When a pope visits a place, he’s usually the center of the story. Yet on Sunday afternoon in Madagascar, Pope Francis shared the stage with a fellow Argentine, Father Pedro Opeka.
The setting was a place called “Akamasoa,” a word which means “good friends” in Malagasy, and is the name of a settlement founded by Opeka within the capital city divided into 18 neighborhoods that provide dignified brick homes to some 25,000 people, connected by paved roads.
There are 3,000 masons involved in the project, and work is never lacking. Akamasoa, defined by Opeka as a “solidarity project,” features schools, hospitals, training centers parks and even a stadium, where some 10,000 people go to Mass every Sunday.
Opeka told Crux, “We’ve been able to show that poverty is not fate. But you have to believe that. You have to immerse yourself in the middle of them and stay with them.”
The great majority of those who packed the small sports stadium Sunday were children who live in the 5,000 homes built by Opeka and his foundation. Some 15,000 children a year receive a free education that runs from kindergarten to university. The kids waited for hours for Francis to arrive, singing songs and cheering whenever Opeka spoke to them in Malagasi, the local language.
All the houses, schools and health care centers have electricity and hot water, something only 15 percent of those in Madagascar have.
Francis told the thousands gathered in the Manantenasoa auditorium that they prove “poverty is not inevitable!”
“Seeing your happy faces, I give thanks to the Lord who has heard the cry of the poor and shown his love in tangible signs like the creation of this village,” Francis said. “Your plea for help - which arose from being homeless, from seeing your children grow up malnourished, from being without work and often regarded with indifference if not disdain - has turned into a song of hope for you and for all those who see you.”
Every corner of Akamasoa, every school or health care center is a “song of hope,” Francis said. A sentiment seemingly echoed by locals.
“It’s important because it’s an example of doing something, giving things to people to help improve their lives,” said Ravo Razafindrabe, a midwife at the military hospital who volunteered at the Akamasoa clinic during her training and now attends Mass with Opeka.
“It means people in the streets today can have a house tomorrow,” she said. “It shows Christ’s love in a perfect way. Christ found someone like Pere Pedro to give that to other people. You have to fight inequality.”
Upon his arrival, Francis was visibly moved by the hundreds of children who welcomed him singing Dios está aquí - “God is Here” - a Spanish song few Argentine Catholics don’t know, as it’s often sung at Masses up and down the pope’s country.
The children had practiced under the guidance of Opeka, who didn’t find much resistance: “When the population of Akamasoa found out about the pope’s visit, they burst into screams of joy and happiness,” he said.
“Our population realizes that it’s a special grace to welcome the pope in a place where there used to be a lot of violence, suffering, poverty, dramas and deaths of innocent people,” Opeka said in an interview with Crux before the papal trip.
“This visit will be an incredible ray of light for our people, that fights day in and day out to offer a better future to their children,” he said.
In his remarks Sunday, Francis said that Akamasoa illustrates a “living faith” translated into concrete actions capable of “moving mountains.”
“A faith that made it possible to see opportunity in place of insecurity; to see hope in place of inevitability; to see life in a place that spoke only of death and destruction,” he said.
Opeka created the foundation in 1989, when he was transferred from rural Madagascar to the capital, Antananarivo, to head a local seminary. He said he requested the transfer because he couldn’t bear the sight of hungry children anymore.
What he found in the country’s capital, he said, was ten times worse.
Upon his arrival, he was struck by the sight of garbage dumps from the hills of the city. He headed over to find thousands of people, many of them young children, scavenging for food, often fighting wild animals for what had been discarded by others.
He found children sleeping on the site with cardboard boxes as mattresses and flies as their blankets. He found people who died amidst the garbage, with no one there to give them a proper burial. People were living in carboard structures that were some three feet tall.
When Opeka first entered one of them, he had to crawl to go in.
The priest asked those he encountered if they wanted to work together with him to give their children a future, and some said yes. Akamasoa was born that day, and it was the result of the effort of an entire community, guided by a priest who learned masonry from his father.
“You have come to understand that God’s dream is not only for our personal development, but essentially for the development of the community, and that there is no worse form of slavery, as Father Pedro reminded us, than to live only for ourselves,” Francis said.
“Pere Pedro,” as Opeka is known by everyone in Antananarivo, is the son of immigrants who fled Europe after WWII. His father, Luis Opeka, was arrested and sentenced to death by Tito, the Communist leader who ruled Yugoslavia until he died in 1980. In June 1945, Opeka was the only survivor of a massacre carried out by government forces and fled to Italy.
At a refugee camp, he met the woman who’d become his wife, Maria Marolte. On New Year’s Eve in 1947, in the port city of Naples, the two embarked on a new adventure, which would lead them to Argentina.
When he was a kid, Opeka, like many Argentine children, toyed with the idea of becoming a professional soccer player. But at the age of 15, his call to become a Catholic priest was too strong to ignore. So, the second of eight siblings entered the seminary of the Lazarists in Buenos Aires.
As fate (or providence) would have it, he did his theology studies in the Colegio Maximo, a Jesuit religious college on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. As he was beginning his formation, Jorge Mario Bergoglio - today Pope Francis- was finishing his. Though the two never crossed paths, Opeka told Crux that the name Bergoglio reached his ears back then.
Opeka’s siblings today can barely contain the pride they feel for what their brother has accomplished. Luba, one of his sisters, told Crux that it’s “very emotional that the Holy Father, vicar of Christ on earth, will set foot on Akamasoa, the city where there was once a garbage dump site, to be with the poorest among the world’s poorest.”
She shared several stories of the people whose lives have been transformed thanks to her brother, such as “Tuzu,” a French professor who Opeka encountered when she was just 9, scavenging in the garbage. Or Mdlle Bao, Opeka’s right hand, who left her family and university studies to help the priest.
“She’s responsible for everything in Akamasoa… She gave her life for this work, inspired by her love for Jesus and her country,” she said.
According to Luba, it’s for stories like these that Opeka is often found working in the nearby quarry or travelling the world, looking for financial aid to continue growing Akamasoa, which adds some 100 homes a year, but would need “thousands.”
Afterwards Francis headed to the quarry, where he delivered a prayer for workers from around the world, particularly those who “work with their hands and with immense physical efforts.”
“Grant that the fruits of their work may ensure a dignified life to their families,” Francis said, surrounded by a gray stone chopped day in and day out by hundreds of people who work for the equivalent of a dollar a day.
Francis didn’t shy away from challenging those who actually create such conditions, meaning owners and managers. He called upon God to touch the hearts of those who hire the workers so that they “make every effort to ensure that workers receive a just wage and enjoy conditions respectful of their human dignity.”
Francis also issued a plea for those who have no work, asking that misery, unemployment, “disappear from our societies.” He also asked for workers to be attentive to one another, supporting those in difficulty and lifting up those who have fallen.
“Let their hearts not yield to hatred, resentment or bitterness in the face of injustice,” Francis prayed. “May they keep alive their hope for a better world, and work to that end.”
On Monday, Francis flies to Mauritius for the day before heading back to Rome on Tuesday.