Pontifical Council for the Pastoral
Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

Round-Table (I) 

The Meeting of Cultures and Its Impact on the Faith and

Values of the Younger Generation of Today: A Pastoral Care Plan

Negative aspects & challenges 


Mr. Michael Galligan-Stierle, Ph.D.

President, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities



With nearly 700,000 international students enrolled in U.S. higher education and over 250,000 U.S. students studying abroad, the U.S. Catholic community is both enriched and extended by the mobility of 950,000 collegians.[1] Because these students have left all things familiar and immersed themselves in another culture, it is only natural that faith and values as expressed in a different culture can be disorienting for the collegian. Consequently, the Catholic campus minister who greets the collegian with the welcoming presence of Christ can be instrumental in helping the international student become grounded in a deeper and fuller appreciation of the Catholic faith.

The 1985 U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter, Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future, specifically mentions international students (31, 35, 80, 83 & 93), and notes the value of building a faith community wherein “members are known by name and new members are welcome.”[2] Engaging in simple acts of hospitality and creating distinctively welcoming programs can aid in the process of faith integration. Creating a safe place to meet and share is essential for the international student.

With more international students studying in the United States than anywhere in the world, U.S. Catholic campus ministers are encouraged to make special accommodations for this significant reality. Pastoral care for Catholic international students is particularly important, as they face “some sense of alienation…and must cope with a new culture.”[3] At its worst, culture shock and secularization “sometimes lead to the loss of faith.”[4] Campus ministers are encouraged to strengthen their pastoral programs by including recommendations found in the final document of the II World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Foreign Students. Here are a few suggestions:

§         Create a place of meeting, sharing, and openness.

§         Offer liturgies in the language of the international students or, when in the language of the host country, with suitable readings and hymns.

§         Work with the university’s International Student Office, which provides opportunities for cultural integration, as well as help with visas, economic matters, and studies.[5]

In sum, the campus minister is encouraged to imitate the love of Christ for the stranger through hospitality and by creating suitable pastoral programs. In this way, the international student may be afforded the opportunity to integrate his or her new cultural experiences through sharing with Catholic mentors and a faith-filled community. 

Pastoral Care of International Students from a World Community Perspective

International students bring native wisdom, cultural richness, and financial resources to the host community. They often are the best and the brightest, and some come from affluent families. International students studying in the United States contribute $18.8 billion annually to the U.S. economy.[6] However, their intellectual expertise is much more significant than their financial contribution.

Foreign-born students make numerous cultural contributions to U.S. campuses. International student organizations host presentations and themed events on a variety of topics, many times led by students from a specific country or culture. The campus minister who encourages international students to stay “in touch with their cultural backgrounds and their families”[7] reinforces the giftedness of each culture. When the campus minister collaborates closely with the international student advisor, the doors into the lives of these students open readily and opportunities for discussions of faith and values naturally emerge.

The Catholic campus minister is called upon to affirm the pride an international student feels for his or her native country. This affirmation is essential as some international students may be tempted to stay in the United States after their studies conclude, rather than return to their homeland. However, the campus minister is reminded to keep the end goal in mind: “When international students trained on our campuses return to their home country, they carry with them knowledge and skills that can be valuable in promoting progress in their own societies.”[8] Clearly, there are reasons for staying in a host country; the U.S. Congress is, in fact, engaged in ongoing debate about how to make it easier for foreign nationals who earn advanced degrees from American institutions to remain in the United States. Nevertheless, when a student does not return home, his or her country loses a precious resource. Ongoing encouragement to return underlines the reality of a world community beyond the United States.

Encountering international students from Hispanic and Islamic countries offers two critical opportunities that demand attention. Nearly 120,000 international students come from Latin America, Central America, and South America.[9] Many of them are first-generation college students and constitute the largest growing language group seeking higher education in the United States. According to Archbishop J. Michael Miller, religious communities are well-positioned to be missionaries for the immigrant Hispanic community,[10] especially in places that may not welcome Hispanic migrants. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic campus ministers have established outstanding pastoral programs to serve the Hispanic community. For instance, in many communities, a Hispanic Office or a Hispanic contact person can be found on the parish or diocesan level. These representatives often help facilitate Hispanic national and local gatherings for adults and collegians. Other means of establishing an “authentic culture of wisdom” for immigrant Hispanics include supporting festivals, cultural celebrations, and religious events of popular piety (e.g., Mass of Our Lady of Guadalupe). Indeed, some religious orders even hope to create new Catholic colleges in an effort to serve Hispanic students, especially in the U.S. Southwest.

Similarly, the large number of students coming from Islamic-majority countries offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the Muslim faith.[11] Given the continuing struggles in the Middle East, our Judeo-Christian spiritual roots and connection to the region, and the reality that there are over 1 billion Muslims in the world, programs focused on Catholic-Muslim relations should be a priority. Sample initiatives include:

The final report of the II World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Foreign Students suggests that chaplains and pastoral agents “seek time when foreign students can ‘speak about faith with pride’ and humility.”[13] By encouraging international students to participate fully in planning and implementing cultural exchanges, campus worship, and social events, campus ministers give the entire community an opportunity to learn our common Abrahamic roots.  

Pastoral Care of U.S. Students Returning from Study-Abroad Programs

Many U.S. Catholic students choose to study abroad each year.[14] These students afford the Catholic campus minister a unique opportunity for pastoral care both before departing and upon returning.

Because the desire to broaden one’s horizons may motivate study abroad, the Catholic campus minister can introduce the concept of enriching the collegian’s religious and spiritual self while abroad. By engaging in conversation before a student departs, the campus minister can discover the student’s religious interests, and then encourage the student to seek Catholic enrichment opportunities by visiting notable Catholic people and places that match these interests. The student planning to study abroad will also be comforted to know that the campus minister and faith community will keep the student in prayer while away. E-mail communication between the travelling student and the Catholic campus minister is a particularly useful way to deepen the relationship while the student is encountering new experiences.

Once they return to the United States, many students need the assistance of the Catholic campus minister to readjust. Four issues often emerge for the returning student:

  1. Realignment of friendships, because the student now believes that he or she has different values or interests.

  2. Revisiting the role of religion in one’s life, given the wide range of religious practices and beliefs in the world.

  3. Readjusting to the fast-paced, work-focused U.S. society.

  4. Reassessment of U.S. culture, which values the acquisition of material objects.

By listening and helping the returning student reevaluate his or her values and lifestyle, the campus minister provides a precious service to returning students who are in the midst of a transformational life moment.

Students studying abroad often encounter something significantly different, which is sometimes identified as “the other.” This encounter with “the other,” such as another culture,  value system, or significant person, can cause collegians to rethink their place in the world. This experience can lead returning U.S. students to become redirected and, sometimes, more focused and serious regarding study, life ambition, or relationships.[15] The Catholic campus minister may be called upon to assist students in rethinking their academic major, a post-graduation volunteer experience, familial and university relationships, or even the meaning of life.

While parents of study-abroad students often become concerned with the changes taking place within their child, these collegians are engaged in a significant life experience as they "move through autonomy toward interdependence."[16] The study-abroad experience should assist individuals who leave their familiar surroundings to stand on their own and see themselves in relation to the global community. 


Catholic campus ministers are encouraged to design a pastoral plan that incorporates these cultural dimensions:

  1. Welcome the international student as Christ.
  2. Empower international students to see themselves as a resource by returning to their homeland upon completion of their studies.
  3. Create opportunities of celebration for Hispanic Catholic students.
  4. Initiate opportunities of dialogue between the Catholic and Muslim faith communities.
  5. Recognize the unique struggles of American students returning from international study.
By using Empowered by the Spirit and the final report of the II World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Foreign Students as guides, the Catholic campus minister discovers a variety of ways to encourage, create, and initiate pastoral programs for international students. Most importantly, the Catholic community on campus is encouraged to discover ways to work with the university’s international student office, and where possible, assign a campus minister for the pastoral care of international students.[17]

[1] Institute of International Education, Open Doors 2010: Fast Facts. See http://www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Publications/~/media/Files/Corporate/Open-Doors/Fast-Facts/Fast%20Facts%202010.ashx. (Total Americans studying abroad during the 2008–09 academic year: 260,327; total international students studying in the United States during the 2009–10 academic year: 690,923.)

[2] U.S. Bishops, Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC: 2002, 23.

[3] U.S. Bishops, Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future.

[4] II World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Foreign Students, Final Document: People on the Move MMV (103, MMVII), 145-152.

[5] II World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Foreign Students, Final Document.

[6] See NAFSA, “International Students Contribute $18.8 Billion to U.S. Economy,” http://www.nafsa.org/publicpolicy/default.aspx?id=23158.

[7] U.S. Bishops, Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future.

[8] U.S. Bishops, Empowered by the Spirit: Campus Ministry Faces the Future.

[9] Mexico (13,450 students), Brazil (8,786 students – note, not Spanish speaking!), Colombia (6,920 students), Venezuela (4,958 students), and Peru (3,279 students) are the top five countries of origin for international students from Central and South America studying in the United States. See the Institute of International Education, Open Doors Data, International Students: All Places of Origin, http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/International-Students/All-Places-of-Origin/2008-10.

[10] Miller, J. M. The Pastoral Care of Foreign Students: Evangelization, Dialogue and Proclamation, 49-68.

[11] See Institute of International Education, Open Doors Data, International Students: All Places of Origin.

[12] Block E., Muslim and Non-Muslim College Students Share a Day of Fasting: Fast-a-Thon raises Ramadan awareness, collects money for the hungry, U.S. Department of State, Nov. 8, 2004, http://usinfo.state.gov/mena/Archive/2004/Nov/08-485710.html.

[13] II World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Foreign Students, Final Document.

[14] The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 2003, 33% of U.S. students engaged in study-abroad programs were Catholic. See http://chronicle.com/prm/weekly/almanac/2003/nation/0101601.htm.

[15] Parks, S., Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2000, 221.

[16] Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L., Education and Identity (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 1993.

[17] Sections of this article were published in IMCS in 2006 under the title Welcoming, Encouraging and Dialoguing with the International Student. Portions reprinted here with permission.