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The Baltimore Sun

They go where the spirit takes them

Tribune religion reporter

Standing before a bejeweled tapestry of the Virgin Mary in a living room on Chicago's Northwest Side, Rev. Stanislaw Opocki recited a prayer in Polish, dipped his brush into a saucer of holy water and sprinkled the furniture and frames around him. He then repeated the custom in every room of the house.

Once the ritual was complete, Opocki packed his missal and other accoutrements into a black duffel bag and went on his way, halfway expecting to bless a new abode when he visited the family again next year. It's a reasonable expectation for a Roman Catholic priest who serves Roma, a community commonly and sometimes derogatorily called Gypsies.

As Poland's national Roma chaplain for more than 30 years, Opocki has followed his flock as they have migrated around the world. In many ways, he is trying to restore dignity and compensate for centuries of exclusion by a church that has not always respected the Romani wanderlust.

For nine years, the priest, 53, has made an early spring pilgrimage from his home in southern Poland to Chicago where he blesses homes, offers sacraments and conveys the details of Catholic doctrine to a nomadic people with no nation but a vibrant faith.

"If there were no borders, we'd be like birds," Andrzej Rutkowski said last week through a translator.

He and his wife, Zofia, listened as the pilgrim priest delivered news from relatives in Poland over steaming glasses of tea garnished with apples and a feast prepared in his honor.

On Sunday, Opocki said mass for nearly 100 other Romani parishioners at Holy Trinity Polish Mission in Ukrainian Village.

Men and women sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary, as is Romani custom. Young women with their hair bound in knots at the nape of the neck wore traditionally long dresses to cover their legs and sang Romanese hymns.

Scholars trace the roots of Romani culture--made up of an estimated 12 million people worldwide--to ethnic groups that migrated out of India in the 11th Century.

By the 15th Century, they had become a persecuted people throughout Europe. Deemed "life unworthy of life," Roma were banned from many European cities, forcing the community in diaspora to constantly be on the move, unable to call anywhere home.

In the 18th Century, they suffered slavery in Romania. And during World War II, up to a million perished in Nazi concentration camps, targeted by Hitler for being racially impure.

"Their history is marked by tears and rejection," Opocki said. "Especially during the Second World War, it was apparent their suffering at the hands of the Nazis."

The first Roma to inhabit the America colonies arrived in the 17th Century. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe created another flood of emigres in 1989, including some of Opocki's parishioners from Poland who settled in Chicago's Polonia community.

In their travels, the Roma combined the religious traditions of their neighbors with supernatural beliefs and practices of their own. To this day, most Roma call themselves Muslim, Orthodox Christian or Roman Catholic.

Unable to shake their reputation as thieves and con artists, Roma continued to suffer discrimination in the United States. One of the last anti-Romani laws was rescinded in New Jersey in 1998, the first year Opocki came to the United States.

In 2002 the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale held a symposium addressing the plight of the Roma people who did not appear on any census and often struggled with poverty, poor health and limited education.

It was about that time that Anya Dudzik, a Polish real estate agent who immigrated to the United States two decades ago, met Roma for the first time. She was shocked to learn they were Catholic and "clean," quite the opposite of what she was taught in Poland when the Roma traveled through her hometown to peddle pots and frying pans. She thought they believed in a different God.

She has worked diligently since to make sure Romani children are enrolled in school and gain citizenship. And she is surprised at how settled they are.

Alaina Lemon, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, said the Romani mystique is often used against them.

"We like to think of them as traveling because then that excuses why we don't offer them citizenship or exclude them from property rights," she said. "I've been more nomadic than they have. ... Here, Roma are sort of treated suspiciously by the police. But they are invisible to everyone else."

Even Opocki recalls mistrusting Roma as a boy. He remembers avoiding the strangers who pitched their tents on lawns or came by peddling their wares. He, too, assumed they did not believe in the same God.

Last year, the Roman Catholic Church admitted to overlooking its own faithful. In a document from the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers issued last year, the church promised to make amends for its mistreatment of Roma over the years.

While the document urged more catechism for Catholic Roma, it called on other Catholics to learn what they could from Romani culture. It praised the centrality of family in Romani life and the veneration of elders for their wisdom. It also noted the traditions of mourning, which include prayers and abstaining from alcohol and music.

The document also stated, "their wandering is, in any case, a permanent and symbolic reminder of life's journey toward eternity."

Opocki now spends much of his time teaching them the details of doctrine they missed when they were not welcome inside a parish. For example, Opocki must explain that couples united in the Romani tradition cannot receive Communion until a priest marries them.

It was Opocki who introduced the Roma in Chicago to the story of Ceferino Gimenez Malla, the first and only Rom on the path to sainthood. Considered a martyr who died during the Spanish Civil War for refusing to relinquish his rosary, Malla was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997. Beatification is the penultimate step before becoming a saint.

Opocki recalls how many Roma were astonished when they learned that one of their own could one day speak on their behalf to God. Many of the Roma in Opocki's flock carry rosaries in their pockets emblazoned with Malla's face.

"That a lower-class people had their own saint, few people could accept it was possible," Opocki said through a Polish translator.

Three years ago, Opocki delivered a painting of Malla to the Chicago community. Each week, the painting travels to a different home, where families gather around to renew resolutions to live righteously.

On Sunday, the painting changed hands and Opocki bestowed it to Grazyna Zieliska, 51, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer six months ago. That combined with the anointment of the sick that Opocki gave her last week will make her well, she believes.

Opocki said he has never encountered a Romani atheist. Everyone he has met believes in God, he said. But there are times, he chuckled, when that can be a challenge to his ministry.

"They don't go to church," Opocki said. "In their belief, God is everywhere."

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