Gypsies are one of the strangest nations of the world. Dwelling originally in India but then, like true nomads, moving up through Egypt (hence the nickname “Gypsy”), into Europe and America, the Romanies (their truer name) settled in many places but resisted absorption. The Nazis hated them and executed thousands of them in their death camps. But there are still several millions of them in Europe alone.
On May 4, 1997, Pope John Paul II beatified the first Gypsy, for a large percentage of the Romanies are Catholic, both in the United States and in Europe. The beatification of Ceferino Jimenez Malla is an appropriate way to offset the bad reputation that Gypsies have often acquired among people of other nationalities.
Ceferino was a Gitano, a Spanish Gypsy. Little is known about his background, except that like a true Gypsy, he moved about a good bit and left little record. That may also be why he was baptized only as an adult. At the age of 51 he married his childhood Gitana sweetheart, Teresa Jimenez Castro, according to the rites of the Church and Gypsy ceremonials. They had no children, but they adopted his niece Pepita, whom they fondly trained in horsemanship and Gypsy culture. Theirs was the typical Gitano expertise with animals, and the passion for bullfighting. Ceferino was proud of his heritage and spoke the Gypsy language whenever the occasion offered.
After World War I, Jimenez became a mule-trader, a profitable business that enabled him to buy a home and settle down in Barbastro. Teresa died in 1922, but the widower continued to live in this home. Meanwhile, under the guidance of a priest-professor, Don Nicholas Santos de Otto, he began a career as a catechist. Although without formal education and quite likely illiterate, Ceferino was a bright man, and he could and did participate in many parochial good works, like feast day celebrations, nocturnal adoration, Eucharistic minister and visitor of the sick, rosary leader, choir director, and so forth. He had a widespread reputation for holiness. People would be careful about their manner and speech when he was around. But he was also a man full of contagious joy. Appropriately, this lover of nature became a Franciscan Tertiary in 1926.
In 1936, Spain was on the threshold of a civil war. Particularly at the war’s outbreak in 1936, the party associated with the new Spanish Republic violently persecuted the Catholic faith, bearing down not only on priests and religious, but also on laymen who dared to defend the Church, or even to express their membership in it.
Ceferino was one of those public Catholic laymen. When his witness was put to the test on several occasions, he could only answer as he believed, in a staunchly Catholic sense.
Finally one day, in defiance of the anti-Catholic authorities, Jimenez boldly came to the defense of a young priest in the piazza, and cried out to Our Lady to protect the cleric from his enemies. For the persecutors this was the last straw. They arrested him along with a dozen others, imprisoning the whole group in a cell 16 by 16 feet. Later the prisoners were transferred to another jail. In both places, the 75-year-old Gypsy catechist constantly led the rest in the Rosary to sustain their morale. But he died of imprisonment on July 17, 1936. His captors stripped his body, took it to the cemetery at night, and buried it in quicklime, his Rosary still twisted around his hand. Only after the war was Ceferino reinterred next to his wife. Besides the Rosary he left only one other thing, a set of stable keys. Rosary and keys have become precious relics.
The Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, commenting on the martyrdom, expressed happiness that a Gypsy was being beatified. This, it felt, would both give to the Gypsies themselves a hero to imitate, and serve as a reminder to non-Gypsies that Romanies should not be looked upon only negatively. “There are Gypsies who are honest, faithful, devout, and ready to lay down their lives for the faith.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara