To understand CCIT and its spirit
Revisiting the beginnings of the Comité Catholique International pour les Tsiganes
Situating CCIT: its history, its spirituality.
Elisa and Léon Tambour
On 25th January 1976, nine people from four different countries met in Paris to reflect on the Gospel among Gypsies, who were beginning to know Pentecostalism alongside the traditional presence of the Catholic Church. It was an informal meeting, which was followed by many others, until today, when CCIT usually gathers more than one hundred people, belonging to some twenty European countries. Its organizer was Yoskà, i.e. Abbé André Barthélemy, and together with him a Belgian couple, Elisa and Léon Tambour: that is why the group was born French-speaking! Yoska left us in 1991, at the age of 76. Elisa [and Leon: who left us in 2021] follow us from Belgium, for health reasons. But their presence is still alive among us.
The beginnings, in the enthusiasm of the Council, were therefore informal and spontaneous, joyful and fraternal, and these characteristics accompany us even today, even if we are more structured than then.
One characteristic marked the early years: the concern for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where the situation of the Church and of the Gypsies (who are more numerous in these territories!) was particularly difficult due to communism and the inaccessibility imposed by the regime.
Semi-clandestine trips to these countries made it possible to create contacts that would be followed up, anticipating with hope – first participants from the East in 1982! – what is now a reality. The association is Catholic, yet animated by an ecumenical spirit; in many countries it is closely linked to the pastoral work of the Church, yet also open to free and lay membership. It retains the noun ‘Gypsies/Tsigans’ in its name, although it is not appreciated in all linguistic contexts, and is preferred to use the self-denomination ‘Roma’, which is also used to represent different denominations (Sinti, Manousches, Kalé, etc.).
In the meantime, the CCIT has also evolved in its internal organisation: it has endowed itself with a charter – which we enclose – and internal rules organising its operation and the election of leaders by its members, who currently number 63…, of course some are Roma, others non-Roma, Zigani and non/Zigani! To be a member you must have attended at least three meetings, be willing to share your experiences and apply for membership. Priest Piero Gabella was, after Léon Tambour, the first president elected under the new regulations; now priest Claude Dumas holds this position.
Each annual meeting takes place in a different country, which clearly shows the CCIT’s ‘international’ concern. The 45 meetings took place in 16 countries, eight of them from Central and Eastern Europe.
The choice of themes illustrates a concern for closeness to the realities experienced by the Gypsies, both religiously and civilly. Examples of the topics covered: ” Welcoming diversity: enrichment or impoverishment? ” Being craftsmen of peace in the face of the phenomenon of anti-Gypsyism “, ” Listening to the voice of God and the voice of the Gypsies “. This year , we reflect on what Pope Francis suggests: “Holiness next door. Dialogue as criterion and method’.
One of the CCIT’s activities is still the six-monthly edition, in 5 languages, of the small magazine Nevi Yag (New Fire); the first issue came out in December 1984 and was preceded by ” Le Courrier ” (a few pages of cyclostyled pages) which appeared 7 times, the first of which was in July 1980.
The CCIT’s concern to make itself known has therefore already appeared four years after its inception! Nevi Yag is not a ‘scholarly’ magazine: its field is one of simplicity. Its aim is to contribute, through simple language and concrete experiences, to a better knowledge of the Gypsy world and its way of life in order to develop an ‘openness of heart and mind!
From the very beginning, and this was confirmed later on, the CCIT created an environment, a mentality that intimately links the reality of the Zigans to a spiritual dimension and gives it a specificity of its own, good to live in and, we believe, also useful for the whole Church
Finally, a few words on the SPIRITUALITY of CCIT.
This spirituality is a gift received from the Gypsies themselves, which finds its origin in the relationship we experience together as soon as we enter into true familiarity with them. It’ the ‘spirituality of the cup of coffee’ (next door, of small attentions!) received or offered, in all cases shared; in this simple but empowering (energetic, profound) form, exchange and mutual discovery takes place, on a basis of equality, despite all differences. If spirituality is reinforced by evangelical values, such discovery of others’ sufferings, their joys, their aspirations, their richness, generates friendship. Friendship is not a ‘path to pastoral care’: it is already, in itself, pastoral care with a human dimension; it is spirituality.
CCIT wants to reproduce in its bosom this relationship, lived in truth between gypsies and non-gypsies.
It is in this way that the CCIT wants to be a space of gratuitousness, of freedom, of fraternity that intimately connects the current and ever-changing gypsies’ reality with our commitment, a Christian one.
Free space: the CCIT does not develop humanitarian projects as such. Reducing the secular distance that separates the Gypsies on the one hand and the Church and society on the other, does not contract.
CCIT therefore does not develop ‘humanitarian projects’, but certainly does not despise them, on the contrary, it prioritises the quality of the relationship without which no common path is possible. Fighting against the age-old but still present contempt or indifference of which the Gypsies are victims, reweaving a degraded social fabric that isolates the most deprived is a demanding and long-term task that is not only institutional in nature. It requires a gratuitous proximity that we sometimes call solidarity.
Space of freedom. The differences within the CCIT are enormous: we are of different origin, language, culture, and conception of the Church. Whether one is a priest, religious or secular, of a different denomination, Zigano or Gadgo (=not/Zigano), man or woman, whether one is, as they say, “progressive” or “conservative”, everyone can have own place in the CCIT, and no one is an intruder per se; and it is not just a matter of accepting the differences, but of loving them to be enriched by them!
A space for fraternity. Not an adulterated fraternity that would be nothing more than a deceitful fraternalism, but a living communion animated by the Spirit and enriched by the joy, sometimes unbridled, of being together with a common ideal: a joyful fraternity because we are the children of the same Father in a Church that must be welcoming to all and therefore smiling.
Prayer is very much present in CCIT meetings, nourishing exchanges and fraternity. It is also a legacy of Yoskà, who could not have imagined pastoral activity without restoring the spirit in prayer. Two Eucharists are celebrated during the session, which is always opened by the “Salve Regina”, which Yoskà loved very much and which has become the hymn of the CCIT, in his memory
A final word that may be the crowning glory of CCIT’s history and spirituality and may be that of its future. What is important for CCIT, is not CCIT itself: it is a world in which Zigans and non-Zigans are together in peace, in justice, in joy.
This is why the CCIT avoids overly structured forms, while not despising them where they exist; it appreciates study and experts, but maintains simplicity and freshness, so that no one is excluded. Its mission, still relevant today, finally finds its root in the Gospel: to be a tiny seed planted with fraternal joy and unconditional trust, a seed that will be all the more fruitful the smaller, the frailer and more discreet it is!