Like his fellow Argentinian, Pope Francis, Fr. Opeka is concerned about victims of "throwaway culture."
A priest from Argentina who has made it his life’s work to “go out to the margins” of society and try to restore dignity to humans living amid the scraps of a “throwaway culture” has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Fr. Pedro Opeka, 72, was nominated by Prime Minister Janez Janša of Slovenia for the high honor.
Opeka, a member of the religious order known as the Congregation of the Mission, or Vincentians, has worked with people living in trash heaps in Madagascar for more than 30 years. In 1989, he founded the Akamosa association, a word meaning “City of Friendship.” As a “solidarity movement to help the poorest of the poor,” Akamosa has provided homeless people and families with 4,000 brick houses and has helped to educate 13,000 children and young people, according to Catholic News Agency.
Fr. Opeka’s fellow Argentinian, Pope Francis, who has long been advocating that the Church minister to such people on the margins, visited the “City of Friendship” during his Apostolic Journey to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius in September 2019. On that occasion, Francis remarked that at its foundations “is a living faith translated into concrete actions capable of ‘moving mountains’” and that its success shows “that poverty is not inevitable.”
According to Prime Minister Janša, the Akamasoa Community has made an outstanding contribution to “social and human development” in Madagascar, helping it to achieve the 2030 UN goals for sustainable development.
Like Jorge Bergoglio, Pedro Opeka was born in Buenos Aires to an immigrant couple. His parents fled Slovenia when it became part of Yugoslavia after the Second World War.
At the age of 18, Opeka entered the seminary of the Congregation of the Mission of St. Vincent de Paul in San Miguel, Argentina. He studied philosophy in Slovenia and theology in France and spent two years as a missionary in Madagascar. Ordained at the Basilica of Lujan in Argentina in 1975, he returned to Madagascar the following year.
Because of his success with young people and his facility in languages, his superiors appointed him director of a seminary in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, in 1989. He soon noticed the extreme poverty in the slums of the city and discovered the human degradation of the “garbage people ” scavenging the waste hills to find something to eat or to sell, according to Vatican News. He convinced a group of them to leave the slums and improve their lot by becoming farmers, or teaching them masonry, which he had learned as a young boy from his father, so they could build their own homes.
More recently, the coronavirus pandemic compounded difficulties for these poor residents, and Fr. Opeka has issued urgent calls for the most basic needs of the people he serves: rice, water and soap. He expressed his gratitude to Pope Francis for his appeal for rich countries to cancel the debt of poor countries.
“It is necessary if we want to live in dignity,” he said.