A Vincentian Hosts His Teacher Pope Francis

Fr. Pedro Opeka, CM, studied under Pope Francis. Now, decades later he proudly hosted his former teacher. Pope Francis came to see what his former student had done that has amazed those who have learned of the city built by the poor under his inspiration and leadership. The project began when he asked the question that started it all and built a city.

Now, some 30 years later, together they have virtually built an entire city, divided into 18 neighborhoods that give dignified brick homes to some 23,000 people, connected by paved roads. There are 3,000 masons on the project, and work is never lacking.

Some 900,000 more people have found respite in the community’s “welcome centers,” at which they are able to stay for up to three weeks in periods of crisis or need. Akamosoa’s medical clinic, centers, schools, and other industries and ministries support more than 3,000 jobs. The villagers of Akamasoa are the community’s leaders.

God’s Mason,” “Mother Teresa with pants,” “God’s soldier,” “the apostle of garbage” and “the insurgent of Madagascar” are but a handful of the nicknames given to Father Pedro Opeka. Nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize, he is also a recipient of France’s Legion of Honor and several papal awards.

The Story

When he arrived, he was struck by the sight of the garbage dump sites from the hills of the city, and headed over only to find thousands of people, adults and the young, scavenging for food like wild animals. 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.

Heart-breaking! Where would you start? Where did he start?

That night, after seeing the open-air dumpster filled with people, he kneeled in his bed, and with his arms towards heaven, said: “Lord, help me help these children.”

The following day he went back. He was challenged by the locals: “Hey, white man, what do you want?” The bias of being a “white” person in a country that still remembers its independence from white colonizers was one of the many waves he had to surf.

But he was, quite literally, a man on a mission.

He told those confronting him that he was a missionary priest and that he wanted to speak with them, but not “out here, invite me into your home.” By home, he meant a cardboard structure that was some three feet tall. He had to crawl on hands and knees to go in, and when they sat on the floor- a carpet of garbage- the roof was some 10 inches above his head.

He asked the Vincentian question “What must be done”. But he asked it of the people he had come to serve. Fr. Pedro Opeka, CM asked them a question: “Do you love your children?” When he received an affirmative response, he said: “Let’s work together, give them a future.” So began the slow process of of helping them to help themselves.

Akamasoa was born that day.

The Pope’s Praise

 Pope Francis began by confiding to the young people that Father Opeka had been a student of his when he studied theology in 1968, but he said – drawing laughs and smiles from the children – “he didn’t want to study much, he just wanted to work.”

See the 40 minute video of the ceremony of Eucharist from the “city of friendship” built for and by the poor of Madagascar on the site of a landfill.

Some of what else the Pope said to youth during his visit…

“You have come in good numbers this evening, in the heart of this City of Friendship that you built with your own hands. I have no doubt that you will continue to build it, so that many families will be able to live with dignity.”

He continued…

Akamasoa “reflects a long history of courage and mutual assistance. This city is the fruit of many years of hard work. At its foundations, we find 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.”

Never stop fighting the baneful effects of poverty; never yield to the temptation of settling for an easy life or withdrawing into yourselves.”

“Dear young people, this great work accomplished by your elders, is now yours to carry forward. You will find the strength to do so in your faith and in the living witness that your elders have made a reality in your lives.”

“Allow the gifts that the Lord has given you to flourish in your midst. Ask him to help you to be generous in the service of your brothers and sisters. In this way, Akamasoa will not be merely an example for the coming generations, but something even greater: the point of departure for a work inspired by God that will come to full flower in the measure that you continue to witness to his love for present and future generations.”

“This has given you the chance to take the lead in shaping this enterprise. It has been an education in the values handed down by those first families who took a risk with Father Opeka – the values of hard work, discipline, honesty, self-respect and respect for others.”

“Dear friends of Akamasoa, dear Father Pedro and co-workers, thank you once again for your prophetic witness of hope. May God continue to bless you,” the pope concluded.

“I ask you, please, not to forget to pray for me.”

Lessons to be learned

  • How do I manifest genuine friendship to those I serve?
  • Do I take the time to listen to their hopes?
  • Am I willing to do whatever it takes to help them fulfill their hopes?

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