Pope Benedict XVI will welcome groups of European gypsies to the Vatican this Saturday.
The delegation, which will include members the Roma, Sinti, Manouches, Kale, Yenish and Travellers communities from 20 European countries, is taking part in a pilgrimage to Rome to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of their patron, Blessed Ceferino Gimenez.
A gypsy martyr of Spanish origin, Bl. Gimenez lived from 1861 to 1936 and was beatified by Bl. Pope John Paul II in 1997. This year also marks the 75th anniversary of his martyrdom.
The Sant’Egidio lay community, which has helped organize the meeting, is describing Saturday’s pilgrimage and audience as a “significant event”, showing the Church “loves gypsies and recognizes them as a minority in Europe, with their rights and their duties.” The event is also being organized by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People and the Italian Church.
Although this is the first time the Roma and Sinti communities have had an audience with a pope, previous popes have met members of the gypsy communities: Paul VI had audiences with them in 1965 and 1975; John Paul II met various delegations when he presided over Bl. Gimenez’s beatification, and he did so again during the Jubilee Year of 2000, during which he asked for the Lord’s forgiveness for sins committed against gypsies by the Church.
In recent years the Church has been especially vocal in defending the communities, most notably in Italy and France where governments have sought to deport them or limit their rights. Critics, however, argue that certain aspects of gypsy culture are contrary to human dignity. Others highlight that often they choose not to integrate with the rest of society and urge them instead to assume the duties incumbent on all the citizens of the countries in which they live (the Church draws attention to this too).
In attendance on Saturday will be Ceija Stojka, an Austrian Roma who at the age of 9 was first sent to Auschwitz, then to Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen extermination camps. Of the 200 members of her family, only six survived the Second World War.
Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Sant’Egidio community which for 30 years has cared for Roma and Sinti gypsies living in Italian and European camps, said Saturday’s meeting will underline “how the figure of the Pope is shown to be the common father of all peoples, also the poorest.”