West Malaysia. Another challenge is the different pace at which the dioceses operate and function. Some are able to immediately implement decisions and plans while others take a bit longer depending on the availability of human and financial resources. The commission has plans to further expand its activities and influence. Among its plans for the future is the establishment of a fully operational office from which all activities may be coordinated. It also envisages that the commission will begin to collaborate with other commissions of similar nature in neighboring bishops’ conferences. It is also hoped that each diocese will continue to embrace its role as the catalyst and prime mover of the development of Parish Migrant Ministries around the country. The development of such ministries is pivotal in ensuring a sustainable and effective outreach to deserving migrants. To this end, it is expected that the coming meeting in Sibu would see fresh perspectives and outside-the-box ideas to be tabled for discussion and debate. While it is acknowledged that the revived commission is still in its infancy, its commitment to the betterment of migrants in the region is unquestionable. With the blessings of God and guidance of Bishop Paul Tan, the commission is set to be an instrument of God’s transformative love. Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has served the Catholic Diocese of Penang for over 10 years. He is now chairperson of the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants (EMI) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
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