It is estimated that approximately 450 thousand people of Roma origin live in Slovakia, mostly in the eastern part of the Country. However, personal data registers are imprecise, since many Roma don’t declare their ethnicity to public authorities. They prefer to describe themselves of Slovakian or Hungarian origin. A 2011 census shows that only 105 thousand people declared their Roma ethnicity, although “unofficially” they proudly display their true origin. The truth is that despite their relatively high numbers and their rich cultural traditions, the Roma are among the most marginalized groups of inhabitants in the Country. This is supposedly due to the fact that they live in closed communities, preserving their own traditions and customs, and thus social integration is difficult, as is the pastoral ministry addressed to them. SIR addressed the issue with Renata Ocilkova, in charge of this aspect for the Slovakian Bishops’ Conference.
You are the coordinator of the pastoral ministry of the Roma since July 2017, but before then you were involved in volunteering work in this sector for years…
It’s true: I did volunteering work with the Roma people for approximately nine years. I am presently in charge of counselling services, according to the indications of priests and women religious that work with the Roma people, organizing educational initiatives, providing support and evangelization throughout Roma settlements. My responsibilities include monitoring legislative measures for the Roma and their integration into society; support to fund-raising initiatives and to the networks of priests and pastoral workers.
There is a remarkable difference between the official figures and reality, as regards the number of Roma living in Slovakia. Could you give us some information on their living standards?
Indeed, this ethnic group is growing in demographic terms. The living standards of Roma people that are part of closed communities is usually lower than the living standards of socially integrated Roma. There are significant differences also within Romani settlements. According to my experience,
When Roma people devote their life to God, it changes their existence
Both at internal and external level; their inner transformation is reflected on their attitude towards life, work, education, relationships, and on their way of living.
We are often told that the faith of this ethnic minority is of a “traditional” kind. How can we interpret this definition?
Missionaries working with the Roma estimate that they can reach out to some 10% of them through pastoral ministry. Although it may seem a small number, the fact that in every settlement some 10% of its members devote their life to God is reason for great hope. I am sure that little by little they can become the yeast of the entire Romani ethnic group. There are various forms of pastoral assistance. Priests come into contact with them through their pastoral work in parishes, or they carry out a targeted form of pastoral ministry. It depends on how many of them are in the parish. The ways we work with them are strongly influenced by the approach of the majority of local inhabitants, according to whether they accept or reject the members of this community. They have a very rich emotional sphere, and in addition to traditional formation through the sacraments, focusing pastoral ministry on worship and spiritual retreats proved to be very effective.
As mentioned, many Roma people live in rather “closed” communities. It can be imagined that it’s not easy to meet them, establish a personal relationship with them and undertake a common journey. What’s the best ways to enter their world?
My journey in this field began many years ago when I befriended a Romani woman, while I was working in a family-home. When we met many years later, I visited her at the settlement where she lived, in the city of Rome. The story of a known Catholic priest, whose pastoral ministry has borne great fruits, began when he visited one of the Roma pupils of his schools for the first time.
As in the Gospel narrative, he wanted to “share his meal” in their home.
In fact that priest went to the home of the boy, and had dinner with his family. The hearts of Roma people are conquered when you show them that you consider them equal to everyone else, that they are your brothers and your sisters. I am grateful for the gifts I received in my life and I am grateful to Jesus in His request that if something is given to us gratuitously we must give in return. When you understand this, everything else comes natural with regard to the Roma: when you have lunch or dinner with them in their homes, or when they come to visit you. This approach can help build bridges and overcome all prejudices. It brings greater humbleness in our lives. The Roma are not some sort of “appendix” that is “tolerated” by society. They are a precious part of it, which we can and must count on. Moreover, if the Gospel continues entering their hearts, as has been happening for the past ten years, we will soon be very grateful to them, to their humble and warm hearts, to their talents, to their sense of family, to their faith in God.