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For all the rainbow saints. . .

12 July 2019

A new book celebrates an often overlooked diversity. In this edited extract, Steven Horne is inspired by the example of a Spanish Gypsy, Ceferino Giminéz Malla

Yvan Travert /Photononstop/Superstock

Painting of Ceferino, the first Gypsy saint, in the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, France

Painting of Ceferino, the first Gypsy saint, in the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, France

IN MAY 1997, a Spanish Gypsy, Ceferino Giminéz Malla (1861-1936) — or El Pele, “The Strong One” — was beatified by Pope John Paul II: the first (and only) person of Gypsy origin ever to be honoured as a saint. He had lived a life of devotion to his faith, and paid the ultimate price in 1936, facing a Spanish firing squad for defending priests from attacks and for refusing to cease his habit of prayer.

Typically, the history books revere El Pele for the way his life ended. While it was his act of martyrdom which secured him recognition by the Church many years later, it was his life of integrity, honour, loyalty, and holiness which secured him recognition among his own people, the Gypsies. In a life spent healing the divisions between Gypsy and gorger (non-Gypsy), Ceferino succinctly combined both the particularism of his Gypsy ethnicity and the universalism of his Christian faith, dedicating himself to healing the hearts and minds of all he encountered; he is indeed a saint among his people as well as his Church.

IN A world that is often suspicious of “the other”, and hostile towards those who are different, Ceferino attempted to alleviate tensions through holiness and servitude. It is for this reason that, to an unfamiliar and arguably forgotten and despised people, Ceferino the Gypsy is both important and an inspiration.

Several accounts speak of Ceferino’s reputation for being honest, for being a good mediator, and for being generous. But one event has proved to be particularly encouraging — for me, for GRT (Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller) individuals, and for those who are seeking to build bridges between communities and peoples: the Gypsy equivalent of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37).

The story starts with a landowner who suffers an attack in the road — not by bandits or thieves, but from tuberculosis. Ceferino encounters the man, and, rather than pass by and ignore him — for fear of contagion — he chooses instead to stop and help him. Ignoring his own safety, comfort, and business, Ceferino hoists the suffering landowner on to his shoulders and proceeds to carry him home. After attending to the man’s needs, Ceferino is eventually financially rewarded by the man’s family — a blessing that would ultimately enable Ceferino to start a business, in what was a period and a place of financial instability and uncertainty.

The selfless actions of Ceferino on that day were entirely counter-cultural and unexpected, particularly from a “Roma”, or Gypsy. In that one example, faith triumphed over fear, and love conquered hate. Ceferino’s submission to his calling to be an example of Christ’s love in the world, and his understanding that he and others were children of God, proved in the immediate circumstances to be tangibly rewarding. Many years later, his example would continue to bless and encourage others — including me. Ceferino’s beatification at last gave hope to Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers that they had finally been recognised for who they were in the eyes of God rather than in the imaginations of human beings.

CEFERINO had a habit of turning what seemed mundane into the exceptional; he had no children, he mostly worked as a businessman, and he was quiet and well- dressed. Yet through these “normal” life choices, he was already shattering the stereotypes that suggest that a Gypsy will have many children, will perform only manual work, and will be “dirty”. Through individuals such as Ceferino, these hurtful and harmful ideas that have dogged GRT people for centuries were being challenged head-on.

Ignorance, however, continued to prevail. Nevertheless, Ceferino’s sincere application of faith every day made the difference. The socio-political world of his day stood no chance in resisting a sincere Christ-filled person, determined on showing love to all. Jesus himself had provided the blueprint of selfless love. History would later provide more examples through persons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., showing how loving and living as Christ had done could force tangible change in social climates and political atmospheres where oppression reigned and inclusion was absent.

While Ceferino’s impact at the time was arguably limited, the potentiality of his example was given new life through the recognition afforded his legacy by Pope John Paul II. The beatification allowed for his story to be remembered and retold by a community whose history, fables, and traditions are passed on orally. Modern communication methods such as the internet have provided platforms on which Gypsy stories such as Ceferino’s can be collected and shared; he may not be around to see it, but his descendants are here, and are hearing.

MUCH of Gypsy culture is focused on heritage and family. Whether passing traditions to the next generation or honouring events and people of the past, survival of the collective is paramount, and sharing memories and inspiring accounts is part of that process. Ceferino is an inspiration because he demonstrated to his people that survival and progress do not have to be internalised. Conversely, to thrive physically and spiritually, one must face outwards rather than inwards. Through Christ, he could accomplish this.

He never compromised his Gypsy values and traditions, and never hid his ethnic identity. Rather, he used what he had and who he was to show others in his community and beyond what they could be. Through Ceferino’s “normality”, he broke down further barriers (as he had always intended to do), to show that we are alike; we are all human. He never once denied who he was, yet he was never limited by what others thought he should be; he understood who he was in Christ. And perhaps in his death and through his beatification, Ceferino beautifully demonstrated for us a valuable, timeless, and paradoxical message for our very human struggle to find our place on this earth and in this life: we are many tribes, but through Christ we are one voice.

DURING 2015 (and beyond), European television screens and newspapers were filled with images of social devastation, as the displacement of millions of people created a sea of refugees which poured into Greece and up through Hungary and Germany. Tensions grew, as a revival of nationalism — spawned by fear and fuelled by suspicion — clashed with those who sought to give refuge to their fellow human beings.

If only those same television crews had been in southern Greece 500 years previously, they would have witnessed a near-identical mass of unfamiliar humanity arriving on those same shores and following those exact same routes, as Romany Gypsies fled from certain death.

Sometimes, our fear of what might be can hinder our reaction to what is. Just as the Syrian refugees received a mixed reaction, so have Europe’s Roma, Gypsy, and Traveller populations. Jesus recognised this “selective” favouring when he posited himself as a criminal (Matthew 25.36, 39), providing a stark reminder of the principle that how we treat our fellow humans is how we treat Christ; love, it would seem, is not negotiable (John 13.34).

As a Gypsy, it is sometimes culturally and socially challenging to embrace and be embraced by a culture that has historically mistrusted you. And, likewise, it is difficult as someone outside a minority group to love those who are different — especially if you cannot change or direct them. But that is not our concern. Our concern is to love: to love unconditionally and to love indiscriminately, as God first loved us.

Steven Horne’s mother is a gorger (non-Gypsy), and his father is a Romany Gypsy. He grew up within two cultures: an amalgamation of Gypsy values and “settled” practices. After his parents’ divorce, he was raised in a single-parent family in often challenging conditions. Having effectively left school at 15, he eventually graduated with first-class honours. He has written a thesis devoted to a new way of understanding Gypsy and Traveller culture: a “Gypsy theology”.

This is an edited extract from Every Tribe: Stories of diverse saints serving a diverse world edited by Sharon Prentis and published by SPCK (£9.99; CT Bookshop £9).

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