Pope Francis has denounced the way that Gypsies are treated in Italy, underlining once again the importance of reaching out to those “at the margins of society”.
Famed for relentlessly urging Christians to demonstrate love and compassion to the needy, Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation: “all of us are asked to obey his [God’s] call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel”.
Photos often emerge of the Pope going beyond what is expected of the highest member of the Catholic Church and meeting real, struggling people; blessing and honouring them. “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” he has also written.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that Francis has now focussed his attention on those closer to home who are often mistreated and belittled.
Speaking during a five-day Vatican conference on the pastoral care of migrants and itinerant people, the Guardian reports that the Pope criticised the way in which Gypsies are marginalised in Italian culture.
“I remember seeing many times, here in Rome, bus drivers telling passengers: ‘Watch your wallet!’ when gypsies get on board. This is contemptuous. Maybe it is true, but it is contemptuous,” Francis said.
He went on to denounce the “trap of exploitation, forced begging and various forms of abuse” that often befalls members of the Roma community; an estimated 7,000 of whom live in Rome – mostly in unsanitary conditions on the outskirts of the city.
“Among the factors which create situations of poverty for a section of the population in today’s society, we can identify the lack of educational structures, both cultural and professional; the fraught access to healthcare, discrimination in the workplace, and a lack of dignified housing,” Francis explained.
“If these social scourges can affect everyone indiscriminately, the weakest groups are those who most easily fall victim to new forms of slavery.”
The Pontiff concluded his address by highlighting the significance of the Church’s role in encouraging real integration, declaring that, “it is ever more necessary to elaborate new approaches in the civil, cultural and social sphere, as indeed in the church’s pastoral strategy, to take on the challenges that emerge from modern forms of persecution, oppression and, sometimes, slavery too”.
The director of the Open Society Foundations’ Roma initiative, Zeljko Jovanovic, told the Guardian that Francis’ strong words are “hugely important” in challenging cultural attitudes towards Gypsies in Italy, where he contends that there is “an acceptance of anti-Roma public discourse”.
“Italian society treats Roma today in the same way Italians were treated a century ago in America, as ‘lazy beggars and violent criminals’,” he explained.
“In July, Italy will take on the rotating presidency of the European Union and this offers an opportunity for Italy to show member countries that it’s possible to enact meaningful policies on improving the life of Roma communities.”