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  Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

V World Congress of the Pastoral Care for Gypsies

Budapest (Hungary), 30 June – 7 July 2003


Fundamental points regarding the Pastoral Care of Roma people:

An Ecclesial perspective


H.E. Msgr  Agostino Marchetto



During the Fourth International Meeting on the Pastoral Care of Roma People, held in Rome in 1995, a proposal was put forward to draw up a document on the pastoral care of Roma/Gypsies, a “working tool” to offer to the Bishops’ Conferences, to the Pastors of the different Churches, to priests, members of religious orders and lay people engaged in this pastoral care, and to all those in any way interested in it in order to define pastoral action regarding specific methods and initiatives that also respect the requirements and traditions of the Roma people.

This idea was reinforced by the words of Pope John Paul II in a speech addressed to an International Study Meeting of National Directors and Experts on the Pastoral Care of Roma People, promoted by our Pontifical Council held in December 2001. On that occasion Pope John Paul II said: Gypsies “extend the sense of hospitality and solidarity and, at the same time, grow stronger in the faith, hope and assistance of God. In drawing up principles and guidelines for the pastoral care of Roma people, attention must therefore be paid to these spiritual and cultural values, thereby offering them concrete support in dealing with the complex problems that accompany them on their journeys in various parts of the world. I am thinking of, for example, the difficulty of mutual understanding between them and the world around them, and the lack of adequate reception facilities, education and integration within communities. Only careful and farsighted pastoral commitment can make a decisive contribution to provide adequate solutions to such problems ”[1].

However, in order to draw up a document that would be universal in nature, it was necessary to carry out an in-depth analysis of the Roma situation in its sociological, anthropological, theological and ecclesial aspects, without neglecting the historical approach and an examination of the legal context.Given the scope and complexity of the Roma world – we only have to think of the terminology and the diversity of the groups that make it up – it turned out to be quite an arduous and difficult task.

The first draft - using translations from the original language that were not always of the highest calibre – which was the outcome of almost a year’s hard work, was widely distributed for analysis, critical consultation, support, reactions and assessment. Some efforts were needed to incorporate the observations that were sent in, which were abundant and profound, with a view to producing a second draft.

On the occasion of this World Conference, I would have liked to be able to offer you a substantially integrated and full version, but unfortunately (tempus fugit) this has not been possible.

I have therefore decided to present you a text that in my view should be included in what has so far served as a foundation, because it develops the ecclesial perspective that the final document should have.Therefore my speech will be a further addition to the research that will take us to our final goal, which is so strongly desired yet not easily attainable.I will begin with God’s Covenant and the wanderings of humankind, which is also the Sitz im Leben of our Roma brothers and sisters.

God's Covenant and the wanderings of humankind

Shepherds and their predominantly wandering lives have a privileged position in biblical revelation. Already at the dawn of humankind, the offering of Abel, a shepherd, was more pleasing to God than Cain’s, who led a settled life (Genesis 4:2) and devoted himself to building a city (Genesis 4:17). The construction of the tower of Babel, that “reaches to the heavens” (Genesis 11:4), was an attempt to reach divinity in a defiant way by attaching humankind to the earth via a fixed abode, which goes against the Lord’s instruction to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1) and not linger in any one place. An outstanding figure at the origin of the people of Israel is Abram, who was also a herdsman. The first instruction he received from God was: “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Abram “went, even though he didn’t know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8), and from that time onwards his life was marked by continuous moves from “place to place” (Genesis 13:3), “living in tents” (Hebrews 11:9) as a stranger (see Genesis 17:8), aware that even his descendents would be “strangers in a country not their own” (Genesis 15:13). Among the affirmations of the Covenant between God and Abram, is the image of the wanderer and the human counterpart’s auspicious sign: “walk before me and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1).

The chosen people were subsequently entrusted to the guidance of Moses who, “when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Hebrews 11:24). Moses received from God the task of liberating the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and taking them to the Promised Land, and this came about through a long journey during which they “wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle” (Psalm 107:4).

Indeed, in this wandering context the covenant between God and his people was reaffirmed on Mount Sinai, which was represented by the ark containing the symbols of the Covenant that moved with and accompanied the people on their journey to Palestine. Under these conditions, even though beset by hunger and thirst, and the hostility and inhospitality of the peoples around them, the Israelites always had the protection and favour of God, which was later remembered and sung in the psalms, such as:  “When you went out before your people, O God, when you marched through the wasteland, the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel” (Psalm 68:7‑8). Nostalgia for those times that shaped the soul of Israel were kept alive in later periods, as evoked by the pilgrimages that the Hebrews were bound to undertake to the city where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

Wandering is also characteristic behaviour of any person’s relationship with God. For the psalms: “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord” who “walk in his ways” (Psalm119:1‑3), “wherever I lodge” (Psalm 119:54). “He whose walk is blameless” (Psalm 15:2) experiences how much God “restores my soul” and “guides me in paths of righteousness” (Psalms 23:3). In these footsteps, Paul reminds us that “as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6).

Revelation also presents the mystery of Christ as an exodus, of the Son of the Father into the world, and his return to heaven. The earthly life of Jesus was marked by wandering from the very beginning, with the flight from the persecution of Herod to Egypt and the return to Nazareth. Luke’s gospel also bears witness to his annual pilgrimages to the Temple of Jerusalem (see Luke 2:41), and his entire public ministry was punctuated by moves from one region to another, to the extent that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). The same paschal mystery even enters John’s gospel as “the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1); Jesus knew “that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3). This exodus of the Son sent by the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit, also calls upon humankind to set out on a journey of “paschal exodus” towards the Father.

Therefore, the exodus is not yet concluded as “the history of the Church is the living account of an unfinished pilgrimage”(IM 7/1). In continuation of the Old Testament tradition and with the life of Christ, who “carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution”, so the Church, the people of God on their journey towards the Father, “is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men”(LG 8/3).Like “the new Israel which while living in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city”(LG 9/3), it “presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God”[2]and “moving forward through trial and tribulation( ... ) is strengthened by the power of God's grace” (LG 9/3). Indeed, the Church reveals a mobility, as witnessed by its eschatological nature, which nourishes the polar attraction towards the eschaton of its fulfilment. Consequently, the condition of an individual Christian is also a great pilgrimage towards the Kingdom of God; “From birth to death, the condition of each individual is that of thehomoviator (IM 7/1).

The life of Roma, a paradigm of the Christian life

In this way the wandering condition, whether actually carried out, or as a view of life (Weltanschauung), becomes a permanent reminder of: “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:4). This takes the form of an ecclesial sign firmly anchored in biblical revelation, which finds its various forms of existence in the living fabric of the Church. The life of Roma certainly figures amongst these, both in its various historical manifestations and in current situations.

Indeed, among the values that define their lifestyle, the most outstanding are those that resemble the biblical characteristics described above. Marked by persecution, exile, inhospitality, suffering and discrimination, the history of Roma people is shaped by permanent wandering that distinguishes them from other peoples and is preserved in a nomadic tradition that does not allow itself to come within the thrall of the surrounding environment. This has led to a separate identity with its own language, culture, religiosity and customs and a strong sense of belonging to a people, and consequently bonds with its members. Thanks to Roma and their traditions, humanity is enriched by a real cultural heritage, that is mainly transmitted through living. Indeed “their wisdom is not written down in books, but that does not make it any less eloquent”[3].

Abandoned by humankind but not by God, their faith in Providence has thus become a reality that is stamped into the genetic code of Roma culture.It is not difficult to pick up here a faithful echo of the words of the Lord:“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat and drink; or about your body and what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?Look at the birds of the air;they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.Are you not much more valuable than they?”(Matthew 6:25‑26). The life of Roma is living witness to inner freedom in the face of the bonds of consumerism and false securities based on the presumed self-sufficiency of humankind.

Therefore, the discovery that so many of the features of revelation have become reality among Roma people should give rise amazement and admiration.Jeremiah fulfilled this in his own life when, referring back to the traditions of our ancestors, he exhorted:“you must never build houses, sow seeds or plant vineyards; you must never have any of these things, but must always live in tents. Then you will live a long time in the land where you are nomads” (Jeremiah 35:7). Upholding the prophetic request, their wandering is a permanent and symbolic reminder of life’s journey towards eternity.In a very special way they live how the whole Church should live, namely on a continuous journey to another Country, which is the true and only one.

The wanderings of Roma are also accompanied by suffering, due to the great persecution, prejudice, injustice and rejection they have been subjected to. Also in this aspect of their lives they present to humankind a “special face of God”, the painful image of the scourged Christ, with a crown of thorns and bearing the cross to his death on Golgotha.  Integrated within the mystery of the cross, their suffering is at the same time a summons and a challenge to the world, similar to the knowledge that became “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”, which for the chosen became “the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

The Church’s pastoral care of Roma: an absolute duty

The Church should show a particular concern for Roma people. Indeed, as they are favoured among God’s pilgrims, they deserve a special pastoral attitude and great appreciation for their values. In addition, this pastoral care is called for as an internal requirement of the catholicity of the Church and its mission. Indeed, with Christ, from whom it issues, any kind of discrimination disappears: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility (...) to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility" (Ephesians 2:14‑16).

Therefore, in the Church, the instrument of the Lord’s mission through which he remains present, “all men are called to belong to the new people of God”(LG 13/1). As “though there are many nations there is but one people of God”the Church is called upon to “take its citizens from every race, making them citizens of a kingdom which is of a heavenly rather than of an earthly nature”(LG 13/2). Everyone should be welcomed there, so there is no place whatsoever for marginalization and non-involvement. But the Church addresses itselfespecially to “the poor and the afflicted, sharing in their joys and sorrows, knowing of their longings and problems, suffering with them in death's anxieties”(AG 12/1).

Therefore, the catholicity of the Church, whilst having the vocation to reach every person in whatever condition, is not solely extensive but - more inwardly and decisively - qualitative, which is an ability to penetrate different cultures and to make the problems and hopes of all peoples its own, so as to evangelise and at the same time enrich itself with the varied wealth of human culture. The one and only Gospel should thus be proclaimed in such a way as to take account of different cultures and traditions, proceeding with “the same motive which led Christ to bind Himself, in virtue of His Incarnation, to certain social and cultural conditions of those human beings among whom He dwelt”(AG 10).

This rooting of catholicity in the essence of the Church means that any kind of discrimination in carrying out its mission would be a betrayal of its ecclesial identity.In the footsteps of its Founder – as God’s envoy “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18‑19) – the Church takes special care of the poor, the suffering and the rejected of this world who are nevertheless God’s chosen ones.All of this spurs the Church towards a renewed pastoral concern in favour of the special kind of poverty that characterises Roma people, and which drives it to seek more appropriate means of proclaiming the Gospel to them in a lively and effective way.This is the new evangelisation, which Pope John Paul II so often requests us to engage in.

Indeed, from the catholic aspect of its mission flows the ecclesial capacity to find and develop the necessary resources to meet halfway the many social forms in which human communities are organised. In this way salvation is available to everyone. Mindful of St Paul’s warning, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:15), the Church therefore spares no efforts and sacrifices to reach all people, even to the extent of shedding blood. Its history is also marked by initiative and creativity in rendering the proclamation more incisive, often defying mentalities and structures that have become obsolete. Consequently, the situation of Roma people cannot remain on the edges of this tradition of catholicity, which calls for an appropriate pastoral response and, in fact, in a way challenges the actual catholicity.

The current circumstances of Roma people, combined with the dizzying changes in contemporary society, unbridled materialism and false propositions that even call for transcendence, underline the urgent need to boost pastoral action, so as to avoid both static withdrawal and the flight towards sects and the scattering of our religious heritage, swallowed up by a materialism that suffocates any call for the divine.

Ecclesial action in favour of Roma from the viewpoint of inculturation

As salvation touches the whole person, evangelisation cannot neglect cultural, linguistic, traditional and other aspects, which shape humankind and peoples as a whole. In doing so, the Church “takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people. On the contrary it fosters and takes to itself, insofar as they are good, the ability, riches and customs in which the genius of each people expresses itself. Taking them to itself it purifies, strengthens, elevates and ennobles them”(LG 13/3). The genuinely Catholic spirit of evangelisation also leads to mutual enrichment, given that “each individual part contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts and of the whole Church. Through the common sharing of gifts and through the common effort to attain fullness in unity, the whole and each of the parts receive increase”(LG 13/4).

So, in this context they find appropriate understanding and guidelines for animation of pastoral action in favour of Roma. Therefore, it is above all necessary to accept their legitimate claim to a specific identity and the right to be integrated, as such, within the fabric of civil and ecclesial society, but also genuine appreciation – affective and effective – of the values of their rightful tradition, which should be respected and also defended and promoted. Moreover, from this soteriological perspective, the culture of these people should be interpreted from within, not as a neutral reality but as an element to be integrated within the divine scheme of Redemption.

The peculiar nature of the Roma Weltanschauung and their way of life may not be compared with other social situations. The Roma situation comes within the normal procedures of the Church, which is expert in humanity and has tried out the missionary axiom, according to which “the right sort of means and actions must be suited to any state or situation”(AG 6/2). From this stems the need and expediency for special pastoral care for Roma, which is not limited to the easy but ineffective solution of impelling them to join the ranks of other Christians. It should therefore be noted that the traditional ecclesiastical structure for taking care of souls does not usually allow these people effective and long-lasting integration within the life of a local ecclesial community.

Indeed, the specific nature of Roma culture makes unacceptable any evangelisation “from the outside”, which can easily be seen almost as an invasion. This is why, in a certain sense, the Church must become Roma among the Roma, so that they can become Church. This leads to proposing a pastoral attitude that is characterised by sharing of friendship; it is therefore essential to immerse oneself in their way of life and share its conditions with them. For the various pastoral agents engaged in the pastoral care of Roma this has particular worth insofar as the Church asks that all those engaged in a mission “should know the people among whom they live, and should converse with them, that they themselves may learn by sincere and patient dialogue what treasures a generous God has distributed among the nations of the earth”(AG 11/2).

 A natural product of pastoral care formulated in this way should be pastoral “self-promotion” by Roma themselves. They should become apostles on their own behalf. In this way these words of Pope Paul VI, which are highly appropriate in this context, would be fulfilled: “The Christian mystery must be incubated in the spirit of your people, so that their own voice, clearer and more sincere, may rise up harmoniously among the voices of the choir of the universal Church”[4]

Within this “self-promotion” we hope that the Holy Spirit will bring about more priestly and religious vocations, rejoicing with those who have already responded to God’s special call, particularly those present here.Appropriate promotion of vocations among Roma people is therefore needed, bearing in mind that “the Church drives deeper roots in any given sector of the human family when the various faithful communities all have, from among their members, their own ministers of salvation”(AG 16/1).

Roma pastoral care and human promotion

Another aspect of evangelisation of the completeness, or “wholeness” – if you wish – of humankind, is the contemporary human promotion of Roma, aimed at true and full enrichment of their lives.Indeed,“through the gospel message, the Church offers a force for liberation which promotes development precisely because it leads to conversion of heart and of ways of thinking, fosters the recognition of each person's dignity, encourages solidarity, commitment and service of one's neighbor, and gives everyone a place in God's plan, which is the building of his kingdom of peace and justice, beginning already in this life. ( ... ) Man's development derives from God, and from the model of Jesus - God and man - and must lead back to God. That is why there is a close connection between the proclamation of the Gospel and human promotion”(RM 59/1), through anthropological, theological, ecclesial and charity/love bonds.

As is the case for other peoples, Roma should have their dignity preserved, their rights defended and their collective identity respected[5]. Their children’s education, vocational training of young people and social promotion of women should therefore be considered, without shying away from appropriate “assistance” when circumstances call for it. However, it is necessary to take into account that “a people's development (including that of Roma) 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”(RM 58/3).

Furthermore, even though paying attention to human promotion and works of charity that are vital factors in the evangelisation of Roma, we must convince ourselves that if such efforts predominate and remain disconnected from the pre-eminence of faith, the Gospel risks being reduced to a mere support for an ethical and social value, which is useful for human development but must be connected with salvation. Basically, evangelisation and human promotion go together and should be carried out at the same time, with the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ remaining at the centre.

Ecclesial structures in favour of Roma

Given the pre-eminence of charity, which kindles in persons and institutions the desire to put every individual and community in communion with Christ, including Roma, appropriate structures for launching - if not already underway - and improvement of the pastoral care of Roma should, however, be taken into account. Given that we are faced with a multi-faceted reality, and that the situations of the various individual Churches are very different, here we can only refer to some general criteria, which could then be applied in specific local circumstances. Moreover, a distinction must be made between implementation at the local level and implementation that extends throughout a region or even to the whole Church, although coordination should be well taken care of.

A catholicity derives from the reciprocal relationship of immanence between the universal Church and individual Churches which unites and shapes both ecclesial dimensions. Each individual Church, which is in itself catholic, has a catholicity that translates into convivial communion with everyone, which “speaks all tongues, understands and accepts all tongues in her love, and so supersedes the divisiveness of Babel”(AG 4/1), andtouch and pervade them, and thus take them up into full catholicity(see AG 6/2). On the other hand, if there were any marginalized human situation, this would be a wound for an individual Church, that had not manifested the fullness of its catholicity in the reality of life.

An individual Church therefore has the duty to broaden its unity by acknowledging and taking advantage of any human experience that is open to the religious and transcendental dimension. From the viewpoint of the above-mentioned pastoral care, concrete efforts should be made to protect Roma unity and identity, and the unity between this and the native, ecclesial experience, by integrating Roma religious identity within the original fabric. However, if their identity is not respected, the individual Church will not even be able to build its own real unity. Likewise, a requirement of ecclesial communion is that Roma do not cut themselves off, which would create a marginal Church parallel to the individual Church. A practical expression of such ecclesial communion is undoubtedly the sincere and authentic dialogue among the various groups, namely among the “settled” Roma communities, and it is the duty of individual Churches to foster and facilitate such communication, precisely taking into full consideration the values, culture and identity of the Roma people.

In this respect, with a view to not excluding anyone from the communion of faith and the sacraments, it should be pointed out that a well tried out experience accompanies the pastoral structures set up on a local basis, mainly parishes, and other “cross-cutting” structures, aimed at various categories of people in need of specific pastoral care.In this sense, Vatican II encourages bishops to “show special concern for those among the faithful who, on account of their way of life, cannot sufficiently make use of the common and ordinary pastoral care of parish priests or are quite cut off from it. Among this group are the majority of migrants, exiles and refugees, seafarers, air-travelers, gypsies, and others of this kind”(CD 18/1). Therefore in the Church there are chaplaincies for universities, hospitals, prisons, the world of sport, the performing arts, etc.In this context I believe there should be a place for a chaplaincy that carries out specific pastoral care of Roma, equipped with all the necessary resources to fulfil its mission.

However, the peculiarity of Roma pastoral care is such that an individual Church may find itself unable – mainly due to lack of suitable pastoral agents – to carry it out effectively. Inter-diocesan or national management is therefore needed to take care of fair distribution of resources, in the broadest sense of the term, training of pastoral agents, coordination and relations with similar institutions in other countries, etc. In this respect a pastoral management unit could be useful, or even necessary, with corresponding legal power, with the authority of local Ordinaries remaining the same (see PO 10/1).

Indeed, the dimensions of the “Roma phenomenon” and its peculiarities, sometimes make an effective pastoral response difficult if it is exclusively based on the position of the diocesan or inter-diocesan chaplaincy. An overall, lasting solution, which is more secure and has adequate margins of autonomy (always in coordination with local Authorities), could be found within the framework of jurisdictional pastoral structures, including the capacity to incardinate priests and integrate various pastoral agents within their ranks – hopefully chosen from among the Roma – who systematically cooperate in carrying out “Roma pastoral care” in favour of a specific region, nation or even continent.


As you see, the problems are vast and sometimes difficult, and therefore may raise questions that demand careful consideration, tried and tested prudence and the right amount of pastoral boldness, balanced by obedience to the Church, “Mother and Teacher”, which listens to and guides us, reads the “signs of the times” and with zealous love directs us to take on our responsibilities, in various ministries and charismas, for the new evangelisation of the Roma people.

Let us entrust these thoughts, these spurs to trustful and hopeful action, to the Virgin Mary, Queen of the Roma people so that she may grant all of us, especially during these few days, the light and the strength of the Holy Spirit. O Holy Spirit come and breathe your love on us: “Veni, Pater páuperum, veni, Dator múnerum, veni, Lumen córdium”!


AG - Vatican Council II, Decree On the Mission Activity of the Church “Ad Gentes Divinitus”, 7 December1965.

CD - Vatican Council II, Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops “Christus Dominus”, 28 October 1965.

IM - Pope John Paul II,Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 “Incarnationis Mysterium”, 29 November1998.

LG - Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution of the Church “Lumen Gentium”, 21 November 1964.

PO - Vatican Council II, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests “Presbyterorum Ordinis”, 7 December1965.

RM -  Pope John Paul II, Encyclical on the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate “Redemptoris Missio”, 7 December1990.

[1]Pope John Paul II, Speech to the participants at the International Study Meeting of National Directors and Experts on the Pastoral Care of Roma, 1 December 2001, in L’Osservatore Romano, 2 December 2001, p. 5.
[2]Saint Augustine, De civitate Dei, 18, 51, 2, in LG 8/4.
[3]Pope John PaulII, Speech to the participants at the Third International Conference on the Pastoral Care of Roma People, 9.11.89, in People on the Move 56 (1990) 10. 
[4]Paul VI, Speech to the bishops of Africa, 31.7.69, no. 2, in AAS 61 (1969) 577.
[5]See Pope John Paul II, Speech of 16.9.80, in People on the Move 56 (1990) 128.