We work with Travellers to build a just, inclusive and welcoming community in and through faith

Reflecting on Welfare (Lent 2019)


I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.

For all that Patrick is renowned for, his final words of his time among the Irish are recorded in his own hand. His statement is the fruit of a long life of a person who grew in wisdom as the Spirit of God guided him to overcome the many hardships he experienced. His feast day is celebrated on 17th March which occurs during Lent. In the Christian calendar, Lent is described as a period of 40 days for prayer, fasting and almsgiving that precedes Easter. On Saint Patrick’s day though, it is a time in Ireland where we can see the whole country, and indeed much of the world, take time out to celebrate the feast day of its patron saint. These days, Saint Patrick is probably better known for being responsible for turning the world green than for being the apostle to the Irish who in turn were missionaries throughout the world. It is in this context that I stumbled upon the words above of Patrick from his Confessions and then the Testimony of Yoska.

Who is Yoska?
In the 1970s, the French priest Youschka Bartolémy and a Belgian couple, Elisa and Léon Tambour promoted and developed an international debate on the gypsy communities and their human and spiritual welfare. They have contributed significantly to the Church’s ministry to nomadic communities among us that we often refer to as Gypsies. The term Gypsies is used to refer to Roma, Sinti, Manouches, Kalé, Gitans, Yéniches, among others. Irish Travellers too are among those ethnic groups. The Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of Gypsies (PG) are to be adapted to the circumstances, needs and requirements of each group (PG, 5).

For example, the Guidelines published by the Vatican in 2016 refer to welfare. The need for education, training, access to healthcare and decent accommodation are readily recognised but there is a tendency to approach these needs as “a question of dealing with social deviancy” while overlooking widespread social prejudices that supports discrimination. True social inclusion remains elusive when approaches “systematically relegate Gypsies to the status of welfare beneficiaries” (PG, 52). Yoska had understood this for decades beforehand. His friends wrote an article that follows below. It reflected his approach in his ministry to a people in our midst who are readily dismissed and overlooked. I wish to add my gratitude to theirs and to share this story with you (which is translated from French).

Yoska! Thank you!
(Nevi Yag, No. 34, December 2003, 5-6.)

Twelve years ago - exactly on October 23, 1991 - Yoska, founder of the CCIT, was at the end of a life devoted to the Gypsies and the Church, but also to friendship for all those he had guided to the Gypsies.

We pay homage to him by thinking of all that he represents, even today, for those who have had the grace and joy of knowing him. May those who have not had this joy know that the vigour of his commitment has been prophetic in the opening of the Church to Gypsies. Present in our hearts, let him be present in our prayers and in our own commitment for Gypsies.

How to define Yoska, if not by asserting that he was a man of heart. Because he knew the Gypsies well, he was lucid; because he was a man of God, he was full of an unfailing love for them. He spoke to them with his heart, they answered him with their heart, and the true dialogue established itself in a striking way.Alms

A little memory illustrates this relationship that went to the basics and gave dignity to Gypsies. After a meeting in Rome, we were waiting for the train back to the Termini station. A gypsy beggar approached us. However, it was not Yoska’s habit to give her the coins he had; but at once he handed them to this young woman with a language which she understood and felt. Suddenly, she is no longer the humiliated beggar and Yoska is no longer the "Gadjo" to exploit: an affection was exchanged, true to the size of Yoska’s heart; after a few minutes, the dazzled gypsy wanted to return the money he had given, which he did not accept, but for this woman, the "generosity" had become derisory in comparison with what she had received, in those words from Yoska. This is only a small incident; it seems to us that it reveals the quality of a love.

Until his death, Yoska wrote a column in Nevi Yag. In February 1985, he had been immobilized by a heart attack, which led to a period of prayer and reflection for him, and he wrote in No. 2 of our little magazine,

Have not I run too much, across the frontiers and the oceans? What seems obvious to me is in any case the urgency of our missionary task. Perhaps I will soon be gone, but death will not separate me from Gypsies and their friends. After so many years of fraternal sharing, we are bound for eternity. We will all be at the end of our task. What will we have done? And especially what will we have been? What will have animated our life? With what heart, will we have responded to so many calls, to so much distress? What generosity will we put to the task? Time hurries us and more, the Charity of Christ urges us...

On September 24, 1991, a month before his death, he wrote in his "Testament":

With you who love me, I give thanks to God for the immense riches he has given me and entrusted to this earth ... Do not forget me too quickly! I will need you all. I will see everything in grace with the mercy of the Lord.

We do not forget you, Yoska! We remain, with you on, the path you have opened.

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