Father Clarke understands travelers



NORTH AUGUSTA — They’re oppressed peoples, but even those who want to help them don’t know how to label them. The pope calls them gypsies or nomads, but neither term is fully accurate, according to South Carolina’s own expert.

“John Paul called them gypsies because he wanted people to understand what he was talking about. If he referred to sinto (a Spanish term) or Bedouin, not many would have understood,” said Father Peter Clarke. “‘Nomadic people’ doesn’t fit either.”

Father Clarke calls them traveling people or travelers. These are diverse populations, Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim, with no apparent ethnic similarities; their lifestyle involves not setting roots in a particular place and their philosophy can be summed up in a quote the priest heard from a traveler in Ireland: “It’s a sin to live in one place when God gave us the world.” The travelers’ movement is worldwide.

These people who move around instead of settling down are misunderstood and have been persecuted for their culture in the past. As many as 600,000 Romany gypsies were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. With the fall of Communism, restrictions that held travelers in place have been lifted and they have been able to pursue their preferred lifestyle again — and have been meeting with increasing violence, the Diocese of Charleston priest said. Pope John Paul II called 33 specialists to Rome in December to discuss their plight and to formulate a strategy for defending them. Peter Clarke went as a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Father Clarke was summoned to the study meeting, he said, because he is the only American priest known to be assigned full-time in pastoral service to nomadic people. He is pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Church in North Augusta, a parish of Irish Travelers that is named after the 11th century king who built Westminster Abbey. Father Clarke is also a member of the USCCB’s Advisory Committee for the Office of Pastoral Care of Refugees and Migrants.

“Traveling people are finding life difficult today. There are pressures on them everywhere, even here, but especially in Europe. Why? Because they are the stranger, the one who’s different,” Father Clarke said.

At the Rome conference, the pontiff quoted one of his predecessors, Paul VI, who said that travelers “have found a place in the heart of the church.” He urged the members of the study meeting to formulate guidelines for the pastoral care of travelers, and he offered as a model for the world’s nomads the first beatified gypsy, Blessed Ceferino Gimenez Malla.

Back at St. Edward’s, parishioners took the suggestion to heart and dedicated part of their new church’s St. Edward’s Chapel as a shrine to the martyred Spaniard. Bishop Robert J. Baker designated it a diocesan shrine on Dec. 14, 2001. Besides the bishop of Charleston’s seal and signature, the commission contains the signature of the late chancellor of the diocese, Cleo Cantey; it may have been her last official act. The parish has commissioned sculptor Victor Socztalo to create a life-sized statue of Ceferino.

The shrine has given the travelers “a better opinion of themselves,” the pastor said. He reinforces that effort in elevating self-esteem by regularly reminding his parishioners that the shepherds who were the first people told of the birth of Christ were wandering ranchers.

Another saintly wanderer was St. Benedict Joseph Labre, an 18th century tramp and beggar. Not surprisingly, he is Father Clarke’s favorite saint.

“My friend Labre searched all his life,” the priest said. “I feel very much that we are called to search.”

Father Clarke hopes that his search will take him to one more Vatican conference, where the pope will issue rubrics for meeting the needs of the world’s traveling people.