Pope Benedict XVI welcomed over 2,000 gypsies to the Vatican June 11. They are converging on Rome this weekend to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Bl. Zefirino Giménez Malla.
Known as “El Pelé,” Bl. Zefirino was a gypsy who gave his life to defend a priest during the Spanish Civil War. This year also marks the 75th anniversary of his martyrdom.
“Blessed Zefirino invites you to follow his example and shows you the way: the dedication to prayer and the Rosary in particular, love for the Eucharist and the other sacraments, the observance of the commandments, honesty, charity and generosity toward others, especially the poor,” the Pope told the pilgrims.
The delegation was drawn from 20 European countries and included seven different gypsy communities: the Roma, the Sinti, the Manouches, Kalé, Zingari, Yenish, Romanichals and Travellers.
During the audience several of the pilgrims told Pope Benedict of the persecution that gypsies had faced throughout the 20th century. This included the testimony of Austrian-born Ceija Stojka.
Stojka recalled how only six of her 200-strong family survived Nazi persecution during the Second World War. She herself, at only age nine, was deported to the Nazi camps at Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück and then to Bergen-Belsen.
“The European consciousness cannot forget all the pain,” the Pope said in response.“Never again will your people be subjected to harassment, rejection and contempt. For your part, always seek justice, the rule of law, reconciliation and try to never be the cause of another’s suffering.”
One of the key organizers of today’s event has been the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. Its president, Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò, says the Church would like to remind society of its responsibility towards gypsies – and vice versa.
“As the Holy Father is keen to emphasize, the Church has the mission to be hospitable and to help Christians to overcome any feeling of mistrust, fear, or worse, rejection of the Gypsies,” he told Vatican Radio before the audience.
“In addition, she advocates the authentic integration of this people and tries to help them integrate into the society, while maintaining their cultural identity. The Church shall not, then, cease to remind that they too are called to assume their proper responsibilities.”
He also noted the apostolic fruits that are emerging from this approach.
“For example, a few months ago the Holy Father nominated the first gypsy Bishop in India, and there are two vicars general, 25 priests and 30 religious nuns.” The Pope also noted this reality.
Pope Benedict concluded his remarks on June 11 by saying: “Trust and listen to these your brothers and sisters, and together they offer a consistent and joyful proclamation of God's love for the Gypsy people, like all people!”