I lived with the Rom with a mule’s instinct

Cristina Simonelli (from moltefedi.it)
27 June 2020

Florentine by birth and Veronese by adoption, Cristina Simonelli began studying theology from within an experience of sharing: from 1976 to 2012 she lived amidst the Romani, first in Tuscany, then in Verona, and became part of the Ecclesial Group of Verona for the Sinti and Roma, a community life as well as a pastoral reality. As such, she has been present in the network that has supported this type of pastoral work of the Italian Church. In 1993 she received her Baccalaureate in Theology in Verona, which was affiliated at the time to the Lateran (PUL); in 1995, she received a Licentiate in Theological Anthropology at the then Florentine Theological Studio (aggregated at the time to the Gregorian-PUG); and later, a Doctorate in Theology and Patristic Sciences at the Augustinianum (Rome). She currently teaches Church History and Patristic Theology in Verona (Studio Teologico San Zeno, Istituto Superiore di Scienze Religiose San Pietro Martire) and at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy (Milan). Since its foundation she has been involved in the Coordination of Italian Theologians, of which she is now President.

I entered a Roma camp when I was 20, which happened partly by accident and partly because of a challenge, and I stayed there for 35 years. I wanted to put the Gospel to the test, at its frontiers; because, if it works there then it also works in the center, I thought. When I said that to my father, he replied: “If God does not exist, you are lost”: I have never felt lost.

My life has been characterized by being at home, while feeling a little out of place; at ease, yet somewhat unsettled.  Since I was a girl in the seventies -asymmetrical, a ‘third-worlder’, resistant, and imbued with feminism-, I have felt that I did not have to be bossed about by anyone.  In 1975, [in Italy] when the threshold to be considered an adult was lowered to 18 years of age, a range of freedoms opened up for me.

Today, I still live in a Romani area, while no longer in a camp. I am still part of the same community life, in that faraway place which has become very close to me. I spent those 35 years as if it were a day, as a waking hour in the night, to quote the psalm. After a redrawing of the maps, I live in a strip of land where common life is possible, where the promise of more peaceful universes of life and thought are present.

As the church is in itself a profundity and a frontier, I would have liked to have lived permanently at the frontiers of the ecclesial community. While studying the history of women I realized that certain female figures have lived in close contact with the Gospel, as if they were authorized by the Gospel. When I asked myself why, I replied that what happens to women is what happens to minorities, even if I am not a member of a minority, but it is the imposed marginality that unites women and minorities  and transforms quantity (we are the majority)-into quality (we are considered secondary). At times it seems that women, like the Romani peoples, are objects and that the church treats us as ecclesial subjects without full rights. This is not the case.  Let’s change the idea of the centre and the periphery and we will see that we are subjects completely deserving of full rights.

In 1975, there were extensive repercussions from the Council, and there was a lot of work being done in the parishes.  The relationship between the North and the South of the world fascinated me, I had lived in a missionary community for a year, but it was no longer enough for me. I wanted to go to Africa, I had yet to consider the Romani peoples. I saw them on the street and they struck me for their strangeness and their pride, but nothing more.

Today, to those who always and only ask about my life with the Romani, I answer, as a friend did, with a passage from Saint Exupery: “To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you--the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose”. Yes, they are my rose.

Even in traditionally male dominated theology, I am fine but I also feel a bit out of place. This is a world that allows me to cross different languages, and it is so very stimulating that it appears to me to be a sort of heuristic principle, a way of being in the world, of inhabiting the city and also the church, according to the principle of the mule: “The mule (...) seemed to be doing, out of spite, to keep always on the outside and to put his hooves on the edge; and Don Abbondio saw under him, almost perpendicularly, a jump or, as he thought, a precipice. ‘You too - he said to himself and the beast - have that damned habit of going looking for dangers, when there’s so much path’”.

Regarding theology, when I entered the Romani camp at the age of 20 it was not due to some spontaneous affinity but a choice, even if at that time it was not I who chose it but a friend, Sergio. We had previously met a community of Romani in Tuscany, where we had spent time with a family and held a baby girl during her baptism, he had become an accomplice for them, almost a relative.

It began with an invitation from Giuseppina, the little girl’s mother: “Come here, there’s room”. And so we were catapulted into that world, as if it were the dawn of the first day of the world.

We had to learn everything. To live in a caravan, and to move about on tiptoe. To pray in their sanctuary and them in our church; to hold the gaze of the elders who view and suspected us with the same veil of distrust as those families who do not want to be “normal”.

The fact that I was unsettled and always out of place over time was of help At first it was like a trip abroad, where we move with our ears and eyes wide open. We have to learn their ways of speaking, the courtesy that follows other norms, and in the end it is like that expression used in marriage: “I promise to love and honor you all my life”. To honor them is not a detail, sometimes it was a sacrifice; and everything may not necessarily work out perfectly.

An intellectual companion of ours from the Veronese community recounted that she had not picked up a book for years, because it would have been like putting herself on a different plane to them. None of us read anything anymore. Then, when we finally started reading and I started studying, our life became appropriate, more at ease, even freer.

So as to understand them, I have walked these lands, and inhabited their worlds. In addition, I have shared their lives, births, marriages, difficulties, and prejudices. It is them, the Romani, but above all the women, the romnia, who are the main victims of discrimination; with them and for them I have crossed another frontier which is racism: as the witches are dead, and anti-Semitism is dead, perhaps, there are only the gypsy kidnappers who are the remaining provider of society’s much needed hysteria, and whose otherness is interpreted as threatening.

Intolerance and racism have not disappeared, and churches can be counted as being also responsible. In the second half of the 20th century, in a period characterized by the Council, a form of respectful sharing of the Romani reality was founded; small ecclesial communities experienced it - and still do - and developed a broad and inclusive ministry. The small communities - of men and women, lay people and priests, religious women and friars - have many links with the IEC and with European and world ecclesial realities: whoever said borders!

At present, the existence of Romani associations, on a cultural and political level, is opening up new scenarios.

In facing each other, we have learnt who we are; and, in those years living in Roma camps we came to see ourselves in the mirror. This idea of the mirror can also be used for the “Churches/Romini” relationship; in fact, it is not only a question of describing it from a pastoral point of view, but of asking ourselves what challenges and what images of the Church emerge from it. In 1965 in Pomezia, Paul VI said to pilgrims: “You are not on the margins of the Church, but, under certain aspects, you are at the centre, you are at the heart. You are at the heart of the Church”. It was the first official speech of a Pope not to contain a decree of expulsion from the Papal States. Yet, with his “but in certain respects”, the Pope showed that the challenge was underway, unresolved, and unfortunately it is still so.

by Cristina Simonelli with Lilli Mandara

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Before she died, Giuseppina, a Sinti woman, gave me a woolen shawl that I keep. A small gesture of great significance. The shawl that Giuseppina wore made me think of the cloak that Antonio, a hermit from the desert, received and in turn bequeathed.