Pope Francis is scheduled to return to Rome Tuesday morning at the conclusion of his six-day pastoral visit of three African countries: Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius. While in Madagascar, he had an encounter with one, Fr. Pedro Opeka whose apostolate involves service to the underprivileged in Madagascar. ACI Africa caught up with Fr. Opeka, memories of his encounter with Pope Francis fresh on his mind.
Fr. Opeka is a missionary who belongs to the Lazarist Congregation was a former student of Pope Francis. He arrived on the island some 50 years ago. Since then, he has been working to improve the daily lives of the inhabitants who live in an open slump. His association has already created housing for 25,000 people, clinics and schools. Pope Francis' visit to the City of Peace allowed ACI Africa to exchange with Fr. Opeka on the visit of the Holy Father and his apostolate among underprivileged children.
ACI Africa: Pope Francis has just visited this village of Akamasoa, how did you feel when you saw the Holy Father here?
Father Pedro: It was something extraordinary, words can’t express the joy, the happiness we felt. The mere fact of seeing the Pope enter the popemobile in our village in Akamasoa, where we suffered so much 30 years ago, where there was so much violence, so much pain, so many deaths, and now the Pope comes here as a messenger of peace, the messenger of hope among us, among the people. And when he arrived where I expected him, when he got off the popemobile, we had an incredible hug and then we entered this place where we pray every Sunday. There, 8,000 children performed songs, dances, of great beauty, it seems that the children were transported to another world, with elegance. With joy and conviction they sang with a smile on their faces, it was great. And then when I was told to get on the popemobile with him to go to the quarry even if it wasn't planned, but I think they saw the atmosphere of joy that was felt in the room and they added that to the program. There too it was superb, to see people as they are, in joy in the street, by the side of the road. And he, the Pope, what simplicity, strength, presence, he looked left and right, he was happy to be here with us, especially with the children. What impressed me was when he said to me, "Pedro, look at all these people, what a joy, what an extraordinary people". We see in Pope Francis, a man sent by God to serve his people. For us, the Pope is a spiritual man who knew how to remain human, who knew how to stay within the reach of his brothers and sisters that we are. And it is his simplicity, his clear words, his love for the little ones, the poor, the abandoned, and the elderly that have made him so loved by the people. Even those who are not Catholics love Pope Francis because he is a man who is good and loved by all. This is what I saw, the kindness of a man of God who conquered hearts wherever he went.
ACI Africa: What was so special about this visit of the Pope given that this was the second visit you are witnessing after that of Saint John Paul?
Father Pedro: Saint John Paul II was never here in Akamasoa. He was in Madagascar. Instead, he visited the royal palace. I had already started this work before Pope John Paul II arrived in Madagascar. And this gesture of the Pope (John Paul II) when he kissed a little girl on the cheek, with her little brother in rags, confirmed the choice I made to come to the poor people's slump and work with them. And now, 30 years later, Pope Francis is coming to our village to confirm us, to encourage us not to give up.
ACI Africa: Pope Francis addressed the bishops, the clergy of Madagascar asking them to be with the poorest. Is that the work you've been doing here for 30 years?
Father Pedro: It's great because our strength is only to be in the midst of these people, that these people take us as a brother like a father like someone in the family and who they can approach all the time so that they can explain their sorrows, problems, anxieties, that they have someone they can trust. This is so important. And the priest who supposedly left everything behind, how will he get away from his people and the Pope said that a priest must know the smell of his sheep. If you don't know the smell of your sheep, you are far away, you are under the clouds, and you are far from the reality of daily their life. The priest must be in the midst of people's lives to be able to understand them, help them and share with them their joys and difficulties.
ACI Africa: Do you believe what the President said in his speech. "I will no longer leave Madagascar in poverty I want to develop this country” will be a reality?
Father Pedro: Yes, I think so. I believe that today he is sincere and he will demonstrate it. We all hope so in the years to come because a country that was adrift, that went into a free fall for 59 years, you can't get it back on track in a few months. But he has already taken action: roads are being built in the Northeast, the fight against corruption is intensifying, and more emphasis is being placed on security everywhere. But it is a set of very serious problems. I believe today that he has all the possibilities, the capacities too. In addition, he is young, he is a visionary, and he can really help his own people, his children and the youths.
During Sunday Mass, the Holy Father called on the Malagasy people to show solidarity and above all to protect the environment. How are you going to implement all these recommendations of the pope?
But we are already applying it in our schools. We are already reading Laudato Si, the Pope's encyclical on the environment to our students. And we will now continue in a more systematic way. Because it is for believers as well as non-believers and in Akamasoa we plant ten thousand trees and sometimes more every year. We have a primary school, a college school, a high school. Every Friday, all year round, they plant trees when it rains and clean the trees when it is the dry season. Here, we are not pretending. There are no appearances here. Here it is the truth. And the truth will set us free, says Jesus. Here, it's only the truth because we don't laugh. Next year will be fifty years since I've been here. I didn't come to Madagascar to fight with the Politicians. But all the brothers who approached me they told me to save them and help them. I am ready to help, through work, the schooling of children and discipline, mutual respect. If you say yes to work, yes to school, yes to discipline we will get through it. And so I defend the lives of these people because they are not the property of a political regime or a president. They are human beings. They are full-fledged citizens, free. No one can say, "You are my subject." We are free children. When you believe in God, you believe in freedom, you believe in love, and you believe in brotherhood and you also believe in sharing.
ACI Africa: Let's talk a little bit about the preparations before the Pope's arrival, we know that there are many changes here in the village. How did you prepare for this visit of the Pope?
Father Pedro: We prepared first of all by praying for him. In each family there were prayers that this visit would produce a change, a conversion because we all need to convert. Because this poverty in Madagascar did not fall from the sky. As I said to the Pope yesterday, this poverty that we have been experiencing in Madagascar for years is not inevitable. It was created from scratch by insensitive politicians. And they turned their backs on the people who elected them. How can you promise a people to lift them out of poverty, out of extreme poverty and finally let them down? It's cynical. So we all need to convert. And with poverty everyone must reflect on: what is my share of fault in the fact that Madagascar since independence has never been able to get out of poverty. It is everyone, that is, the State, the Church, civil society, peasants, all of us. But first those who govern us. It is not the little peasant who is going to make the first mea culpa, but he is sometimes the one who sets fire in the bush. It burns national wealth. But for them, it's a matter of education. At least 50 hectares of forest was burnt down just before the Pope arrived. It hurts, it hurts a lot that in our first village of Akamasoa, and we burn trees. God alone knows the love that took us to plant those trees. We'll keep planting it, but it hurts. We all must realize we can fight this poverty but with different responsibilities. Because those who are elected; they are the first to speak out, to denounce corruption, to denounce irresponsibility, to denounce the embezzlement of public money. They must follow Christ's example.
ACI Africa: Akamasoa 'City of Friendship' why?
Father Pedro: Because at one time, we understood that it is a good name to bring people together. We are all friends and as friends there is a mutual trust that is born and when mutual trust is born between people everything is possible. It is the trust we have built and discovered, created or built here over 30 years that is more important than the money we have received. Money is a means. It wasn't the money that did all this. It is passion, it is people who believed and respected and loved their brothers. Here it is not the appearance that is put forward. We're not pretending. Here we commit ourselves and that's why I said it. I did what I promised to do. Where I find a problem I solve it immediately. I don't say to the ladies, "Come see me tomorrow at the office." It is my duty to seek a solution. I'm not going to tell them, "Come tomorrow."
If there is one thing I hate, it's when people say, «Come tomorrow". The poor today receive last consideration. Here we are, dear friends, I can raise my voice a little today because we have saved thousands and thousands of people who have been rejected by society.
ACI Africa: How does a day looks like for Father Pedro?
Father Pedro: First of all, I often get up very early in the morning at 5am. I pray. Then I have breakfast, I answer all urgent letters and then I start to receive the people in charge of all the villages, schools, health and safety institutions, especially because it is a city of 25,000 inhabitants. All morning, I am receiving all the people in charge of all the sectors of the city we have built. In the afternoon, I go to the villages, to the workplaces. I want to see people personally because I don't want to be told crap. I am never discouraged but angry at all those who do not do their job, at all those who do not assume their responsibilities. A mayor, a deputy, a senator, a minister, for example.
ACI Africa: A message for the whole world?
Poverty and exclusion are not fatalities that can be fought for, anywhere and even without money because money will come later. We started without money and when people see what you are doing and you don't divert help, people want to help. You can't write "happy" in the singular because you can't be happy alone.