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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 100 (Suppl.), April 2006


Salient Features of the Document



Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO

Secretary of the Pontifical Council 

for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


With the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus[1] Pope John Paul II entrusted the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People with the task of “ensuring that in the particular Churches refugees and exiles, migrants, Nomads, and circus workers receive effective and special spiritual care, even, if necessary, by means of suitable pastoral structures”. For the Church, therefore, Gypsies need a specific pastoral care, aimed at their evangelisation and human promotion.  

The peculiar nature of Gypsy culture

The peculiar nature of Gypsy culture makes evangelisation merely “from the outside” ineffective. In any case, in authentic Catholic tradition, the Church must be incarnated among Gypsies so that they would be Church. Yet a genuine incarnation of the Gospel (called inculturation) cannot indiscriminately legitimise every aspect of their culture. Indeed, the universal history of evangelisation affirms that the spread of the Christian message has always been accompanied by a process of purification of cultures, regarded as a necessary process of elevation. Therefore, an indiscriminate defence of all aspects of Gypsy culture, without making due distinctions and relative evangelical judgements, is not beneficial. However, purification does not mean emptying it, but some amount of integration with the surrounding culture will be necessary: it is an intercultural process (cf. Guidelines no. 39).  

Reconciliation and communion between Gypsies and non Gypsies, therefore, include legitimate interaction between cultures. Similarly education, professional formation and personal initiatives and responsibility are indispensable prerequisites for achieving a decent quality of life. Equal rights for men and women should likewise be promoted, eliminating all kinds of discrimination. Equality calls for respect for the dignity of women, the elevation of feminine culture, social promotion, etc. (cf. Guidelines no. 40). 

Building awareness

The strong sense of family, which is seen among Gypsies, is indeed very important, but it should not degenerate, for instance, into perennial resentment between families and clans. Also honesty at work is a civic and Christian virtue, which cannot be disregarded. Moreover, what is valid for all minorities should also be applied to Gypsies. In any case, a great deal of work is still needed to build awareness, inform and break down mistrust, which is fuelled by partial reports regarding Gypsies. In fact, audiovisual or printed information rarely makes the general public aware of the positive aspects of Gypsy culture, and most often deals with negative ones, which further damage their image. The dignity of the Gypsy population must therefore be safeguarded and their collective identity respected, through initiatives for their development and the defence of their rights (cf. Guidelines no. 48).

Of course, Gypsies are a special minority because they have no country of origin to give them the support they might need and this means the lack of political guarantees and some degree of civil protection. In fact while the arrival of other people seeking refuge and of “boat people” enables mobilization of a given number of people and governments, that of Gypsies usually brings about rejection, even if they come from very poor countries, and are sometimes forced to flee due to religious, racial or political persecution (cf. Guidelines no. 49). 

Such a situation can only be overcome if governments draw up common, comprehensive and shared policies to steer Gypsies clear of poverty and rejection. Therefore, it is vitally important that international organizations take an interest in Gypsies, although a move in this direction is now starting. Likewise, national governments should respect this minority among minorities and recognize it with a commitment to eliminate the incidents of racism and xenophobia that are still widespread. They also result in discrimination regarding employment, housing and access to education. The Church, too, is called to speak out so that local authorities may welcome the decisions of national and international organizations in favour of Gypsies and thus have an influence in people’s everyday life (cf. Guidelines no. 50).  

Education and formation of Gypsy children

Education is a fundamental and indispensable condition for development. This is true also for Gypsies, especially if we consider that there are four million Gypsy children and adolescents of school age in Europe alone[2]. Integration of Gypsy children – where possible – within the normal educational process would help to overcome any shortcomings. However joint efforts by governments, Gypsy associations and also the Church are needed to arrange schooling for Gypsy children in one way or another. Likewise, it is necessary to consider all the aspects of development that these populations should benefit from, such as professional formation for young people, access to healthcare, decent housing conditions and social security. It is a question of giving central importance to respect for every human person. Therefore any attempts at assimilation of Gypsy culture and its dissolution in the majority culture should be firmly rejected (cf. Guidelines no. 51). 

In any case, although launching of human promotion projects is primarily the responsibility of the State, it may be advisable and even necessary for the Church to be involved in concrete initiatives, giving room for Gypsies to play a leading role. However, it is part of the Church’s fundamental mission to inform public authorities of the condition of dire poverty being experienced by the Gypsy population. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that “a people’s development does not derive primarily from money, material assistance or technological means but from the formation of consciences and the gradual maturing of ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour. Man is the principal agent of development, not money or technology”[3] (cf. Guidelines no. 55). 

The evangelisation of Gypsies

The evangelisation of Gypsies is a mission of the whole Church, because no Christian should remain indifferent to a situation of marginalisation with respect to ecclesial communion. Although the pastoral care of Gypsies has its own specificity, and requires a careful and specific formation for those directly involved in it, a welcoming attitude should be shown by the whole Christian community. Therefore, the awareness of all the members of the Church needs to be raised, not only to overcome hostility, rejection or indifference, but also to achieve an openly positive behaviour towards our Gypsy brothers and sisters (cf. Guidelines no. 57).

In fact, the proclamation of the Word of God is more likely to be well received if it is announced by someone who has shown solidarity towards them in day-by-day situations. Moreover, in catechesis, it is important to include dialogue that allows Gypsies to express how they perceive and experience their relationship with God. Therefore, it is necessary to assess the convenience of translating the Bible, the various liturgical texts and prayer books, into the languages used by the different ethnic groups in the various regions. Likewise, the use of music – which is greatly appreciated and often performed by Gypsies – at pastoral meetings and liturgical celebrations, is an extremely worthwhile support that should be promoted and developed. This is true also of the whole range of video material offered by modern technology (cf. Guidelines no. 60).

In the life of Gypsies, pilgrimages have a special place. They provide ideal opportunities for their families to come together and often the “holy places” where they meet their “Saint” are connected with their family history. An event, a vow, a prayer journey are experienced as an encounter with the “Saint’s God”, thereby consolidating a group’s loyalty. Pilgrimages provide those who take part in them with an experience of Catholicity that will lead them from the Saint to Christ and to the Church (cf. Guidelines no. 70). 

Proselytism of the sects

At present, there is the risk – confirmed by facts – of Gypsies falling prey to sects. In fact Gypsies are particularly vulnerable because of their frequent migrations, which also bring them into contact with people belonging to other confessions and religions, exposing them somehow to the danger of relativism. Everything should be done to prevent them from falling into such sectarian traps. For this reason it is necessary to ensure that pastoral care has the right ecumenical and inter-religious perspectives. In this context, the document affirms that the new ecclesial movements could play a special role in this specific pastoral care. With their strong sense of community and openness, and the availability and special warm-heartedness, they could provide a concrete welcome and also encourage evangelisation. In this sense, both national and international Catholic associations of Gypsies and for Gypsies could play a major role, provided they maintain a constant relationship of communion with the local Churches and the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (cf. Guidelines no. 77).

Welcoming Gypsies – a challenge for everyone

To conclude, it will be good to remember that it is, first of all, the duty of the Pastors to safeguard Gypsy unity and identity, in union with the local Church. Sometimes, however, it may be difficult for the local Churches to respond effectively to the need, due to the dimensions of the “Gypsy phenomenon” and its peculiarities. Hence the Document also provides for an overall, long-lasting and safe solution, with adequate margins of autonomy – always in harmonious agreement with local Church authorities. This could be sought within the framework of pastoral structures provided for by the legislation and the praxis of the Church (cf. Guidelines no. 88). In any case, if we are to speak of a genuine implantatio Ecclesiae in the Gypsy milieu, then generous priestly, diaconal and religious vocations among Gypsies are necessary (cf. Guidelines no. 101). In a limited way they already exist.

We hope that these guidelines will meet the expectations of all those who wished to have an overall pastoral document regarding the ministry to our nomadic brothers and sisters (cf. Guidelines no. 102).

[1]John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, 28 June 1988, art. 150 § 1: AAS LXXX (1988) 899.
[2]cf. V World Congress of the Pastoral Care for Gypsies - Budapest -, Appeal, 8: People on the Move, XXXV (2003), N. 93 Supplement, 344.
[3]John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990), N. 58: AAS LXXXIII (1991) 249-340.