Gypsy Man Martyred for Praying the Rosary

Gypsy. The word itself conjures up images of campfires, reverie, and sometimes raucous behavior. Rarely, however, does it illicit thoughts of piety, holiness of life, and martyrdom. But such is the case of Blessed Ceferino Gimenez Malla, a man pronounced “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II on May 4, 1997. His witness to the faith is an inspiration for each one of us in this our day and time, and we would do well to ask for his prayerful intercession.

Though often targets of animosity, fear, and misunderstanding, European gypsies have traveled the countryside of Europe and other continents for centuries.

Nomadic at heart, with little emphasis on material possessions and wealth, the gypsy culture is marked by a fierce loyalty to its customs, traditions, and its population.

Religion, usually a reflection of the country of origin, is often a mixture of orthodoxy and superstition. However, as the life of Ceferino Gimenez Malla proves, abiding and heroic faith can root even in the midst of a nomadic life.

Born in Fraga, Juesca, Spain sometime most likely in August, 1861, Ceferino, or “El Pele” as he was known, was part of the Kale (Spanish Roma) and traveled around Spain with his family of basket-makers who sold their wares in the villages and towns.

As is part of the Roma tradition, Ceferino’s father chose his bride for him, and even though the young lady was reluctant, they were joined in a traditional Roma ceremony considered binding in the Roma community. In 1912, he and his wife, Teresa Gimenez Castro, would regularize this Gypsy-style union and Ceferino would become a model Christian.

After his marriage, Ceferino began to trade in horses and mules. His reputation as an honest and respectable dealer quickly grew as did his skill and knowledge of his trade. Because of the esteem with which he was held, and in spite of the fact that he could not read nor write, El Pele was sought out by both his gypsy community and the Spanish community to settle disputes, reconcile problems, and negotiate disturbances.  His friends and family always praised his diplomacy and said that he eased tension by admitting that everyone had some right on his side. Ceferino had the charm, wit, and authenticity of person to traverse social lines. He maintained friendships within his community as well as with professionals. 

Generosity of heart marked Ceferino who displayed it in humble and quiet ways. A childless couple, he and Teresa adopted her niece Pepita as their own and provided well for her even enrolling her in a Catholic school, a rather uncommon occurence in the gypsy community.

In addition, Ceferino was known to give liberally and anonymously to the poor, to take care of the sick, and to provide for widows and orphans. One time he took care of a man who had suffered a seizure and had blood flowing from his mouth due to tuberculosis. Casting concern for himself to the side, Ceferino hoisted the ill man onto his back and carried him to his home, offering words of comfort and consolation along the way.  

As he grew older, Ceferino’s faith grew stronger. He became a member of many religious groups, attended Mass everyday, and frequented the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He held a great devotion to our Blessed Mother and it was her honor and her Rosary that eventually led to his martyrdom.

It was July, 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War when Ceferino happened upon the arrest of a Catholic priest by the Spanish revolutionary militia. He protested against it and tried to defend the priest who was being dragged through the streets. For his efforts, and for having a Rosary in his pocket, he was arrested and taken prisoner to a Franciscan monastery that had been converted to a prison.

While imprisoned Ceferino recited the Rosary which incited and angered the guards. One of the leading revolutionists of the area, a young anarchist whom Ceferino knew, visited him in prison and assured him that if he stopped praying the Rosary, his freedom could be guaranteed.

But El Pele would not hear of it. He held the Mother of God in great esteem and would not deny her devotion even in the most dire of straits. His preference was imprisonment and certain death rather than denouncement of his faith, and witnesses said he prayed even harder after the offer of freedom.

On August 9, 1936, early in the morning, Ceferino and nineteen other prisoners were transported to the cemetery of Barbastro and were lined up against the cemetery wall. Clutching his Rosary and proclaiming, “Long live Christ the King!” Ceferino was shot to death.

On Sunday, May 4, 1997, Ceferino Gimenez Malla was raised to the altars of the Church by Pope John Paul II. Indeed, as was stated at the ceremony Ceferino Gimenez Malla proved that “a death for the faith” always springs forth from “a life rooted in the faith.”

In his Papal Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul II extolled the witness of the martyrs of the 20th Century. He drew the faithful’s attention to their heroism and their fortitude, and he reminded them that the Jubilee Year was a further summons to each one of us to a conversion of heart through a change of life.

The Holy Father then exhorted his flock: “The believer who has seriously pondered his Christian vocation, including what revelation has to say about the possibility of martyrdom, cannot exclude it from his own life’s horizon. The two thousand years since the birth of Christ are marked by the ever-present witness of the martyrs… In the hearts of the faithful, may admiration for their martrydom be matched by the desire to follow their example, with God’s grace, should circumstances require it.”

Conversion of life, dedication to the things of God, a love of the Blessed Mother, and a commitment to prayer emboldened Ceferino Gimenez Malla at his moment of decision. May he pray for us that we, too, would exhibit such virtue should God invite us to the ultimate witness.

“Blessed Ceferino Gimenez Malla, pray for us.”


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