Children of the wind
The ethnic group commonly referred to as "Gypsies" is a category of nomads that began its wandering almost a thousand years ago from the Sind Province of North-West India. Around the year 1000 AD these people settled in the Middle East, Southern Russia and the Balkan peninsula. Since their arrival in Western Europe during the first half of the 15th century, they have always aroused great curiosity. They have been called Bohemiens, Egyptians, Pagans, Tartars, Negroes. The most widely-used name comes probably from the Greek Athiganoi (the name of a sect which practiced magic), from which came then Tsiganes, Zigeuner, Gitani, Cyganie. The Gypsy people itself is composed of different groups: Rom, Sinti, Manouches, Kale, which are further subdivided according to the origin and trade of each specific group. Today the divisions have deepened since frontiers have been closed to them, impeding them from contact as in past centuries.
Ethic identity and culture
Although they have lived for centuries among sedentary peoples, Gypsies substantially retain their identity, which has as fundamental elements the dignity of the human person, family unity, a confident dependence on God, a nomadic life as a psychological attitude and capacity for detachment from places and things.
Music, song and poetry are essential to their rich cultural tradition. With the violin, guitar, and dances (think of the flamenco), they express their vitality, sensitivity and artistic vocation. Gypsies are teachers in the art of entertainment.
Relations with host societies
The diversity of life, culture, customs and occupation of Gypsies has always been viewed negatively. This is why their history is marked by centuries of rejection and persecution, the height of which was the "forgotten holocaust" which they suffered during Nazism.
Today their survival is threatened by various factors: rapid transformation of modern society that renders their traditional activities no longer useful, creeping discrimination towards them, the precarious conditions of their habitat and a low level of education.
However we see praiseworthy efforts by States to recognize the Gypsy people as a minority, with special rights and duties, with their own culture to be safeguarded and a socio-political role. Gypsy associations are getting more and more numerous and politically present; among them the International Romanì Union plays a key role and is recognized by the United Nations since 1979 as a non-governmental organisation, with consultative power at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
The Church and Gypsies
Gypsies have always demonstrated a strong sense of the sacred, as can be seen by their religious traditions. Unfortunately, the scarcity of priests and pastoral workers willing to look after them prevents them from receiving religious formation. This makes them a fertile ground for the proselytism of sects.
The faith of these people is stimulated by the noble figure of Ceferino Gimenez Malla, a humble Spanish Gypsy beatified on May 4, 1997. Ceferino's life was that of a true nomad and a true Catholic, crowned with martyrdom in August 1936 at Barbastro during the Spanish Civil War.
The itinerant dimension of the life of Gypsies is a testimony of their inner freedom from the phenomenon of consumerism in today's society and a permanent reminder that life is an ongoing pilgrimage towards another homeland, our heavenly home. With their lifestyle, they challenge a cold, rationalistic religion, marked by too much legalism.
Pilgrimage is an expression of the religious feelings and faith of Gypsies. They have always been present, noisy and colorful among the crowds of pilgrims walking towards the shrines of Christendom.
A meeting with Paul VI on the occasion of their first international pilgrimage to Rome was an important landmark in their history. The Pope spoke of their place in the Church: "You are in the heart of the Church, because you are alone: no one is alone in the Church (...) We hope this exceptional meeting will help you to think of the holy Church, to which you belong; to know, appreciate and love her better; we hope it will help you to be more aware of what you are. (...) We think there should be an improvement of your relations with the society, which you pass through and touch with your caravans: just as you are grateful to find rest and kind hospitality, wherever you make your camp, so too you must leave after every stop, happy and pleasant memories: may you path be sown with examples of goodness, honesty and respect" (26.9.1965).
John Paul II encourages everyone to welcome them as brothers and sisters: "Despite the clear teaching of the Gospel...it often happens that Gypsies find themselves rejected and despised. The world, to a great extent marked by avidity for profit and disdain for the weaker ones, must change its attitude and welcome our nomad brothers and sisters no longer with simple tolerance but in a spirit of brotherhood" (9.11.1989).