Learning to understand them

Rom and Sinti: there are some 10 million in the EU

Any “homogenizing” interventions aimed at absorbing the Rom population in the dominant culture were rejected by Father Duarte da Cunha, general secretary of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), in his address at the meeting of national directors for the pastoral care of gipsies in Europe on 2 March. The meeting, being held in the Vatican until 4 March, is promoted by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People. Fr. da Cunha announced that the CCEE is conducting a survey among all the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe to gain a better picture of the presence of Rom in the individual countries, the projects adopted on their behalf and how the pastoral care of gipsies is being organized. Gipsies represent the largest pan-European minority and live in almost all member states of the Council of Europe. Despite the difficulties in obtaining precise data, it is estimated that the total gipsy population in Europe, comprising both Rom and Sinti, is of the order of 12-15 million, 9-10 million of whom are living in the EU. The countries with the largest gipsy population include, in first place, Romania with 2 million (9% of the total population), followed by Bulgaria with 750,000 (9.3% of the total), Spain (700,000, 1.7%), Hungary (600,000, 6%), and Slovakia 500,000 (9.2%). At the bottom of the league table are Germany and Italy, respectively with 150,000 (0.1% of the population) and 140,000 (0.2%). Integration does not mean homogenization. “We are speaking – said Father da Cunha – of a people of which it is difficult to give a precise definition and which just for this reason is often regarded with a great deal of prejudice”. “It is not even easy to know how many there are; there’s no guarantee that all are registered with the civil authorities and it is impossible to know for sure whether they continue to reside in the same place”. These factors help to fuel “fears”, though these are born – warns the CCEE secretary – “from ignorance that leads people to consider these persons as aliens and hence as dangerous”. To overcome these prejudices, “a more positive understanding of them is needed”. According to Fr. da Cunha, the Church is called “in a special way” to “regard every person that belongs to this people as a human person whose identity needs to be respected and perhaps also revalued”. “We must therefore pay attention – he stressed – to any attempts aimed at the integration of gipsies. If living in isolation is not good, that does not mean they should be completely absorbed by the dominant culture. In actual fact many measures promoted by various public agencies have a homogenizing tendency”, because “someone who is seen as ‘different’ is regarded as a problem and it is preferred either to evict him or force him to become like everyone else”. The “wisdom of love”. This explains the role of the Catholic Church, “not only for what she does, but what she is”: the Church suggests the logic of the “unity of love where each person and each community is able to maintain and cherish its own innate identity. Transposing this logic to the question of the marginalization of Rom, I think it can be said – Fr. Da Cunha continued – that, if we really want to help and evangelize, we must love and educate in love to be able to integrate without absorbing. Only thus shall the Rom feel fully inserted in society and at the same time recognized and esteemed for what they truly are. I am convinced that this wisdom of love can bear fruit”. According to da Cunha, an important question is that of education/schooling, without which “it will be difficult to break the vicious cycle of poverty”, but only on condition that “the traditional lifestyle” of Rom culture be maintained.What pastoral care? “So as not always to think with a welfare mentality”, warns the CCEE secretary, “it is also important to promote, also in the field of pastoral care, collaboration with the Rom themselves, especially with some of their leaders”, while respecting their language and hierarchical structure. It is also important to recognize that “there’s a saint, St. Ceferino Giménez, to testify to the fact that gipsies too are called to be protagonists of holiness” and that “consecrated vocations, or catechists and Christian leaders of Rom origin do exist among them”. We also need, said Fr. da Cunha, “to raise the awareness of local communities and find suitable persons to meet with Rom groups, but we also need to trust in the fact that each diocese and each parish will know best how to face the challenges whenever they arise”. As regards the life of faith, Fr. Da Cunha emphasized the “great religious sensibility” of these peoples, and their “piety” which “is also linked to their profound sense of family and the rapport they have with their ancestors”: this is a value that “in a secularized and individualistic world like our own may even be a prophecy” because it leads to “a prospect of life in which God is not banished to a distant heaven, but is recognized as a living presence in real life”. In terms of celebrations, lastly, the Church is invited to “seek inculturation, though without indulging in liturgical fantasies”, by integrating “aspects of gipsy culture such as music” in common celebrations.

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