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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


The Pastoral Care of Gypsies:

'for a Spirituality of Communion'

H.E. Msgr. Leo Cornelio, SVD

Bishop of Khandwa, India


From the dawn of human civilization, groups of people have been wandering from place to place for various purposes. We use terms like “nomads,” “gypsies,” “migrants, itinerants, refugees” etc. to refer to these wandering groups. Some are forced out of their homes and settled way of life because of compelling circumstances like wars, political upheavals, economic constraints, etc. Others wander around all their lives because of the exigencies of the kind of work they do or for reasons that we who are given to more settled way of life can never perhaps understand. These last are referred to by the proper name ‘Gypsy’. ‘Nomad ‘ is another common term that is used to refer to these people. “Nomadism” involves the shifting of the habitat of a people in their search for subsistence. It does not consist in unrealistic and undirected wanderings; but is focused around temporary centres of operation the stability of which depends upon the possibilities of achieving the desired goals different centres offer.[1]

The word ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Gipsy ‘ is said to be a corruption of the word “Egyptian”. Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they were thought to be from Turkey, Nubia or Egypt, or any number of non-European places. They were called, among other things, Egyptians or ‘Gyptians, which is where the word "Gypsy" comes from.[2] Beside the name Gypsies, these people have been known by many other names, including Rom (Roma, Romani), Tziganes, Cigano, Zigeuner, Sinti, Manouches, Gitans, and others. Most Roma have always referred to themselves by their tribal names, or as Rom or Roma, meaning "Man" or "People."[3] The use of Rom, Roma, Romani, or the double "r" spelling (Rrom, Rroma, Rromani), is preferred in all official communications and legal documents. The trend is to eliminate the use of derogatory, pejorative and offensive names, such as Gypsies, and to be given proper respect by the use of the self-appellation of Roma, or Rroma. The name Gypsies, although offensive to most Roma, is still a proper name, and as such, must always be capitalized.[4] Another term one often comes across in literature and discussions about Gypsies is gadje (gadzo), which refers to the non-Roma or sedentary people. Gadjo literally means peasant.

Who are the Gypsies?

The Gypsies are not recorded on most official census counts. Many of them do not admit to their true ethnic origins for economic and social reasons. Moreover, they are often moving about from place to place. For these reasons, there is no way to obtain an exact number of Gypsies in the world. Moreover, those interested in these people use different criteria to determine who exactly Gypsies are. Some exclude sedentary groups as being no more Gypsies. Others count into the Gypsy fold tribal people who wander around looking for their livelihood through their professions. Nevertheless, it is estimated that there are about 17 million Gypsies scattered around the globe. Approximately 75% of them live in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. All accounts point to the historical roots of the Gypsies in India. “There must have been different waves of emigration of these people from India in the course of centuries. Historians have noted that such an emigration took place almost a thousand years ago from the Sind Province of the present Pakistan and they reached Western Europe in the Fifteenth century. From that time there is historical evidence of their presence and participation in the social life of the European society.”[5] The actual reasons for their leaving India are probably lost in history although there are many conjectures made in this regard. Probably a combination of causes like poverty, famine, natural disasters, invasion, wars etc. may have driven these people out of their original home. These same causes still drive people out of their homes.

Gypsy Culture & Activities

Gypsy culture is diverse with many traditions and customs, and all groups around the world have their own individual beliefs and tenets. There is no universal Gypsy culture per se; but there are attributes common to all Gypsies everywhere, like family loyalty, close affinity to the ethnic group, certain cultural standards and norms varying in degree from tribe to tribe, adaptability to changing conditions, emargination etc. Integration of many Gypsies into non-Gypsy culture due to settlement has diluted many Gypsy cultural values and beliefs. Not all groups have the same definition of who is a Gypsy and what is Gypsy culture. What may be accepted as "true-Gypsy" by one group may be gadjé to another.  It might be generalizing and oversimplifying to stereotype all Gypsies into one pattern. Despite what some groups may believe, there is no one group that can call themselves the one, "true" Roma. Today, the following characteristics apply to the many Gypsy groups and communities around the world: Gypsies may be nomadic, semi-sedentary, or sedentary. They speak many dialects of Romanes, and some of them may not speak Romanes at all. The Gypsy tongue shows the extreme variety of the Gypsy world, i.e., the lack of rigour of their thinking, the freedom with which they appropriate and transform the words taken from other languages. Indeed, it sheds light on the psychology proper to Gypsy groups.[6] Gypsies may live in rural or urban areas. Some Gypsy groups are predominately illiterate, while other groups stress at least a minimum of literacy in their host country's language for its community members.[7]

Nomads all over the world have been classified in a variety of ways. One of the best classification is given by S.P. Ruhela[8] on the basis of the profession various groups are involved in.

Their Troubled History

The Gypsies appear to have had a very troubled history. All through the long centuries, they seemed to have remained strangers among the people they lived. They did not have any legal identity in the countries they inhabited and consequently they could be oppressed by the dominant groups without impunity. Most of the history of Gypsies is a long litany of laws, edicts, harassment, and banishment, etc. against them. In most parts of Eastern Europe, they were largely accepted although in Wallachia and Moldova the Gypsies had only the status of slaves until the mid-19th century. In these places, the owners had all rights over them except the right to life and death. The Code of Wallachia states explicitly, “The Tsigane is born a slave!” They were sold, bartered and traded.

The victimization of Gypsies in both Western and Eastern Europe from the 15th century through 18th century is to be seen in the context of the emergence and consolidation of modern nation states in Europe. Rejection of the other is an integral part of the process of building nation states. With the collapse of Soviet system and Eastern Europe’s multinational states, processes of renewed nation building and nation consolidation have come to dominate. This process once again has the potential to trigger intolerance of others, and ethnic groups who are the weakest and most defenseless, like the Gypsies, easily become the tragic victims of these processes.[9] In the process of building nation states, one or more common denominations (like ethnicity, religion etc.) become the axis on which the solidarity of the group revolves. People who do not share the common denomination become the threatening “other” against which the self of the group is to be defended. The “other” group too becomes aggressively defensive and in its search for survival, it too emphasizes group solidarity. In other words, when others gang up against you, you have to be more of a Gypsy in order to survive. Thus, rejection and withdrawal reinforce each other generating suspicion, fear and distance between the groups. The Gypsy is so different from the gadjo: he materializes from nowhere in large numbers; stays for a while and then he is gone! His life is so unpredictably linear. The gadjo on the other hand lives in predictable and slow cycles. For the gadjo the Gypsy appears as a fugitive, a runaway, someone who may be guilty of some strange crime; otherwise why would he be running!

When the dominant culture confronts a new minority culture it does not understand, it classifies the minority culture in social categories that structure its own worldview. So, the Gypsies are classified as ‘vagabonds’ who are akin to highway bandits who cheat and rob the sedentary person. The Gypsy is seen as the author of all that goes wrong in the neighbourhood. Primordial fears of the mysterious and the unknown that riddle the dominant group soon come to be hitched to this unknown people who suddenly descend on a neighbourhood from nowhere and then for unknown reasons disappear without a destination. Spiritualism and witchcraft were attributed to Gypsies. How easily such fears and prejudices can get mixed up with racial considerations as well as socioeconomic and political crises of a nation and vent themselves upon a minority group which is made a scapegoat for all current ills! The Nazi racism, for example, stripped the Gypsies of legal protection, as it did the Jews. The Gypsies were outside legal procedures. According to a recent writer, Gabrielle Tyrnauer, “The rest followed: forced sterilization, deportation to slave labour and extermination camps, victimization by medical experiments and finally, mass annihilation with bullets or gas.”[10] It is estimated that 500,000 Gypsies fell victim to Nazi Racism.[11]

These atrocities raised little or no public protest because the dominant cultures everywhere considered the Gypsies as potential delinquents, ant-social, enemies of human kind, dangerous foreigners, insatiable beggars, social parasites. For example, in France, as early as 1937 the Gypsies were suspected of being collaborators of the “fifth columnists” and they were rounded up and watched over in camps. A 1912 law had already branded the Gypsy as a potential delinquent whose profile was already recorded on police records. From the age of two, a Gypsy child’s fingerprints were put on police files and any move of the family from one city to another was subject to police control at their departure and arrival. This is not meant to denigrate any one country but this law, which was abrogated only in 1969, is representative of the legal treatment given to the Gypsies everywhere. Therefore, any tragedy that befell this group did not stir any sympathy among the gadje. The gadje felt that the Gypsies deserved what was coming to them.

Even after the Second World War, the situation of the Gypsies did not change. They were subject to the same old rejection. We see this illustrated geographically in the Gypsy settlements, which were located in targeted districts or in the outskirts of cities not far from the garbage dumps where the Gypsies scavenged for scraps and lived in unhygienic conditions. The police patrols kept an eye on them through repeated controls and referred to them as dangerous even if they were not booked for any crimes. They were second-rate citizens. They depended on the gadje to find a market for their trade.

Gypsies have traditionally engaged themselves in non-agricultural activities. They plied their trade and complemented the needs of the gadje thereby earning their livelihood. The gadje with their private ownership of land and related social and state structures generated institutional and cultural norms for themselves. The Gypsy communities did not establish any institutions linked to private land ownership. They were never part of a single territory and therefore, never cared much to acquire land. This may be one of the roots of their propensity toward current consumption rather than accumulation.[12]

Today, only a fraction of Gypsy populations in Europe is truly nomadic. Even after they adopted a more sedentary life-style, the Gypsies maintained their geographical mobility, the old horse-drawn cart being replaced by the motorcar and/or caravan. They still offered the gadje their specialized services (blacksmithing, musical entertainment, collecting and processing wood and other raw materials and more recently recycling). However, with the dawn of industrialization, the size of large agrarian societies was reduced. The complementarity between the Gypsies and the agricultural societies of old began to wane. The demand for the skills and services of Gypsies drastically fell over time. Not having land of their own and lacking agricultural experience/culture, the Gypsy communities increasingly supplied cheap labour to the heavy industries that expanded during the socialist period and collapsed afterward. The unemployment, poverty and social exclusion apparent in many Gypsy Communities result from these historical roots.[13]

Generally, Gypsies are sceptical about accumulating fixed assets. Their lifestyle is provisional, highly characterized by low savings and high current consumption. This hand to mouth existence is a consequence of poverty, as well. Saving and investment are not possible when income barely covers subsistence. This means that large changes in lifestyle patterns can come only with significant improvements in Gypsy living standards.[14]

Gypsies in India

Their Estimated Number

At the time of the devastating earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, it was said of one group of people, “They lost nothing; not particularly by way of collapse of houses and structures.” They are the nomadic tribe called Rabbari. On national and state highways, they can be spotted very easily. Their caravan of camels in a single-file walking along the road and their herd and sheep, ambling alongside in the fields just below even when the sun burns down on everything on a mid-afternoon. Children, livestock, the sick ewe/lambs, and even the tired dog sometimes ride the hump of the camel on an upturned charpai (a rope-woven cot).[15] This is just one of the thousands of possible images of people that clutter the Indian landscape and suburbs of cities. A brief survey of the meager material on Gypsies available in India present a very confusing picture. According to some, there are about three million Gypsies under 120 nomadic communities.[16] According to other estimates, as stated above, there are about 8 million Gypsies in India. Still others place the number at 15 million.[17] Some others, who include many nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, place the number of Gypsies approximately around 150 million.[18] One thing is certain that in India there is no certified number of Gypsies, sedentary or otherwise. 

Socio-Economic Situation of the Gypsies[19]

Gypsies’ life has been compared to the unfettered freedom of a wild parrot or a jungle animal. Contrary to any such idyllic perceptions, the life of nomadic people in India is an elementary struggle for existence. The Indian population comprises of very large groups of socially disadvantaged people whose numbers run into millions! For centuries people belonging to these socially neglected class have led a life under oppression, neglect and isolation which have made them so weak that now they are unable to keep pace with national progress.

Although India has made a great deal of progress during the past five decades, the country has not succeeded in distributing the generated wealth in an equitable manner among the people of the country. Vast and increasing disparities have crept in between the rich and the poor and those who suffer most are groups like the Gypsies who stand at the bottom of the social strata. The Constitutions of India promised to safeguard the interests of the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes and a list of Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes was prepared. At that time, perhaps it did not occur to the framers of the Constitution that the underprivileged sections of the Indian population were too large, too varied and too heterogeneous to be huddled together into the narrow categories of Scheduled Castes and/or Scheduled Tribes. As a result, while almost all the welfare schemes were directed towards the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, a number of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities comprising a sizeable fraction of the country’s total population remained badly neglected. The curse of the unprivileged in India only intensified in the course of time. The combined effect of ever-increasing poverty and governmental neglect fell most heavily on the Gypsies of India.

The belief system of most of these nomadic groups is more popular, devotional and tradition-based. Although the more fundamentalist minded Hindu groups would claim that, they belong to the Hindu religion, yet it can be said that these nomadic groups are more nature worshipers and animists than Hindus.[20] Some groups, like the Kalenders, have accepted Islam but their faith is not so exclusive as they honour god-men of other religions as well.[21] Semi-nomadic tribes like the Bhils, Oraons, Gonds, santhals etc. have in sizable numbers accepted Christianity. Different groups of Protestants as well as the Catholic Church have fairly large communities among these people.[22]

Attempts at Amelioration of conditions

There have been some sporadic attempts to improve the lot of the Gypsies in India but without much success. Time and again some state governments have taken measures to ameliorate the living conditions of groups of Gypsies.

On the whole, most of these amelioration efforts have ended in failure. It is felt that the planners and organizers of such programmes for the Gypsies have been misguided by a myth of the existence of a specific ‘nomadic instinct’ in the nomads, and they have failed to understand the strong economic incentives which motivate their nomadic movements.[23] These attempts at amelioration have leaned toward the sedentarization of these people without really trying to understand them and their genuine needs. When it comes to helping these nomadic people, the solution proposed is the same for all groups and at all geographical areas. The traditional prescription consists of provisions of free or subsidized land, easy loans for house construction, subsidies for bullocks, ploughs etc., cooperative credit society and a production-cum-training centre. 

This wise assessment of the Committee highlights some of the principles that must be kept in mind in any programme of amelioration of nomadic people.

These efforts both of the Government and of other groups, however, are too sparse to have a real impact on the life of Gypsies as a whole in the country. These people who have no legal and social identity of any worth can do with all the help they can get and as quickly as possible.

The Church and the Gypsies:

The Gypsies and the Church in General

The Gypsy’s experience in all countries including their land of origin is one of suspicion, cautious treatment and rejection by the gadje. We could even say that the Gypsy identity is profoundly marked by an experience of rejection. The Gypsy finds himself excluded from the communion and community of the gadje. The most poignant form of exclusion and rejection comes from being considered criminal, antisocial and dangerous and therefore to be placed under surveillance, controlled by authorities and segregated from the mainstream society. Too few Christians have taken the risk of building bridges between the Gypsies and the gadje. It also true, however, that some of the strongest voices speaking in favour of Gypsies are members of the Catholic Church who are inspired and nourished by the word the Church proclaims. The same voices are also critical of the Church for her distance from the poorest groups like the Gypsies. They express the impression that the Church’s mission, entrusted to them, does not affect the whole of the Christian community, that they are too alone to overcome or close the gulf that rejection has caused between the gadje part of the Church and the Gypsies. Historically the Catholic Church has placed itself more on the side of the settled gadje. Gypsies are not at ease in our churches and in Christian gatherings. It is also not rare to meet priests, women religious and lay people at the service of Gypsies who declare their loneliness and the lack of recognition their commitments receive from the communities or from other priests and religious. Their efforts to create a team for reflection in touch with Gypsies do not often receive great support from other ministers and religious. These observations and experiences highlight for us the distance that exists between Gypsies and the Catholic Church.

However there have always been ferments of compassion and goodness in the heart of the Church towards these people. Prophetic voices in the church down the ages have lent their support to the cause of the less fortunate. Just to cite one example, Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris, while discussing the notion of common good quoted Leo XIII, “’The civil power must not serve the advantage of any one individual, or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all.’” Pope John XXIII then continued, “Considerations of justice and equity, however, can at times demand that those involved in civil government give more attention to the less fortunate members of the community, since they are less able to defend their rights and to assert their legitimate claims.”[24] In other words, the poor and the less fortunate stood not beside the rich but before them in the face of the common good. This is one of the seminal principles working in the heart of the followers of Christ down the ages, although not always visibly. These ferments rose to explicit expression in Christus Dominus of Vatican II. The Council Fathers exhorted that, “Special concern should be shown 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-travellers, Gypsies, and others of this kind.”[25] The document called on the national Episcopal Conferences to occupy themselves with the pressing problems of these people.

In order to implement the direction given by Vatican II, some structural tools were put into place. In 1965, Pope Paul VI set up at the Sacred Congregation of Bishops the International Secretariat for the Apostolate of Nomads, to give spiritual help to people without a fixed place of abode. This International Secretariat became part of the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People with the Motu Proprio Apostolicae Caritatis (19/3/1970). This Commission was attached to the Sacred Congregation of Bishops. This Commission later became a Council with full autonomy with the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of the Roman Curia (28/6/1988). Article 150 of this Constitution clearly says: “The Council is committed to assuring that particular Churches offer efficacious and relevant spiritual assistance to refugees and exiles by setting up adequate pastoral structures when necessary, as well as to migrants, nomads and circus people.” The scope of the service of the above council extends to nomadic people, i.e., persons, families and groups who lead a nomadic way of life, be it for ethnic reasons (e.g. Gypsies) or for socio-economic reasons (e.g., circus workers). It also extends to people who do not have a permanent residence and who do not enjoy pastoral care from a parish such as Irish Travelers, Belgian and Dutch people who live in caravans, river boat nomads of Bangladesh and so on. In fact, in the First International Meeting organized by the Pontifical Commission in 1975, there were delegates even from Africa representing the African nomads who are not Gypsies but cowherds and shepherds such as Tuaregs of Sahara, Masais of Tansania and Kenya, Pigmies of Central Africa etc.[26]

Although the Church’s pastoral care for the nomads is still very young, recent Popes have given it much wanted encouragement and thrust. Some 38 years ago, receiving the first Gypsy Pilgrimage, Pope Paul VI declared, the now famous, “You are in the heart of the Church.”[27] Thirty years later Pope John Paul II said to those taking part in an international convention organized by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People: “The many forms of pastoral activity carried out by groups of Gypsies who have an apostolic commitment, by the Schools of Faith and the Schools of the Word, by the national and diocesan service, by the chaplaincies for Gypsies and finally, by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, show how deeply the Church loves the Gypsy people.”[28] The Pope’s words allude to the variety of activities and organizations that have emerged in the Church in favour of the Gypsies in a relatively short period. In the same discourse, the Pope reminded the church not to overlook the history of the Gypsies, especially its tragic phases. The Pope recalled a statement he had made at the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, “The memories of the War must not grow dim; rather, they ought to become a stern lesson for our generation and for generations yet to come.” “To forget what happened in the past can open the way to new forms of rejection and aggression.”[29]

March 12, 2000 was celebrated as a day of pardon. The Holy Father led the prayer of the faithful after the homily. The Pope introduced the rite, each part of which consisted of an invitatory, followed by a moment of silence, a prayer by the Holy Father, the chanting of a triple Kyrie eleison and the lighting of a candle. One of the invitatories, read by Archbishop Stephen Fumio Hamao, President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, called for repentance of words and attitudes caused by pride, by hatred, by the desire to dominate others, by enmity towards members of other religions and towards the weakest groups in society such as immigrants and itinerants. The Holy Father prayed, “…Christians have often denied the Gospel, yielding to a mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions: be patient and merciful towards us and grant us your forgiveness…”[30]. The Pope’s prayerful gesture stands both as an act of acknowledgment of past wrongs in the Church and as a constant invitation to all in the Church to examine themselves as to their attitudes and actions towards these less fortunate people.

In a homily he preached while celebrating the Jubilee of Migrant and Itinerant People on June 2, 2000, Pope John Paul II affirmed the equal place the Gypsies have in the Church. He stated, “Ever since the Son of God ‘pitched his tent among us’, every person has in a way become a ‘place’ of encounter with him.”[31] Quoting Pope Paul VI, he stated, “For the Catholic Church, no one is a stranger, no one is excluded, no one is distant” (AAS, 58 [1966], pp. 51-59). The pope pointed out that despite the fact that there are no strangers or sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (cf. Eph 2:19), “…we still encounter in the world a closed minded attitude, even one of rejection, due to unjustified fears and concern for one’s own interests alone. These forms of discrimination are incompatible with belonging to Christ and to the Church.”[32] The Pope outlined the broad principle that should govern the relationship between the Gypsies and gadje: “in a complex society like ours which is marked by many tensions, the culture of acceptance must be joined with prudent and far-sighted laws and norms, which allow the most to be made of the positive aspects of human mobility and to provide for its possibly negative aspects. This will ensure that every person is effectively respected and accepted.” Any action undertaken in favour of Migrants and Itinerant People must be governed by the rule: “Always put man and respect for his rights at the centre…”[33]

The theme of this Congress is drawn from the fourth part of the Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte of Pope John Paul II. In this section of the Apostolic Letter, the Pope unfolds a spirituality of communion. What reveals the essence of the mystery of the Church is the koinonia (communion) that results from loving others ‘as he has loved us.’ It is also of this koinonia that the Church is a sacrament. To make the Church both a home and school what we need is not merely good and charitable action but a genuine spirituality of communion. The spirituality of communion implies the following:

The ability to see the reflection of the God of communion (trinity) on the face of all our brothers and sisters.

The ability to see others as “those who are part of me” – those bound to me in the Mystical Body – and therefore being able to transfer their joys, sufferings and desires as my own.

The ability to see what is positive in others as a gift given not only to them but also through them to us.

The ability “to know how to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens’ (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy.”[34]

According to the Pope, any programmes of action, project of Christian education, formation of ministers of the altar, of consecrated persons and of pastoral workers, all efforts to build up families and communities must be permeated with and guided by this spirituality of communion. In the context of the historical distance between the Gypsies and the gadje, it is evident that without being drawn into the enleavening effect of the spirituality of communion any effort to bridge the distance between the two would be hollow.

The Gypsies and the Indian Church

In India Pastoral Care of nomads is of very recent origin. It is not that the Indian Church was closed to this people. Perhaps the majority of the faithful especially in the mission dioceses live in conditions that we associate with the Gypsies, that these churches have not been able to turn their attention to smaller groups like the Gypsies. Fr. Renato Rosso, a pioneer in this ministry in the world, has made a significant contribution in awakening the Indian Church to the awareness of Nomadic people in India. In 1988, when Pope John Paul II, through the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus, set up the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, he had also intended that there would be some body at the level of every Catholic Episcopal Conference to cater to the pastoral needs of Migrants and Itinerant People. It was to fulfill this vision of the Pope that PACNI (Pastoral Care of Nomads in India) was established in 1993, with the support of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. From its inception in 1993, Most Rev. Dr. Pascal Topno, Archbishop of Bhopal has been guiding this pastoral enterprise. Since these last two years as a member of this pontifical commission I too have been involved in this organization.

PACNI seeks to reach out to the Gypsies. It wishes to get involved with all nomadic groups. It pays special attention to children and women and ministers in areas of health, education and increasing awareness and spiritual assistance. All nomadic groups are religious but among some of them, there are very few Christians. There are many Narikuravas and Lambadas in protestant Churches and there are many Catholics among Bhils and Bhilalas. However, PACNI wishes to reach out to all these groups irrespective of their religious faith because all human beings bear the image of God. PACNI invites all people among whom it works to a conversion of heart, to non-violence, mercy, love etc. PACNI seeks to uphold the humanity of this people especially of their women and children.

From 1993 onwards, PACNI has seen a steady growth. The Sixth National Meeting and Seminar of PACNI was held in Khandwa, from September 23-26, 2002. There were about 100 participants coming from all parts of India. It was found that there were 35 religious congregations of women now engaged in this ministry in India. At the meeting, Archbishop Pascal Topno announced that PACNI is now part of the Labour Commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI). The reason for integrating it into the Labour Commission was that the nomadic people are considered labourers for the most part. In India, the pastoral care of nomadic people is divided into Southern, Central and Northern Regions taking into account the distances within the country. The World Gypsy Day is celebrated in India on April 8. To mark this day meetings are held in villages, special Masses are celebrated in parishes and pastoral workers strive for awareness building among the population regarding the needs of the Gypsy people.[35]

Some of the activities undertaken by PACNI are innovative and fruitful: classes are organized for children near the work places of their parents, lessons are given under trees for to street children, voluntary doctors give free medical check-up to children, health care and nutrition planning are taught to mothers, small saving schemes are organized by pastoral workers, Gypsies are enlisted in the voters’ list, child labour and child begging are prevented, people are empowered through education. There are 452 non-formal schools run by the pastoral workers for Gypsy children.[36]

Some of the immediate problems that Gypsies in India face are: hunger and discrimination, in society, in schools and in public, Lack of basic amenities, police harassment, stigma as criminals, child labour, non education of children, not enlisting them in the voters’ list thus denying them their right of citizenship. All these violations can be classified under four categories: i) basic needs, ii) basic discriminations, iii) violence and iv) lack of awareness. PACNI attempts to remedy these problems using: personal contacts, study of the situation and identification of the exact problem, advocacy, lobbying, creating awareness, use of the media, empowering Gypsy men and women, net-working with like minded NGOs etc.[37]

Scriptural Inspirations for a Spirituality of Communion between Gypsies and Gadje

Alien Dignity of the Human Person

The Bible speaks of the human person essentially in reference to God. The human person is the reverberation of the word of God: “Let us make man in our image; after our likeness…God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26,27). Like the rest of creation, the human person is made of the word of God. However, the human person has a special place in creation because he is the image, an icon, of God. He derives his form, his life and his image, his maleness and femaleness from God. His fundamental dignity lies not in his achievements and accomplishments but in his being a gift of God. His is, therefore, an “alien dignity.” The human person is the apple of God’s eye; those who touch him touch God. Any human koinonia must be founded on this premise if it is to be viable and Christian. When this transcendent dimension is not recognized then the human person might be reduced to an object of domination by the selfishness and ambition of other persons or by a totalitarian state.

Differences of People

In its early pages, the Bible acknowledges the differences and tensions that exist between people who have different life-styles. Genesis tells us that Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the ground (Gen 4:2). In the context of our discussion, we cannot but see a similarity between these two brothers of the Bible and the two kinds of people who are the subject of our reflection – the Gypsies and the gadje. The narrative reports the differences of life-style that exist between the brothers without critiquing the differences. However, the story insists that, whatever the differences between us, what happens between us matters to God. We cannot come into the presence of God all by ourselves. God will enquire, “Where is your brother/sister?” We are accountable to God for our brothers and sisters. Their cries of pain and suffering reach his ears and they have immediate repercussions on our lives.

Itinerant God of an Alien People

 The “small historical credo” of the Israelite began with the words, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5). The experience of being an alien or sojourner was fundamental to Israel’s early identity. Abraham was called away from kin and familiar land to be a stranger in a new place. In the midst of God’s promises of offspring and land Abraham was told: “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not their, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years” (Gen 15:13). The notion of being a sojourner or alien was actually embedded in the covenant and was part of what it meant to be the people of Yahweh.[38]

Side by side this theme of Israel’s identity another great theme is juxtaposed, viz. the theme of an itinerant God who calls a group of sojourners in an alien land “my people” and who “…has seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry …” (Ex 3:7). “One thing makes this God different from the divinities found just about everywhere in those days. All those deities were linked to particular places—mountains, rivers, cities, regions — whereas the God that speaks to Abraham is a God who is not tied down to one spot. This God is a sojourner God, a pilgrim God”[39] This is a God who refuses to live in a temple, in a fixed space, because this is the God of the tent, the traveller God always ready to guide Israel in its journey (2 Sam 7:1-7). The theme of the migrant God reappears in the New Testament. The author of the fourth Gospel tells us that the Word became flesh and “pitched his tent” among us (Jn 1:14).

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were sojourners (gerim) in the land of Canaan, and later the Israelites lived as aliens in Egypt. Even when Israel finally inherited the land, God reminded the people, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23). The Israelites were to view themselves as resident aliens in their own land, for God owned that land they were to be is stewards and caretakers, living on the land by God’s permission and grace.[40] All along their sojourn, Israel was borne by their itinerant God, “…as a man bears his son, in all the way…” that they went (Deut 1:31). Their sojourn as aliens and the goodness of their itinerant God were so deeply etched in the historical memory of Israel that they were constantly challenged to deal fairly and kindly with the gerim in their midst. Israel owed everything to Yahweh. It had to remember that it too was a “ger” and a slave in the land of Egypt. When Israel forgot this and turned to idolatry and oppression they literally became aliens in a foreign land; they became orphans and widows, without support, freedom, safety, food, or hope.[41]

Therefore, the Israelite codes mention the sojourner even before the orphan and widow. People lived as sojourners and aliens among the ancient Israelites for many reasons. However, with no right to possess land and with only their labour to sustain them, the sojourners’ living condition was precarious and they were dependent on the willingness of the community to welcome them into its life. Hence, the Covenant Code exhorts: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21; 23:9). Like the Levite, the widow and the orphan, the stranger could benefit from the triennial tithe (Deut 14:29), glean the fields, gather the olives left on the tree and over the vines. The Deuteronomic Code not only requires the Israelites to remember that they were slaves in the land of Egypt (Deut 24:18-22) but also for that reason they must love the stranger (Deut 10:19). The parallel commands to love neighbour and sojourner in Leviticus 19:17 and 34 seem to have been unique to Israel.[42]

However, strangers were not welcomed unconditionally. When strangers, their culture, and their gods threatened Israel’s covenantal obligations, its identity and unity, Israel had to opt for these latter. Thus, sometimes loyalty to Yahweh and welcoming strangers brought tensions. Israel owed exclusive loyalty and obedience to Yahweh. Yet part of that obedience required loving and protecting aliens. Generous welcome and the exclusion of foreign elements that might subvert Israel’s commitment to Yahweh were simultaneously affirmed.

The above biblical orientation demands that a concern for the physical, social and spiritual well-being of Gypsies (migrants, refugees etc.) should not be peripheral to Christian life, mission and witness; instead it should be central. In setting priorities of mission and ministry, church organizations must take such vulnerable people first for consideration.[43]

Biblical accounts also suggest that only those who consider themselves aliens and strangers are capable of making a life-giving place for others. This calls for a distance from the power dynamics and status distinctions of the larger society. At the same time, those who put on the attitude of aliens and strangers also appreciate “…the importance of place; they recognize the value of safe places that are rich with meanings, relationships, and practices. So while ‘aliens,’ they are not ‘just passing through,’ detached and unconcerned about this world. They recognize that the world is not their home while simultaneously creating homes and communities that are life-giving and life-sustaining.”[44]

Hospitality and Strangers (“Athithi”=guest) in the New Testament[45]

The birth narratives of Jesus poignantly describe for us the alien state of Jesus himself. He was born into a family that was temporarily homeless and in an unfamiliar town. He was honoured by foreigners by offering of gifts and he was threatened by local leaders who wanted to kill him. Later he and his family found refuge in Egypt. Jesus knew the pains of being a stranger even among his own people!

In all of the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a stranger and host, a teacher with nowhere to lay his head, and yet graciously welcoming huge crowds, feeding the hungry, and making a place for the lost. He provides meals on hillsides and at lakeshores, and regularly eats with people that the religious leaders called “the rabble.”

On the Road to Emmaus, Jesus Joins the pair of disciples as a stranger and then becomes a guest in their home. As they share a meal together, Jesus becomes their host and he is recognized by them in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:13-35). Jesus so unexpectedly invited himself as a guest in the house of Zacchaeus. Jesus also describes himself as the bread of life (Jn 6:35-51). Thus, Jesus is stranger, guest, host, and meal. The motif of hospitality is scripted right into the centre of the person and ministry of Jesus.

In the Christian hospitality tradition we must note two important elements: The first is referred to in Lk 14:12-14. In the context of a dinner party, Jesus exhorts hosts as to who should be preferred guests at such gatherings. Ordinary hosts welcome family, friends, and wealthy neighbours who can return a favour. However, Jesus singles out for welcome the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, those who seem to bring little in return to the relationship. In fact, reward and blessings are promised, but they come from God and such welcome reflects and anticipates the hospitality of God’s Kingdom.

Secondly, in the story of the last judgment (Mt 25:31-46) “…the sheep are separated from the goats on the basis of their treatment of those who are hungry, naked, sick, and in prison.”[46] Our daily minute interactions of hospitality especially towards those, whom the world considers ‘useless’ or ‘burdensome,’ are inseparably tied to our response to God and they affect our long-term relationship with God.

These two passages have always animated the Christian hospitality tradition mysteriously suggesting the possibility that in welcoming ‘the least’ we are welcoming Jesus himself. They also have tilted Christian hospitality towards those who apparently have nothing to offer in return. Moreover, the passages tie human hospitality to God’s welcome, and God’s presence and reward to simple acts of care.

In a world of cruel ethnic prejudices and tensions, vast socioeconomic differences and injustices acts of hospitality is like a “little moves against destructiveness.”[47] Hospitality is an important expression of recognition and respect for those who are despised or overlooked by the larger society. When we eat and drink together, and when we share in conversation with persons significantly different from ourselves, we make powerful statements to the world about who is interesting, valuable, and important to us.

We must also note another important point. Christian hospitality does not welcome others in a completely open space. It wishes to break down barriers of class, race, and ethnicity. However, it does not welcome people in a totally neutral space when it welcomes people into a church or into Christian faith. We welcome others with respect for our identity as a community of disciples of Jesus Christ, an ecclesia. The welcome we offer is not like a welcome that is offered by a hotel or railway station. We offer the welcome of a home, of a community. Christian hospitality welcomes the other as he is; but it invites the other to be touched and transformed by our home, our community and our hospitality.

Certainly there is a profound tension between maintaining our identity and respectfully receiving others into our midst; between communicating all that is dear and valuable to us in friendship and respecting the rights of others. Christian hospitality must acknowledge and recognize this tension and deal with it in a way that does not demean ourselves and others, including those who disagree with us.

Christian hospitality is not a programme or strategy to attain an objective; but a way of life. There is always the danger of making hospitality as a means to get others to be what we want them to be and to do what we want them to do. Christian hospitality therefore is not a means to an end; it is a way of life inspired by the gospel. In the early church Christian leaders warned believers against “ambitious” hospitality, or hospitality done for gains or advantage.[48] Hospitality in the “Society” circles is often done to gain some advantage. People choose guests carefully to make sure that they are the right ones so that in future some advantage might accrue. Christ and early Christian leaders instruct us that we must not do so. Those who cannot return any favours are to be our guests. Yet, Christian hospitality is also full of possibilities and promise. We welcome the least but they might be angels (Heb 13:2) or even Jesus himself (Mt 25).

There is always the danger that even in our mission and ministry hospitality might be converted into a strategy. If hospitality works, if people do respond, we might turn the tap on and if it does not we might turn it off. If our welcome is only a strategy our guests will soon recognize that they have been instrumentalized and used. They become victims of our programmes and strategies which we drop when another more promising group of people and programmes come along. A sudden surge of Gypsies in our neighbourhood might be a frightening phenomenon when viewed from the secure and routine comforts of our homes, our communities and our rectories. We cannot extend Christian hospitality to these people unless we distance ourselves from the world and its institutions of status and power, unless we put on a profound sense of our own status as aliens and sojourners.

Christian hospitality also suggests a way of integrating our Church, mission and social ministry. All, especially the disadvantaged groups like the Gypsies, long for a real community; they ache for a place to belong and to contribute. However, during the course of our history we have departmentalized our life, our worship, our mission and our ministry. We offer people our church to worship, our educational and social work institutions for doing our mission and ministry but we keep ourselves away from people while the real cry is for community (communion) with us. In our hospices we offer people food and lodge but not friendship, in our schools we offer education but not companionship, in our hospitals we offer healthcare but not human care. Christian hospitality calls for combining the personal character of the household with the more public and transforming qualities of the church. Within this space, God was ultimately host and householder, and all who gathered were God’s guests, equals at God’s table.

Even a cursory look at some of the biblical themes suggest to us that genuine communion between people can occur:- i) when every human person is respected as a child and image of God; ii) when the differences among people are accepted as gifts given to all; iii) when we all stand in humble relationship with one another knowing we are all aliens and sojourners; iv) when we can offer genuine Christian hospitality to all.

In Conclusion - A Step Forward:

Pope John Paul II in Nuovo Millennio Ineunte (beginning the New Millennium) concludes his Apostolic Letter with “Duc in Altum”. It is a call to renewed commitment to our mission in the contxt of the new millennium which opens before the Church “like vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ.” He further adds, “many are the paths on which each one of our Church must travel, but there is no distance between those who are united in the same communion”( Nuovo Millennio Ineunte no.58).

Gypsies are a people who need the support of the church and its ministers. The Church, as the embodiment of the good Samaritan of the Lord’s story cannot pass by a situation of prejudice, oppression, rejection and suffering without responding to it in a way that speaks of the Heavenly Father’s goodness in this world. The objective of the pastoral care of the church is always the formation of a good human being worthy of God and creation of a human community that lives and proclaims the koinonia of the Trinitarian God himself. Obviously, a pastoral care that has these goals, goes beyond socio-economic agendas and programmes. People who suffer deprivation, prejudices and oppression certainly need socio-economic and political programmes in order to meet their basic and immediate needs. Church ministers of pastoral care for these people need to initiate and/or be involved in these programmes. The Church’s Pastoral Care for a hungry man, must attend to his immediate need for food. However, giving food does not constitute the entire objective of that pastoral care. Sometimes public and political pressure must be brought to bear on oppressive forces so that the hungry person may be fed and so that conditions for his continued sustenance may be created.

These efforts may form part of the pastoral care of the church but cannot constitute all of that pastoral care. Socioeconomic programmes and political processes can overhaul governments and systems; but unless and until human hearts are overhauled nothing really changes. Newer structures of governance and instruments of service not founded on the conversion of heart will soon become more oppressive than those already existing. Therefore, in the case of pastoral care of Gypsies, the Church and its ministers must, aim at, in addition to socioeconomic and political programmes, enabling both the Gypsies and the gadje to see each other as children of God worthy of each other’s respect. They should feel solidarity with each other recognizing each other as belonging to the same family of the father and the mystical body of Jesus Christ. They should learn to appreciate the positive aspects of the other’s culture as a valuable gift of God to be shared with each other bearing each other’s burden. They should extend to each other the Christian hospitality acknowledging at the most profound level that the earth and all its riches belong to God and that we are all aliens and sojourners. Centuries of caution, suspicion and prejudice hardened into the unconscious of groups cannot be removed from human hearts merely through socioeconomic programmes and political processes. The groups must be enabled to celebrate koinonia at the human, cultural and spiritual levels. UNDP Report points out that neither Roma NGOs, nor Roma political parties enjoy significant levels of trust from Roma communities. Roma also seem to have little trust in Non-Roma NGOs.[49] In other words, even those who work for the good of these marginalized groups are never fully trusted and received into the community. It is at this level of creating trust that the Church’s pastoral care of these people must play a crucial role.

Any meaningful pastoral care of the Gypsies must aim at their integration into the society rather than their assimilation. Integration means providing them the opportunity to participate in socioeconomic life on an equal basis without losing their own distinct identity.[50] Attempts made by governments and other organizations to help these people have often sought to assimilate them into the Society’s mainstream. Assimilation means “Social inclusion at the expense of losing distinct group identity. Assimilation of minorities (usually ethnic) generally requires the sacrifice of their ethno-cultural distinctiveness in order to receive ‘entry opportunities’. Assimilation is rarely successful, at least in the short and medium term. Minorities can easily lose elements of their distinctiveness without receiving commensurate ‘entry opportunities.’”[51] Programmes that aim at assimilation start from the implicit premise that the lifestyle of the minority in question is not merely different from the dominant culture, but that it is deviant, deficient and even wrong and therefore it must be corrected, changed and the people concerned must be rehabilitated. This approach is very offensive and hurting to say the least. This can never be the approach and programme of pastoral care the church undertakes.

Ministers who are involved in the pastoral care of marginalized groups, like the Gypsies, have a great responsibility to bring these groups into interaction with the societal mainstream. It is understandable that being very close to the injustices and deprivations meted out on this people the ministers may share the anger of the suffering people. The ministers however, must find spiritual resources in themselves so that in the last analysis their ministry will be one of reconciliation and not division. To take a preferential option for a marginalized group might sometimes mean taking a stance against the dominant group. However, such a stance and its expressions in Christian pastoral care cannot merely be political. It is not just a matter of harnessing public opinion and pressurizing the dominant group into submission; it is rather a matter of persuading the other, inviting the other to conversion of heart, declaring the goodness of God in a situation of sin. When it comes to push and shove (sometimes literally) the Christian pastoral care agent will strive to respond in such a manner that his response will leave behind a memory of goodness and godliness that will haunt the memory of the people involved.
[1]Davindera, Socialization and Education of Nomad Children in Delhi State (New Delhi: Regency Publications, 1997), 1.
[2]Harold J. Fontenot, “Roma / Gypsies, An Introduction” in ( The World Wide Web Virtual Library
1999), 1.
[3]Rom, Roma, Romani, and Romaniya should not be confused with the country of Romania, or the city of Rome. These names have separate, distinct etymological origins and are not related.
[4]Harold J. Fontenot, art.cit.
[5]Archbishop Stephen Fumio Hamao, “Message to the National Conference on the Pastoral Care of Nomadic People,” People On The Move, Migrants, Refugees, Seafarers, Nomads, Tourists, All Itinerants XXXI (December 2000), 65.
[6]André Barthélèmy, “The Gypsies’ Vocation and Mission in the World and in the Church,” People OnThe Move,XX (September 1990), 49.
[7]Cf. Harold J. Fontenot, art. cit.
[8]Ruhela, S.P., “Nomadic Tribes of the World: A Brief Survey,” Jan Jagriti vol. 1, no. 10 (1963). Cited from Davindera, op. cit., 3-7.
[9]United Nations Development Programme’s Report (UNDP Report), “Avoiding the Dependency Trap,” (February 11, 2003), 18-19.
[10]Cited from Robert A. Graham, “The Other Holocaust, The True Face of Nazi Racism,” in Zingari Oggi Tra Storia e Nuove Esigenze Pastorali, Atti Del IV Convegno Internazionale della Pastorale per gli Zingari, Roma 6-8 Giugno 1995 (Città del Vaticano: Pontificio Consiglio della Pastorale per i Migranti e gli Itineranti), 38.
[11]Ibid. 40.
[12]Cf. UNDP Report, op.cit., 19.
[15]This is a picture painted in words by Fr. Xavier Pinto, Executive Secretary to the Commission for Labour of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India in a presentation during International Solidarity Day with Migrant Workers, December 18, 2001.
[16]Cf. for example, Davindera, op. cit., vii.
[17]Cf. for example Fr. Xavier Pinto, in the presentation cited above.
[18]Cf. for example, Fr. Mathias Bhuria, an expert on tribals in a communiqué to Archbishop Stephen Fumio Hamao, dated August 1, 2001.
[19]On this section cf. Davindera, op.cit., 8-21.
[20]Mathias Bhuriya, “Pastoral Care of the Tribal Nomads in India, With Special Reference to the Bhils in Central and Western India” – Paper presented in Fourth National Meeting and Seminary on Pastoral Care of Nomads in Chennai, Pastoral Care of Nomads in India (No. 5. October 2000), 9.
[21]Ruhela S.P., op.cit., 8-9.
[22]Mathias Bhuriya, op. cit., 10.
[23]Ibid. 60.
[24]John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, p. 56.
[25]Vatican II, Christus Dominus, p. 18.
[26]Cf. Conference of Msgr. Anthony Chirayath at the International Meeting on the Pastoral Care of Nomads, Rome, Thursday 29, November 2001.Cf. also Velasio De Paolis, “La Pastorale Del Migranti e le sue Strutture Secondo I Documenti Della Chiesa,” People on the Move, Migrants, Refugees, Seafarers, Nomads, Tourists, All Itinerants, XXXIV (December 2001), 134.
[27] L’Osservatore Romano, No. 26 (Weekly Edition in English, 28 June 1995), 5.
[30] L”Osservatore Romano, No. 12 (Weekly English Edition, 22 March, 2000), 4.
[31] L’Osservatore Romano, No. 25 (Weekly English Edition, 7 June, 2000), 3.
[34]John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana), p. 43.
[35]Msgr. Anthony Chirayath, “Report of the VI National Meeting and Seminary of PACNI,” People on the Move, Migrants, Refugees, Seafarers, Nomads, Tourists, All Itinerants, xxxIV (December 2002), 225-227.
[38]Christine D. Pohl, “Biblical Issues in Mission and Migration,” Missiology, Vol. XXXI, Number 1, (January 2003), 5.
[39]Brother John of Taize, The Pilgrim God: A Biblica Journey (Washington D.C., Pastoral Press, 1985), 13. Cited from Gioacchino Campese, “Walk Humbly with Your God! Notes on a Spirituality for Missionaries with Migrants,” Missiology, Vol. XXV, number 2 (April 1997), 134.
[40]Christine D. Pohl, art. cit., 5.
[41]Ibid., 6.
[42]Hans Walther Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 188.
[43]Christine D. Pohl, art. cit., 8
[44]Ibid., 10.
[45]Cf. on this section ibid. 7-13.
[46]Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 464.
[47]Philip Hallie, Let Innocent Blood Be Shed (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 85.
[48]Cf. for example, John Chrysostom, “Homily 20 on I Corinthians,” A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo and New York: Christian Literature Company, 1886-1890), Vol. 12, 117. Cited from Christine D. Pohl, art. cit., 11.
[49]UNDP Report, op. cit., 82.
[50]Cf. UNDP Report, op. cit., 16.