THE CHURCH - LIGHTING A BEACON OF HOPE IN THE DARK NIGHT
Germany 12th June 2002. There are around 500,000 gypsies, or Roma, living in Slovakia - roughly a tenth of the total population. This "unassimilated", discriminated and marginalised minority has in recent years come increasingly to the awareness of world attention. For example in 1999 when 50 of the Roma people lost their lives during flooding. The river swept away their tin roofed wooden shacks along with every living thing inside them. That was in Jarovnice, a small town close to Kosice in Eastern Slovakia. Out of close on 4,000 inhabitants some 3,500 are gypsies, including some fifteen hundred children and young people. The houses they live in are scarcely worthy of the name. There is no sanitation and the conditions are very basic.
The catastrophic flooding in the spring of 1999 drew attention once more to the destitution in this place. Jarovnice seemed like a place without hope. Families with 5 to 12 children were ravaged by unemployment, illiteracy and alcoholism. Things had gone far beyond the point where one could distinguish cause from effect. From theft in the fields of neighbouring farmers through to crimes of violence - here was every confirmation of existing prejudices. A seemingly endless spiral of problems, with the state authorities remaining inactive and the gypsies too poor and uneducated to help themselves.
In this situation the Church is truly the only hope left for these people, and she has now set herself to tackle these massive challenges. First of all a community of religious sisters settled here and for three years worked along with the catechists to "prepare the soil", living and working together with the gypsies. And there was something to build on in Jarovnice too. The gypsies themselves had set up a large cross, immediately after the flooding, to remember their lost neighbours and relatives. Many gathered here to pray. Taking this one step further, a church has now been built here, along with a community centre, thanks to the help of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). The gypsies themselves took an active part in building this little centre - and for many of them this was the first regular activity they had engaged in for years. In May 2002 the parish welcomed an important visitor, the Archbishop of Kosice, Alojz Tkac, who celebrated a solemn Mass here in the new parish church of Our Lady of Fatima - a Mass that was broadcast live by Radio Lumen, the only Catholic radio station in the country. During the subsequent festivities, the local parish priest, Father Frantisek Slovak stated, "The presence of the Church, above all among all this poverty and need, is very important. You see, where the Church is, the people grow towards civilisation."
The parishioners have gladly made the most of the new opportunities offered by their new pastoral centre. There is real activity here, especially in the religious instruction of the children. There are no less than 1,500 baptised children here in this small town. Aid to the Church in Need has provided them with 400 copies both of our Child's Bible, God speaks to His Children and also of our Little Catechism, "I Believe" in the Slovak language. These books are well proven and greatly appreciated as an aid in the work of evangelisation. And at the same time the contribution they make to the promotion of literacy and language should not be underestimated.
Photo: Romani youth choir in the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Jarovnice
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