Vatican Urges Care for Europe’s Despised Gypsies

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

ROME _ Tagged as thieves of everything from money to children, Gypsies have few friends on the streets of Rome.

Despite this reputation, Gypsies’ nomadic lifestyle and mysterious allure have moved community activists to try to protect their unique culture.

Now the Catholic Church is officially defending them as well.

The Vatican on Tuesday (Feb. 28) released new “Guidelines for Pastoral Care of Gypsies,” which outlines how the church should support _ and evangelize _ this nomadic population that numbers 15 million in Europe.

“Humanity is enriched by their (Gypsies’) presence,” said Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People, which issued the document.

“They have a strong sense of belonging, and their way of life is a testimony to a strong interiority with respect to the bonds of consumerism,” Hamao told a Vatican press conference.

Many Gypsies make money as street musicians. Costel Grigora, a 29-year-old Gypsy from Romania, is a tambourine player in a band of three other musicians, all from Romania.

He said that unlike many Gypsies, the traveling band has never experienced prejudice. “We are respected by Italians and foreigners because the only thing that we do is play good music,” said Grigora, who holds out a hat for donations but says that he never hassles or robs people.

Gypsies originated in Northern India a thousand years ago, Hamao said. Most of the approximately 100,000 Gypsies in Italy are from Romania and the former Yugoslavia, according to Carla Ozella, the president of a national association in Italy that has been protecting Gypsies’ rights since 1971.

One-third of these are Catholic, and the rest are divided between Muslims and Orthodox Christians, with 5,000 Pentecostals, she added.

The Catholic Church views the Gypsies as a people who are inherently religious, but for whom religious affiliation is often as transient as the Gypsies themselves, since they tend to adopt the predominant local faith wherever they land.

The document said Gypsies often fall into “sects or new religious groups,” making it more urgent for the church to evangelize them.

Paolo Ciani of the Sant’ Egidio Catholic volunteer organization, who has been working with Gypsies for more than 20 years, said the church has done more for Gypsies than civil society has.

Most importantly, he said, churches have opened their doors to Gypsies. “They celebrate together, perform baptisms together. This is very important. Divisions in society are overcome by coming together, and the church is already ahead,” Ciani said, adding that society mistakenly links deviance among Gypsies to Gypsy culture rather than marginalization by society.

Most Gypsies in Europe live in make-shift camps on the outskirts of large cities. In Italy, they are not protected by a law recognizing minority languages and cultures.

“It is a people that need to be loved because they are often not loved by the people,” said the Rev. Osvaldo Morelli, one of the few diocesan priests in Italy who is also a Gypsy.

The church estimates that there are about 30 Gypsy Catholic priests and nuns in Europe. Two years ago, Rome church leaders inaugurated the first chapel for Gypsies on the site near a Gypsy settlement on the outskirts of Rome. The chapel is dedicated to Ceferino Jimenez Malla, a Gypsy who was was killed in 1936 after defending a priest during the Spanish Civil War; he was beatified in 1997.

The Vatican officially recognized the mission for pastoral care of Gypsies in 1965, following an international pilgrimage of Gypsies to Rome. Hamao said that this pastoral care exists all over Europe, in South America and a few Asian countries.

The church has always emphasized Gypsies’ integration, not their assimilation, Agostino Marchetto, the secretary of the pontifical council, told the conference. “One of the characteristic features of the Catholic Church is respecting and integrating cultures where possible,” Marchetto said.

Local churches have the greatest role to play in evangelization. Monsignor Bruno Nicolini, who coordinates pastoral care of Gypsies in the Diocese of Rome, said one of the most difficult things is combating prejudice among parishioners.

“We need to emphasize their diversity more than their poverty,” he said.

Ozella, of the Gypsies’ rights association, said the Gypsies are also heartened by the document. There are 4,300 Gypsies in her association scattered throughout 59 Italian cities.

“It will allow us to fight the racism against Gypsies within the Catholic community,” said Ozella, a devout Catholic herself who spoke by telephone from Turin.

“We can start to fight the injustices of people who live amongst rats, instead of a charitable approach towards them,” Ozella said.

KRE/JL END CRANEEditors: To obtain a photo of Gypsies in Rome, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug. If searching by subject, designate “exact phrase” for best results.

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