The Humanitarian Work of Rev. Pedro Opeka, CM
by: Felix Villafranca
This is the title that Jesús María Silveyra, the author of numerous literary and testimonial works, gives to his biographical work on Rev. Pedro Opeka, an Argentinean Vincentian from Slovenia. This work has just been published by CEME.
I had the privilege of living with Pedro Opeka in Paris for two years, from September 1973 to June 1975. I studied Catechetics at the Catholic Institute and he was finishing his theological studies. He had just returned from two years of missionary ministry in southern Madagascar.
This book, which chronicles his life and his work in Madagascar, confirm the best characteristics in Pedro, namely, his restlessness, dynamism, dedicated commitment, youthful spirit and an all-encompassing missionary spirit … the Church at Rue de Sèvres, 95, was filled with young people when he celebrated one of their moves. The private masses that were shared with him were a breath of hope and enthusiasm. It is difficult to sum up in a few lines the explosive dynamism of the work of this humble illustrious Vincentian. I will just outline some of my deepest feelings and highlight some of his own words, which have given meaning to his evangelizing mission which is carried out in a ways that genuinely Vincentian in style and spirit.
As I approached slowly and silently his life and his work, I had the feeling of being immersed in the soul of famous saints of our Church: John Bosco, the apostle of youth education; Mother Teresa of Calcutta, walking through the infested neighborhoods of the city that gave her her name; Abbé Pierre, founder of the International Emmaus Community whose members give life to the forgotten members of our society by utilizing the materials that are cast aside by our consumer society. Above all, I had the feeling of being immersed in the heart of Vincent de Paul as though he had been resurrected and were living in our midst here and no. I felt proud to be a Vincentian today ... but I was also embarrassed as I realized how far removed I was from the spirit of our heritage ... and yes, I am not ashamed to confess that I was also moved to tears.
Looking at Pedro’s work I realized that love is infinitely creative and that we should not be intimidated when faced with difficulties, but rather grow as we are encouraged by the inspiration of apostolic zeal and supported by the unwavering strength of the Spirit.
Literature and style do not matter in this book, although it is fair to state that it is a good read and the author proves his experienced and seasoned skills as a writer: what is seductive about this work of 320 pages is the life pulsating flow of the story.
Do not hesitate to recommend this book to every Vincentian and Daughter of Charity who wants to deepen and renew themselves in the truest spirit of our founder. We also suggest it as a wonderful gift to so many young people who are seeking to follow the path of Vincent and Louise de Marillac ...
I single out only two quotes of P. Pedro, one concerning the the remedies for poverty and the other about compassion … but both, in my opinion, reveal the secret of his life, the vital Vincentian fluid that constantly runs through his veins.
"There is no formula to get out of poverty, he says. There are no strategies, except those of spirit and heart. To earn the trust of people there are no recipes, only looks, gestures, and human warmth. One must reach out to people who are poor in a way that causes no harm, in a way that does not attempt to convert them. Only in this way is respect awakened and thus love is able to establish deep roots so that one day, suddenly, people begin to respond."
"Compassion is not a vague feeling, but something that motivates you to action, to love others and seek help. Compassion, in a way, is to draw near to the others, not to be like them, but to remove them and free them from their problems. Compassion is extending a hand and instilling hope and conviction that one is not alone. A graphic example would be the following: if you see someone in a swamp, you should not enter this swamp in a way that result in both sinking, but rather a helping hand should be extended from firm ground so that the individual can be freed from the swamp. "
Significant data about the work of Rev. Pedro Opeka.
The humanitarian organization founded by Father Pedro Opeka in 1990 with the name of Akamasoa ("good friends" in Malagasy), has converted a garbage dump on the outskirts of the capital of Madagascar into a village where men and women live with dignity from their own work. This has brought about both the admiration and the disbelief of friends and strangers.
The author of the book says that numbers are cold facts and so it is often difficult to express what lies behind these numbers, but here are some significant figures on the number of people who have benefited in an on-going way: 2,923 families or family groups (nearly 60% are single women with their children; in total more than 200,000 people); 15,560 residents (to which we must add those at the headquarters of Arribos, reaching 16,000); 8,409 students distributed as follows: 7,324 in kindergartens and primary schools, 765 secondary schools and 120 in the university, which clearly shows the process of school reintegration that has taken place since Father Predro took pity on the people and said: "If you are willing to work, I'll help you."
On several occasions, Fr. Pedro Opeka has been proposed as a candidate for for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been named “Knight of the National Order of Madagascar" (1996), awarded the Legion of Honor from Slovenia (1996), appointed as an Officer of National Order of Merit in France (1998), Missionary of the Jubilee Year, in Italy (2000), and awarded in the United States for his humanitarian work (2001). Will he receive the Nobel Peace Prize? We hope so and we lift up our prayers that this be so, for this would be official and public recognition of the unwavering and continuing vitality of the gospel and the Vincentian spirit.
International NGOs and institutions from diverse backgrounds make the daily miracle of the work of P. Pedro Opeka a reality.