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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - Supp. N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 315-316

United States of America

Rev. Sr. Charlotte HOBELMAN, SND

National Director

The situation of gypsies in the United States is quite different from their reality in Europe. It is estimated that there are between 75,000 to one million gypsies in the United States primarily from Central and Eastern Europe. Many of those who immigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries were Catholic and were served by parishes founded to serve the newcomers from countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Bohemia. Some of their descendents still live in these parish communities in cities bordering the Great Lakes, such as Milwaukee, Chicago and Cleveland. They are indistinguishable from other Americans on the surface, but privately, they have retained the gypsy culture and customs. As one Rom stated in an interview for the April 2001 issue of National Geographic, “We’re naturally secretive because of a long history of persecution.” They have overcome the poverty their great grandparents may have experienced. Some have left the Catholic Church to join other Christian denominations. More recent gypsy immigrants, particularly from the Balkans, are Moslem or Orthodox. 

The provision of pastoral care with gypsies and Irish Travelers in the United States is more often parish-based. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, there were still priests serving these communities. Dr. Ruth Doyle from Fordham University conducted a national survey in 2001for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees. One of the purposes of the survey was to determine where pastoral care was being provided for the gypsy apostolate and by whom. Only three diocese out of 180 indicated that such a ministry existed, and in all cases it was being carried out by deacons. This is a significant change from the pastoral context of the late twentieth century. In regard to Irish Travelers, pastoral care is provided through parishes in the Dioceses of Memphis in Tennessee, in the Diocese of Forth Worth in Texas, and in the Diocese of Charleston in South Carolina. Devotion for Blessed Ceferino Jiménez Malla has been established with the dedication of a chapel and statue in his honor at St. Edward Parish in North Augusta, South Carolina. 

The Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees in the Episcopal Conference of the United States has dedicated itself in recent years to the implementation of the U.S. Bishops’ 2000 pastoral statement: Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.  Its message is a concrete response to the vision of Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in America. Between November of 2001 and June of 2003, they conducted seven regional trainings across the country to assist local diocese to implement this vision of being a welcoming church to the thousands of new immigrants from all over the world who make up the Catholic population in local diocese. The pastoral latter promotes a process of conversion, communion, solidarity and evangelization among the diverse cultural groups in local Catholic parishes. 

The translation of this vision to a new pastoral outreach with the Gypsy and Irish Travelers in the United States must be rooted in the Gospel and Church tradition which their ancestors cherished. It is motivated by the desire to extend the love of Christ to them with sensitivity and respect for the positive expressions of their culture. However, it must be translated into new methods of pastoral implementation in an age of globalization. This frequently means that the local parish is a mini-United Nations where Mass and the sacraments are celebrated in as many as three or four languages each Sunday. Therefore, pastoral care for Gypsies and Irish Travelers is less often provided through national parishes but in the context of an increasing cultural diversity. 

A proper revitalization of the Gypsy and Irish Traveler apostolate should start with the establishment of a network of support for the few priests, deacons, men and women religious and lay Catholic leaders who extend the Church’s love to them directly.  This includes the staff shrines where Gypsies continue to go on pilgrimage. The initiation of an annual meeting for these pastoral leaders similar to the one hosted by the International Catholic Committee for Gypsies in Europe, could provide ongoing pastoral formation for the pastoral collaborators with this apostolate and help to identify more communities.

The Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, tells us that “What is positive in others is a gift from God (43). Those who minister with the Gypsies and Irish Travelers recognize these gifts of strong family and community ties. On an international level, however, these gifts are often not recognized. Their common experience is discrimination, scapegoating, stereotyping and persecution. A pastoral response to this social reality in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires an action on the level of advocacy for justice through a culture of solidarity with the Gypsies of Europe. The United States, as a world leader and member of the Helsinki Commission, is in a position to advocate for fair treatment and human development of the Gypsy communities in Europe. Therefore, an important pastoral objective for the Apostolate with Gypsies and Irish Travelers in the United States must include solidarity with the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, the respective Episcopal Conferences in Europe and with the work of the International Catholic Committee for Gypsies in Europe in their efforts to promote respect for them and the promotion of a better life for them and their children. 

May Mary, the Queen of the Roma, be our companion, guide and intercessor as we promote a pastoral vision for the new millennium borne of the contemplation of the face and voice of Christ in the Gypsy and Irish Traveler communities in greatest need.