Father Pedro Pablo Opeka is a Lazarist missionary who was born in 1948 in a suburb of Buenos Aires. He has always worked with the poor, in Argentina at first, then, since 1975, in Madagascar. Here he founded the humanitarian association Akamasoa (‘good friend’ in the local language) which has helped some 500,000 people since 1989. Today Akamasoa sustains nearly twenty thousand people – including nine thousand children, of which seven thousand go to school. Southworld met father Pedro on a very important day for the whole Church.
A few hours before this interview, the Conclave in Rome elected another Argentinean, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the first Latin American ever to become pope. He chose Francis as his name…
A Conclave often holds surprises. This time the surprise came from Latin America. The church in South America has reflected greatly on getting closer to the poor, defending them, and being with them. In my opinion, this election is going to give new impulse to this pastoral guideline and to the whole church in South America, where most Catholics belong to the lower social classes. Cardinal Bergoglio, as a bishop, used to visit penniless maternity wards in the slums, in order to encourage the mothers. He also went to prisons, and on Holy Thursday often washed prisoners’ feet. The name he chose, Francis, outlines an entire programme.
The poor are also your main concern. You have been among them for a great part of your life. What pushed you to be so close to them?
This desire came to me directly from the Gospel, from Christ who was a friend of the poor and from the love He had for them. I decided to be a friend of the poor, too, and I went to the slums when I was 17; then in the Andes, among the poorest, the mapuche natives, and later among the matacos, in the North. I also entered a religious order that deals with poor people in its daily activities, the Lazarists. Their primary goal is to evangelize and help the poor, to help them regain their dignity. We are all brothers and sisters, the Gospel says, and the closer we are to the poor, the closer we will be to God, living Jesus’ life, and fulfilling His message.
We spoke about material poverty, but poverty can also affect the spiritual side of men…
Yes, that is true! Poverty is a concrete matter for many people, but others are poor from a spiritual and moral point of view, they lack a firm foundation in life. A missionary must obviously turn to the poorest, the forgotten, the oppressed, and those who have lost their dignity. However, Jesus proclaimed his Gospel for everybody, including those that can be called the ‘poor rich people of Europe’. They are wealthy; nevertheless, they are empty-hearted. Therefore, we must also help them to regain a sense for their lives, a goal, which is brotherhood. It is easy to explain, but not that easy to accomplish. It is difficult to live the daily life of the poor. Conflicts occur even among brothers, and we must solve them, relying on mutual understanding and agreement, on pardon. As for myself, I have been robbed, I have felt delusion, people have lied to me, but I still stand firm, with the poor, and we go on, together.
After leaving your home country,you went to Madagascar. What living conditions did you find there?
They needed everything, everything! First, they needed to be listened to; they needed someone to listen to them and to understand them. They also needed to be fed. Thousands of children were hungry! When you are hungry, you must be given bread, then, when you have had something to eat, you can speak of everything else. Hunger is deaf. So, we gave the children and their parents something to eat, and then we spoke to them. I told them: “If you love your children, if you care for them and for their lives, let’s get out of this all together. We will send the kids to school, and we will create a rule in order to be able to live together.” They were surprised, but they accepted, and then, when they saw that we did what we had promised, they began to trust us. When you trust someone, everything becomes possible, even without money.
For many years, Madagascar has been experiencing profound political instability. What consequences have the people felt?
Poverty has risen, there are fewer jobs, and people are struggling to stay alive. We do not live, we survive: 80 people out of 100 are considered poor. Since independence, the government has forgotten its people, as many politicians did in the rest of Africa. That is why we need a spiritual authority, like the pope, to remind presidents all over the world that power must not be used in order to get rich. Power is a service to the people and especially to the poor. The pope can set an example, and Benedict XVI already did this, when he renounced his power.
Europe is currently facing an economic crisis. Can Europeans take example from the poor you work with?
When Europeans talk about the economic crisis, people in Madagascar do not understand what they mean. You call this a crisis – in Madagascar we are dying, we live below the poverty line! You, the ones living in Europe, you have everything! Every family has up to three cars, and a house. You have social security systems, you have drinking water, and you can go on holiday. And you talk about crisis. In Madagascar, we have nothing: no jobs, no welfare state, no schools, no hospitals, no water, no roads. Europe and North America should be humbler. Limits should be put to dilapidation. I do not have a magic formula; we must seek a solution together, because happiness is plural. One cannot be happy on his own. (D.M.)