Msgr. Vitillo delivers keynote address


Msgr. Vitillo Shares Catholic Responses to Forced Displacement

By: Domenic De Santes

October 20, 2022

Georgetown welcomed Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission, for a September 21 address and discussion on what Catholic social teaching means for responding to refugees and other displaced people, with a particular focus on Ukraine.

Monsignor Vitillo, a trained social worker with years of experience working with refugees in positions at Catholic Charities and Caritas International, currently chairs a Working Group of Global Catholic Humanitarian agencies responding to Ukraine.

The event was co-sponsored by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Center for Faith and Justice, Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, and Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM). ISIM Director Elizabeth Ferris offered the introduction. After Msgr. Vitello’s remarks, Berkley Center Senior Fellow Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., who is also the Pedro Arrupe Distinguished Research Professor in the School of Foreign Service, moderated the discussion.​

Welcoming the Stranger

Monsignor Vitillo described how supporting displaced peoples and welcoming the stranger is an ancient and universal social value affirmed by Christian tradition and also today by international agreements and legal structures. 

Vitillo, who previously served as international delegate to the United Nations for Caritas International, explained that many of these international legal instruments are housed under the UN. He also emphasized the importance of regional accords.

“Some of those regional accords are much better than the international accords that we have under the UN. In some cases, their instruments represent binding obligations for signatory governments. In other cases, they have been developed as guidelines for practice, and depend on the political will of the associated governments.”

The imperative to welcome the stranger and provide hospitality to those fleeing persecution and violence is also central to Christian scriptures, more recently found in numerous papal encyclicals from Pius XII through Francis. Pope Francis sets an example for all Catholics as a communicator par excellence on migration who is “an active witness of how to put the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan into practice by his travel to Lampedusa,” remarked Vitillo, referencing the pope’s first papal visit outside of Rome to Lampedusa in 2013 in support of migrants from North Africa. 

Catholic Social Teaching in Action

Drawing on those foundational values in Catholic social teaching, Monsignor Vitillo outlined an action-oriented framework for responding to human forced migration in all parts of the world: welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating. Msgr. Vitillo referred to these four verbs of migration responses as a “theme song of Pope Francis” that is often used by those involved in the Church’s work on these issues. 

“Real integration is mutually beneficial to the hosts and the migrants themselves,” according to Vitillo.

You give migrants some of your resources, but they bring so much to you. Their faith, their values, their hard work. The greater participation of refugees enriches the local communities.

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), headquartered in Geneva and led by Vitello, has an established network and accountability program with national bishops’ conferences, but it also does its own fieldwork with migrants. The ICMC was especially active in integrating migrants in the United States after the Vietnam War and war in Afghanistan. 

Monsignor Vitillo also pointed to ICMC’s ongoing work to promote the inclusion of migrants in state services for education, health, and well-being, guided by the theme “Care is work, work is care.” 

Responding to War in Ukraine

As chair of the Working Group of Global Catholic Humanitarian agencies responding to Ukraine, Msgr. Vitillo has been coordinating with the bishops’ conferences on how they can support Ukrainian people in the face of the war and forced migration. Msgr. Vitillo has also spoken at the EU Parliament and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Synod of Bishops to promote welcome for refugee and displaced Ukrainians. 

Vitillo emphasized expanding work in countries that surround Ukraine, such as Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. Some of these countries would not take part in the refugee services previously, explained Msgr. Vitillo, but they are now open to Ukrainian migrants.

Hopefully, this will be a door, an opening in their hearts, to receive other migrants some day as well.

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