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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 100 (Suppl.), April 2006



Identity and Specific Pastoral Care



Cardinal Stephen Fumio HAMAO

President of the Pontifical Council

for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People



After several years of study and reflection I am glad to present to you today The Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of Gypsies. In fact, it was on 23 June 1999, during my report to the XIV Plenary Session of our Pontifical Council[1], that I mentioned, for the first time, the need and the importance of preparing such a document. At the beginning of 2001, a group of experts met in the offices of the Pontifical Council to examine a draft document and in November of the same year it was presented to all National Directors and some experts, during a meeting convened by our Pontifical Council. But the result was not satisfactory. Thus in 2002, we decided to ask one expert alone to prepare a new instrumentum laboris, called “Jalons”, that could be used as a basis of the future work.

The Fifth World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Gypsies, held in Budapest in 2003, subsequently provided the opportunity to expand and deepen the theological and ecclesiological aspects of this ministry. A long way has gone since then for the formulation of the present document which has passed through the hands of other experts, including Gypsies themselves, pastoral agents and Bishops, and of course the Members and Consultors of our Dicastery. It was also sent to various Dicasteries of the Roman Curia for observations, such that this ministry could be situated in the broader framework of the Church’s universal mission. The present document therefore takes into account all the relevant material gathered during this iter (cf. Guidelines no. 3). 

A special mission

The specific pastoral care of Gypsies (I mean in the modern times) had its origins in the first half of the twentieth century through the individual initiatives of some zealous priests in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The Holy See recognized it as a special mission in 1965, after the first historic international pilgrimage of Gypsies in Rome[2], by creating the International Secretariat for the Apostolate of Nomads in the then Sacred Consistorial Congregation (now Congregation for Bishops). This Secretariat was later integrated into the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migration and Tourism, created by Paul VI in 1970[3]. With the Apostolic Constitution “Pastor Bonus”[4]of John Paul II, this Commission became an “autonomous” Council. 

The need for the Document

The need for some Guidelines was evident from the very beginning, but since the specific apostolate of nomads had just started, it was considered appropriate to promote this ministry first of all in those countries where there was a considerable number of Catholic Gypsies, and then prepare the Guidelines based on the experience and studies. Now after more than four decades I can happily say that the pastoral care of Gypsies is well established in almost all countries of Europe, in some areas of South and Central America and in some countries of Asia such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. This is undoubtedly an expression of the Church’s missionary solicitude. Therefore this document is addressed not only to all those who are involved - Gypsies or not - in this specific pastoral field, but also to the Church set up in the territory (Guidelines no. 4). 

An ethnic group

Gypsies, as a specific ethnic group, which probably had its origin in northwest India, are known by different names such as Roma, Sinti, Manouches, Kalé, Gitans, Yeniches, etc. Though the document refers to Gypsies, whose number in Europe alone is about fifteen million, it is equally valid for other nomads, who share similar conditions of life (in the various continents). In any case, nomadism is not the only characteristic of the gypsy people, also because many of them are now settled permanently or partially. It is their ethnicity, their culture and age-old traditions that we should take into account. Therefore the local Churches, in countries where they live, should find pastoral inspiration in these Guidelines obviously adapting them to the circumstances, needs and requirements of each group (Guidelines nos. 5-6). 

Positive signs of evolution

Happily there are many signs of a positive evolution in the traditional Gypsy way of living and thinking. It is very heartening to observe a growing desire to attain literacy and professional formation, social and political awareness expressed by forming associations and parties, increasing participation in the local and national management in some countries, the presence of women in social and civic life, growing number of vocations to the permanent diaconate, the priesthood and religious life among them, etc. The Christian and social promotion undertaken by the Catholic Church, particularly according to the teachings of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, have helped in this. It was also with a certain amount of collective pride that, on 4 May 1997, the Gypsies assisted at the beatification of the Spanish martyr Ceferino Jiménez Malla[5], the first Gypsy to be raised to the honour of the altar (Guidelines no. 21). 

A right to their own identity

“From birth to death, the condition of each individual is that of the homo viator”[6], affirmed Pope John Paul II. This is certainly expressed by the life of Gypsies. However, in spite of their right to such an identity, indifference or opposition towards the Gypsy population is not absent. Many in fact share habitual prejudices towards them. Signs of rejection persist, often without eliciting any reaction or protest from those who witness them. This has caused untold suffering in the course of history, as we know. Their persecution reached its height especially during the past century. This situation should stir the consciences of everyone and arouse solidarity towards this population. Obviously the Church should recognize their right to have their own identity, and stir consciences in order to achieve greater justice for them. Of course they, too, have duties towards the surrounding population. In this context, I remember that during the Mass of Forgiveness, celebrated in St. Peter’s Square on 12 March, on the occasion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, I invited everyone to pray, in the presence of the Pope, that “Christians will be able to repent of the words and attitudes caused by pride, hatred, the desire to dominate others, by enmity towards members of other religions and towards the weakest groups in society, such as immigrants and itinerants”[7](cf. Guidelines no. 74). 

Permanent wandering

Often marked by persecution, exile, inhospitality, rejection, suffering and discrimination, Gypsy history is shaped by permanent wandering that distinguishes them from others. This has given rise to an identity with its own languages, and a culture and religiosity with their own traditions, and a strong sense of belonging, with its relative bonds. So with them humanity is enriched by a real cultural heritage. Indeed “their wisdom is not written down in books, but that does not make it any less eloquent”[8]. Their way of life is essentially a living witness to inner freedom from the bonds of consumerism and false security based on people’s presumed self-sufficiency. Nevertheless – as it is affirmed in the Guidelines no. 27 – we should not forget the popular proverb that says: “God helps those who help themselves”.  

New evangelization

These Guidelines are a sign that the Church has a particular concern for Gypsies, meaning that they are the receiver of a special pastoral action in appreciation of their culture that, like all others, must pass through the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection. In fact, everyone should be welcomed in the Church, where there is no place for marginalisation and exclusion. The one and only Gospel should therefore be proclaimed in such a way as to take account of different cultures and traditions: this is the process of inculturation. In the footsteps of its Founder, the Church should seek ever more suitable means to proclaim the Gospel also to Gypsies in a lively and effective way. The Guidelines should help in this, as an instrument of the “new evangelization” which Pope John Paul II so often requested us to engage in (cf. Guidelines nos. 30-32 ).

[1]Proceedings of the XIV Plenary Session of the Pontifical Council, Vatican City (1999), no. 7, p. 20.
[2]First International Pilgrimage of Gypsies, Rome, 26 September 1965: Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, III (1965), 490-495.
[3]Paul VI, Motu Proprio Apostolicae Caritatis, 19 March 1970: AAS LXII (1970) 193-197.
[4]John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, art. 150 §1: AAS LXXX (1988) 899.
[5]Cf. Romualdo Rodrigo, OAR, Gypsy Saint Ceferino Jiménez Malla (1861 – 1936), Rome 1997. 
[6]John Paul II, Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 Incarnationis Mysterium, 29 November 1998: AAS XCI (1999) 144-147.
[7] L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, N. 12 - 22 March 2000 -, p. 4.
[8]John Paul II, Speech to participants at the III International Congress on the Pastoral Care of Gypsies, 9 November 1989: Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, XII, 2 (1989) 1195.