On 6 September 2019, Pope Francis arrived in Madagascar for a three-day Apostolic visit.
Vatican News English Africa Service – Vatican City
Among the highlights of that visit to the “Great Red Island” was Pope Francis’ encounter with the Akamasoa Community, the “City of Friendship.”
Founder of the City of Friendship, Fr Pédro Opeka, CM, this week, told Vatica News’ French Africa Service that the visit of Pope Francis to Madagascar has remained for him and the Community an unforgettable human and spiritual event.
We must not only live for ourselves
For his part, Pope Francis described the Akamasoa community as, “an expression of God’s presence among his people who are poor.” The Pope added, “God’s dream is not only for our personal development, but essentially for the development of the community, and that there is no worse form of slavery… than to live only for ourselves.”
In the Malagasy language, “Akamasoa” means “good friends.” It is for this reason that the Community, founded in 1989, is called the “City of Friendship.”
Fr Pédro, a priest of the Vincentian Order, was a student of Theology under the future Pope Francis in Argentina. In 1970, Fr Pédro moved to Madagascar where he has dedicated most of his pastoral activity to helping the poor, in that country.
Recalling the Pope’s visit one year ago, Fr. Pédro told Vatican News that, this week, he wrote to the Holy Father to thank him for his closeness particularly to the people of Akamasoa and Madagascar, in general.
There was such a vibe, it can’t be explained
“It’s more than a memory. It’s an unforgettable experience. A human, spiritual and fraternal experience that all the people of Madagascar and Akamasoa lived when the Pope came to visit us in our village, the Akamasoa hills and then the meeting with the young people. Thousands upon thousands of young people were present that day, and they were dancing and shouting for joy. There was such a vibe it can’t be explained. We were touching the sky … Then the memorable Mass with a million people gathered at the Soamandrakizay stadium. He also visited the Mahatazana Quarry where there is the statue of Jesus who blesses the whole city of Antananarivo. And there he met 30 thousand people, most of them quarry workers. It was also a time of fellowship. Throughout the tour that the Pope made with his Popemobile, for 2 kilometres in the streets of Akamasoa, one could observe the joy on the faces of the people. It was so powerful that the Pope said me: “Pédro, look at the joy of people, children and parents.” It was an unforgettable moment because the Pope came to confirm us in this work, in this evangelical commitment that we have made in favour of the poorest: People forgotten by different governments over the years. That the Pope came in person to encourage us in this city, where God only knows how much we have suffered, is an unforgettable event and I thank him with all my heart,” Fr. Pédro narrated to Vatican News.
Government of Madagascar now appreciates Akamasoa
Fr. Pédro also spoke of how a month after welcoming the Pope to Akamasoa, the Community celebrated its 30th anniversary.
“A month after the great feast of welcoming the Pope, we celebrated Akamasoa’s 30th anniversary next to a landfill, where we have a stadium. There were also more than 30 thousand people. Young people and children also. It was another extraordinary moment, in the presence of several guests, including the president of the republic, ministers and ambassadors. The president congratulated us because he saw and felt that such an organisation could only be successful in a place where discipline and respect reign. The year (2019) was a blessed year from God,” reminisced Fr. Pédro
The Akamasoa Association
Speaking to Vatican News, last year, Fr. Pédro said, “Helping but not assisting” is one of Akamasoa’s mottos. The Association works alongside and together with poor people, helping them build necessary structures, like schools, workplaces, and healthcare facilities, so that they can prepare a future for themselves and their children.
The Akamasoa Association sets out to engage poor people in creative ways, helping them to build a dignified lifestyle for themselves. Dignity, according to Fr Pédro, means providing shelter, employment, and education. It means breaking out of the cycle of crime, violence, and hopelessness.