ROME – “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, who’s also a recipient of France’s Legion of Honor and several papal awards.
Born in Argentina in 1948 to Slovenian parents who fled Europe after World War II, Opeka is a missionary priest who’s been serving in Madagascar, the world’s ninth poorest country, for almost 50 years.
He’s in Rome this week because three countries- Argentina, Slovenia and Monaco- are throwing a dinner to raise funds for his foundation, “Akamasoa,” which means “good friends” in Malagasy.
On Monday, Opeka was received by Pope Francis.
“When we arrived, the doors opened and the pope came to encounter us,” Opeka said on Tuesday. “He tells me ‘Pedro, how are you?’ Like a friend, a father, as if we’ve known each other for years.”
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 has said that the name Bergoglio had reached his ears, even back then.
When the two saw each other on Monday, the pope asked Opeka about his replacement, because “life passes and one day we die. Have you thought about who will replace you?”
Replacing this man won’t be an easy task.
Opeka created his foundation in 1989, when he was transferred from rural Madagascar to the capital, Antananarivo, to head the local seminary. He’d left rural Madagascar because he couldn’t bare the sight of hungry children anymore, and what he found was ten times worse.
Upon his arrival, 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.
“When I saw thousands of children fighting for their food against pigs and wild dogs, I was speechless,” he told reporters at a press conference in Rome.
That night, after seeing the open-air dumpster, he kneeled in his bed, and with his arms towards heaven, said: “Lord, help me help these children.”
The following day he went back and was questioned by the locals, who asked “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 owner of the house to invite others, and a dozen people showed up. Opeka 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.”
Akamasoa was born that day. Fewer than 30 years later, they’ve 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.
“We’ve been able to show that poverty is not fate,” he said. “But you have to believe that. You have to immerse yourself in the middle of them and stay with them.”
All of it was funded with the help of people from all over the world, and today 75 percent of the project is self-funded.
“When people know that you really work for the poor, and that the money that they give will really go to them, everyone wants to participate. Everyone,” he said.
The villages, which, seen from afar look like one big city, have health facilities, schools, recreational parks and even stadiums.
Last year, Madagascar had the National Athletic Games and eight people from Akamasoa participated: all of them returned home with gold medals. Opeka, who still enjoys playing soccer on Sundays with the young ones, couldn’t avoid showing the pride he felt over this accomplishment.
Some 10,000 of the people living in Akamasoa attend the Mass Opeka celebrates each Sunday in a shed turned open-air cathedral. The liturgy is a three-hour affair, where the faithful take time “to pray, to sing, to look at each other.”
Tourists who visit Antananarivo are advised by local tourism agencies to attend the service. Many do, and Opeka said he’s lost count of how many people, including atheists — adding, amused, “the real ones, the ones from France, not Italian atheists” — have told him they felt moved by the experience.
Today, the lively communities Opeka literally helped build- his father taught him the mason’s trade- are considered a “miracle” in Madagascar, where salaries average $900 a year, and where 76 percent of the country’s 25 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty, making less than $1.90 a day.
According to the World Bank, despite having great potential, the country continues to lag on several key development indicators: one child in two under 5 years suffers from stunting, and Madagascar is the fifth largest country in the world with the highest number of unschooled children. Moreover, the rate of access to electricity is 13 percent, one of the lowest in the world.
In addition, as an island nation, Madagascar is also vulnerable to extreme weather events, averaging three major natural disasters per year.
The contrast between what Akamasoa has managed to build and the country’s overall situation, which Opeka said has hardly progressed since he first got there in the 1970s, frustrates him.
“I feel rage, I’m mad … I feel an internal rebellion,” he told Crux before the press conference. “How can it be that a state, a government, doesn’t respect its own children, its own youth?”
He believes that older generations are called to give those who come after them the strength to “fight for an ideal, for justice, for truth, for fraternity, sharing in a fairer way the world’s wealth.”
“You see none of that [in Madagascar],” Opeka added. “This country, which has been independent for 58 years, is being sunk by extreme poverty.”
“I feel a holy rage, because this extreme poverty millions and millions live in cannot be accepted,” he said.
With his big white beard, perennially tanned forehead and steel blue eyes, one can be forgiven for confusing Opeka with either an off-the-clock Patriarch or an adventurer looking for his next destination. Looking a bit out of place in a Roman room full of priests, this shy man comes to life when asked about his project and the people he serves.
Even more so, when talking about his parents.
“I was blessed with a father who taught me how to work, a mother who taught me to respect and help the poor,” he said. “I had the example of the family I was born into, a believing family, where faith wasn’t a tradition but life, something that identified us, and I took to heart the example my parents gave me.”
“I have in my heart the example my father gave me, who always worked with honesty as a construction worker, with so much love to make his eight children live,” he said.
It was at home that he first read the Gospel, and it was the fact that they were an ordinary family that led him to want to be “with the people, because the Church too is the people of God, and Jesus lived among the poor,” explaining that his push to serve the poorest among the poor comes from that “example, that love” he received.
The story of his parents too, is worth being told: When WWII ended, Luis Opeka was arrested and sentenced to death for his Christian convictions 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.
Despite having much to say, Opeka claims that, on a daily basis, he has a very limited use of the seven languages he speaks, including English, Spanish, French and Latin.
The interactions he usually has can be reduced to a list of 10 phrases people say when they approach him: “I’m hungry,” “I’m sick,” “give me a job,” “I have no home,” “my husband beat me,” “my husband drinks,” “my children don’t go to school because I can’t afford to send them,” “we’re five families living in the same house,” “we can’t pay rent,” “Father, lend me some money.”
Money for a loan, he joked, he’s never going to see again.
The fact that his interactions can be reduced to those phrases, because of the people’s poverty, makes him angry, not only with the government, but men and women in general. Yet, going against those who often question “Where is God amidst so much suffering?” Opeka says that he’s never been mad at Him.
“I’m mad with people. God gave us freedom, reason and will. If God hadn’t given us freedom, then I would be mad at him. Without it, we’d be slaves. Each person is free to choose to do right or wrong. We need to help those who choose wrong, so they do right. Only doing right by others, only love, makes us happy,” he said.