Opening Address at Conference on Gypsy Ministry

«Facilitate a Better Understanding Between Gypsies and the Church»

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ROME, MARCH 2, 2010 ( Here is an unofficial translation of the welcoming address delivered by Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, at the meeting of the national directors for the pastoral care of Gypsies in Europe, which is under way in Rome through Thursday.

* * *

Your Excellencies,
Reverends and National Directors,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

With great pleasure I extend my warmest welcome to all of you, gathered here for this Meeting of National Directors for the Pastoral Care of Gypsies in Europe. I wish to thank you for having accepted our invitation to reflect together on the Church’s Solicitude for Gypsies: situation and prospects. We are united by our common desire to permit our brothers and sisters among the Roma, Sinti, Manousche, Calò, and Gypsies in general and other Traveling People a greater participation in the life and richness of the Church and, vice versa, to make the Church more present in their midst. I hope that these days of study and discussion, as well as of prayer, will prove rewarding for your apostolate.

First of all I wish to offer thanks to God for giving me this opportunity to get to know each of you personally and express to you my gratitude and admiration for the dedication and interest with which you perform your task. I am confident this meeting will strengthen the bonds between you and lead to an even more efficient collaboration with the Office of the Roman Curia whose President I have been for a year now.  

The aim of the present meeting is to examine the specific field of pastoral care in question in our time, define its priorities and formulate proposals for more effective coordination between the local European Churches and the various ecclesial and civil organizations that work tirelessly on behalf of gypsies. With the support of your experience, we will try to find new methods and approaches, without ignoring the tried and tested methods of the past, to facilitate a better understanding between gypsies and the Church, in the way that John Paul II encouraged us to do at the end of the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 when he invited us to «put out into the deep» («Duc in altum»), to «remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm and look forward to the future with confidence,»[1] and also to ask for forgiveness.

1. Remembering the past with gratitude

The history of gypsies, ever since their arrival in Europe, has been «sadly marked by rejection and persecution, culminating in the Nazi genocide, revived in the policies of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and persisting in the current and widespread conditions of ‘social sin’, resulting from exclusion and marginalization. In this history, the Church has had her own culpability, direct or indirect, whether in the form of open condemnation or silence, at times interpreted as connivance. An examination of the scale and limitations of the Church’s responsibility in this field will reveal many dark sides but also luminous examples of Christians who, by their life and by their actions, have marked the journey of ‘conversion’ and ‘reconciliation’ towards a change in the Church’s attitude towards gypsies.»[2]

It is worth recalling here an event that is of particular importance and significance for the positive development of relations between the Church and gypsies, and that is deeply rooted in the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II. I refer to Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to the gypsy encampment at Pomezia on 26 September 1965 on the occasion of their international pilgrimage to Rome. He celebrated Holy Mass there and in his homily traced a program of faith and commitment for the gypsy people and with words of affection introduced them into the very heart of the Church: «Here [in the Church] you are warmly welcome, here you are awaited, greeted, celebrated […] Today you, as perhaps never before, are discovering the Church. In the Church you are not on the margins, but, in some respects, you are the centre, you are the heart. You are in the heart of the Church, [that] loves the poor, the suffering, the lowest, the disinherited, and the abandoned.»[3]

Only genuine love for man, as well as for God, and the recognition of human dignity, could have inspired Paul VI to make this unique and historic gesture on behalf of gypsies: «Here you are making a new experience: you are finding someone who feels affection for you, who esteems you, appreciates you and helps you.»[4] This visit made manifest to them the solicitude of the Church, in whose heart there must be «no inequality arising from race or nationality, social condition or sex,»[5] nor any «discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, colour, social conditions, language or religion […] as incompatible with God’s design.»[6]

Paul VI’s work of love was resumed by Pope John Paul II, who, on 12 March 2000, with an historic gesture of reparation, an intensely evangelical act of courage and humility, solemnly asked for forgiveness for the sins committed by the sons of the Church in the past; sins that continue, unfortunately, to cast their shadow also over the present. A new journey of dialogue and reconciliation between Church and gypsies thus began.[7]

Three years earlier, on 7 May 1997, Pope John Paul II had beatified a gypsy martyr: the Spaniard Ceferino Giménez Malla, thus recognizing the potential for sainthood of the ethnic group to which he belonged.

The three episodes I have just recalled accurately reflect the renewed ecclesiology that the Second Vatican Council developed, thus giving rise to a renewal in the evangelization of gypsies, which is also your apostolate.

We would not be mistaken — I think — in saying that Paul VI, in his address at the conclusion of the Council, summed up in an extraordinarily prescient way a fundamental aspect of Vatican II’s ecclesiology, as follows: «Never before, perhaps, so much as on this occasion, has the Church felt the need to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve and evangelize the society in which she lives; and to get to grips with it, almost to run after it, in its rapid and continuous change.»[8] The Church wished to make her voice heard and understood by everyone, inasmuch as her doctrinal richness is addressed at serving man in every condition, infirmity and need. The Church is the «servant of humanity.»[9]

No less sensitive to the problems and miseries of social life was Paul’s VI’s predecessor, John XXIII, solicitous in fostering the Church’s mission to «revivify, teach and pray». He called for a more dignified, just and meritorious earthly existence for everyone, distinguished by brotherhood and love as natural needs of man and as the rule of human and social relations between the various ethnic groups. The Church, he taught, is called to denounce injustices and shameful inequalities, so that the life of man may become more human.

2. Living the present with enthusiasm

The legacy of the Council and of the papal teachings thus requires from us an ‘examination of conscience’ on our fidelity to the vocation and mission that the Church has entrusted to us «to be the Church of everyone, and particularly the Church of the poor.»[10] It compels us to verify our capacity to be welcoming, to listen and to serve, and our duty to condemn every form of discrimination and intolerance, violation of rights and contempt for human dignity.

Of course, today gypsies are no longer abandoned to themselves, no longer ignored, as they were in the past. Many international and national organizations, whether dedicated specifically to their problems or not, operate for their human, social, cultural and religious promotion. The Council of Europe, the European Union and the European Parliament issue many resolutions and recommendations aimed at safeguarding their fundamental rights; they promote various programs that offer young Roma, Sinti and Travelers m
any opportunities for professional training and integral development. Numerous forms of international cultural cooperation and various initiatives aimed at social inclusion have also been adopted.

However, the fact remains that a large part of gypsies are, unfortunately, still excluded from such benefits. Many are forced to live in conditions of poverty. Others encounter difficulties in reaching the heart of the Church due to prejudices and stereotypes, sometimes so firmly rooted in society as to preclude the development and maturation of attitudes of openness, acceptance, solidarity and respect. In addition, phenomena of racism, xenophobia and «anti-tziganism» too often hamper a peaceful, human and democratic community life. At the same time, however, we cannot overlook the responsibilities of gypsies themselves in their sometimes negative attitudes to the environments in which they live. It needs to be recalled, in other words, that they too must assume the duties incumbent on all the citizens of the countries in which they live.

To pave the way that leads to a real culture of communion, and the hoped-for spirituality of charity that goes with it,[11] we need to let ourselves be guided by «love [that] is rich in intelligence and intelligence [that] is full of love» as Pope Benedict XVI writes in his Encyclical «Caritas in Veritate» (No. 30). For only «he who is animated by true charity labors skillfully to discover the causes of misery, to find the means to combat it, [and] to overcome it resolutely,»[12] as attested by Pope Paul VI. Reconciliation, the search to understand real situations of life, the common effort to respect and observe the rules and norms of coordination and integration, as embodied and reaffirmed in international assemblies, are principles that hold good in the relations between Church and gypsies and between gypsies and civil society in contemporary Europe, in a phase of transformation and growth.

These principles are enshrined in our Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of Gypsies, the first Document of universal application in the Catholic Church. Its publication «is intended to be an unequivocal reaffirmation of the Church’s commitment to the benefit of this population. New paths to be taken are proposed in various countries and particular Churches, in order to open up communities to these brothers and sisters. General pastoral criteria regarding action and goals to be achieved are also laid down.»[13] So this Document marks an important moment in the history of evangelization and human promotion to the benefit of gypsies, following Paul VI’s historic meeting at Pomezia, as I mentioned before.

Your participation in the present meeting, as representatives of local Churches, international organizations, and religious congregations and institutes is for us a source of great joy and confidence and is a good sign that the ‘compass’ entrusted by Paul VI to the gypsy people and to the pastoral workers who accompanied them, at Pomezia forty-five years ago, continues to guide the Church’s commitment with unwavering solicitude today.

3. Looking forward to the future with confidence

Reflecting on this mission in a more limited context, that of Europe, I think it worthwhile to refer to what guidance is offered to us in this regard by John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa.

So, «if we look at Europe as a civil community — we read in no. 12 — signs of hope are not lacking.»[14] And the Synod Fathers saw these signs in «the growing openness of peoples to one another, the reconciliation between countries which have long been hostile to each other» and «the progressive opening up of the countries of Eastern Europe in the process of seeking deeper unity». Moreover, «mutual recognition, forms of cooperation and exchange of all sorts are being developed in such a way that little by little a culture, indeed a European consciousness, is being created» which helps to encourage, especially among the young, a sense of fraternity and a willingness to share. The Synodal Fathers registered as a positive factor that «the whole of this process is developing according to democratic procedures, in a peaceful way and in the spirit of freedom». They also welcomed with satisfaction «all that has been done to safeguard the conditions and the ways to respect human rights.»[15]

So ways of hope are being opened, as shown by the interest and mobilization of international and national organizations on behalf of gypsies. They are taking on concrete form in the new European strategies and processes of change. The transformations in progress — it is hoped — will help to curb phenomena and acts of racism, ‘anti-tziganism’ and discrimination, and create a new ‘European consciousness’ which may permit Roma, Sinti and other groups of nomads to re-affirm their own identity and cultural diversity, in the framework of civil insertion in their respective countries.

As far as the local Churches are concerned, John Paul II urged that they cannot face alone the challenge that the new European reality poses. There is therefore a need «for genuine cooperation between all the Particular Churches of the Continent as an expression of their essential communion.»[16] In this regard the same Pope asked the local Churches to submit to a logic of an «exchange of gifts» and sharing of common pastoral approaches, as significant expression of the collegial sentiment that links the Bishops of the Continent.[17]

At this point I would like once again to thank the Archbishops and Bishops present here, and also the other Pastors who can’t be with us but who have at heart the destiny of gypsies, as well as the General Secretary of the CCEE, for all their help in deepening the important theme we have chosen for our meeting.

In conclusion, I would like to ask you, dear friends, to bring this message to our gipsy brothers and sisters: we too, today, as once Paul VI, ask of them nothing more from a pastoral point of view than that they «accept the maternal friendship of the Church.»[18]

Thank you.
— — —


[1] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 1: AAS 93 (2001) p. 308.

[2] Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, «Mai più…» discriminazioni e disprezzo verso gli Zingari: published in the series INTERFACE, La Chiesa cattolica e gli Zingari, [Il Centro Stampa, 2000], p. 10.

[3] Paul VI, Homily (26 September 1965): Insegnamenti di Paolo VI,  III (1965), p. 491.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 32: AAS 57 (1965), p. 38.

[6] Idem, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, no. 29: AAS, 58 (1966), pp. 1048-1049.

[7] John Paul II, Day of Forgiveness (12 March 2000): L’Osservatore Romano, no. 61 (42,398), 13-14 March 2000, 7-9.

[8] Paul VI, Address during the last public session of the Second Vatican Council  (7 December 1965): AAS 58 (1966), p. 54.

[9] Ibidem.

[10] John XXIII, Radio Message to the faithful of all the world, a month after the opening of Vatican Council II (11 September 1962): AAS 54 (1962), p. 682.

[11] The question was treated during the 6th World Congress of the Pastoral Care of Gypsies, promoted by the Pontifical Council in collaboration with the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference, held in Budapest from 1-7 September 2003. The Proceedings of the Congress are published in the Pontifical Council’s journal People on the Move, Supplement to no. 93 (December 2003), and can also be accessed on the website: _93S/rc_pc_migrants_pom93S_ind.html.

[12] Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum progressio (26 March 1967), no. 75: AAS 59 (1967), p. 294.

[13] Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of Gypsies, no. 4: People on the Move, N° 100 (Suppl.),
April 2006, p. 42.

[14] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (28 June 2003), no. 12: AAS 95 (2003) p. 567.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] Ibidem, no. 53: loc. cit., p. 682.

[17] Ibidem.

[18] Paul VI, Homily (26 September 1965): loc. cit. p. 493.

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