“Poverty is not inevitable,” Pope Francis said when he visited Akomasosa, “the city of friendship,” that the Rev. Pedro Pablo Opeka, an Argentine missionary, had started to build 30 years ago together with some very poor families. He hailed their extraordinary venture as “a prophetic witness to hope.”
Some 8,000 children and young people were gathered inside and could not conceal their joy as they sang in unison, chanted and cheered as they waited for the pope to arrive.The President of Madagascar and his wife were present too – they come to Mass here on Sunday – and joined in the celebration.
The atmosphere was electric and the place erupted with uncontrollable emotion and joy when Pope Francis stepped inside the vast hall escorted by Father Opeka whom he had warmly embraced on arrival. Hundreds of teenage girls seated in rows in the center of the hall wore blue, white, yellow or pink dresses, and waved flags of the same colors (the colors of Akamasoa) when he arrived. When he was seated, they sang a well-known spanish hymn - Dios està aqui (“God is here”) as they moved together in perfect harmony. The look of immense happiness on Francis’ face revealed his inner joy at being here.
Father Opeka welcomed Pope Francis to this place which, he said, “was one a zone of exclusion, suffering violence and death” but over the past 30 years “Divine Providence has created an ‘oasis of hope’ in which children have regained their dignity, young people have returned to work and their parents have begun to work to prepare a future for their children.” He told the pope, “we have eradicated the extreme poverty of this place thanks to faith, work, school, reciprocal respect and discipline.” He thanked Francis for coming and said, “your presence here is a grace and a blessing that has redoubled our courage to fight against poverty.”
Next, a 13 year-old girl named Fanny (i Fanomezanjanahary Tsiadino F. Ratsiory) greeted him on behalf of all the children and young people. She told him that she had come to the Akamasoa center with her mother, young sister and brother when she was six, and it changed her whole life, because she is now happy, can study and prays. She gave him a gift made by her mother, and she,her siblings and their mother greeted the pope as the young people cheered.
When it came to Pope Francis turn to speak, he began by confiding to the young people that Father Opeka had been a student of his when he studied theology in 1968, but he said – drawing laughs and smiles from the children – “he didn’t want to study much, he just wanted to work.”
Father Opeka thanked Francis for coming and said, “your presence here is a grace and a blessing that has redoubled our courage to fight against poverty.”
He went on to express his personal joy at being here and said Akamasoa “is an expression of God’s presence in the midst of his people who are poor” but “it is not an isolated or occasional presence… it is the presence of a God who has chosen to live and dwell forever in the midst of his people.”
“Seeing your happy faces, I give thanks to the Lord who has heard the cry of the poor and shown his love in tangible signs like the creation of this village,” the pope said. He recalled that their cry for help “which arose from being homeless, from seeing your children grow up malnourished, from being without work and often regarded with indifference if not disdain – has turned into a song of hope for you and for all those who see you.” He was referring to the houses, the schools, the dispensaries that are in the neighborhood. Saying all this “is a song of hope that refutes and silences any suggestion that some things are “inevitable.” Francis stated forcefully “poverty is not inevitable!”
He recalled that the Akamasoa city reflects “a long history of courage and mutual assistance” and is “the fruit of many years of hard work.” But, he said, “at its foundations, we find a living faith translated into concrete actions capable of “moving mountains”. A faith that made it possible to see opportunity in place of insecurity; to see hope in place of inevitability; to see life in a place that spoke only of death and destruction.”
He recalled that “the building blocks of teamwork and a sense of family and community have enabled you to rebuild, with patience and skill, your confidence, not only in yourselves but also in one another” and “this has given you the chance to take the lead in shaping this enterprise.” He said that “it has been an education in the values handed down by those first families who took a risk with Father Opeka – the values of hard work, discipline, honesty, self-respect and respect for others.”
He told them that all this has helped them to understand that “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, as Father Pedro reminded us, than to live only for ourselves.”
Speaking directly to the young people of Akamasoa, Pope Francis encouraged them to “never stop fighting the disastrous effects of poverty; never yield to the temptation of settling for an easy life or withdrawing into yourselves.” He urged them to continue this work started by their elders and said they will find the strength to do so in “your faith” and in the example of their elders. He encouraged them to ask God to make them “generous in the service of your brothers and sisters.”
Akamasoa “is an expression of God’s presence in the midst of his people who are poor” but “it is not an isolated or occasional presence… it is the presence of a God who has chosen to live and dwell forever in the midst of his people.”
He prayed that Akamasoa may become throughout Madagascar and everywhere in the world “a ray of light, so that we can enact models of development that support the fight against poverty and social exclusion, on the basis of trust, education, hard work and commitment.” He concluded by invoking God’s blessing on Father Opeka and all the inhabitants of Akomasoa, and asking them to pray for him.
As he exited the hall accompanied by Father Opeka, the young people sang and waved their flags. Francis then entered his popemobile and invited Father Opeka to join him as he waved to the thousands of people that were gathered outside.
From there, he drove a short distance to the nearby Mahatazana mine for precious stones that is now managed by the Akamasoa project and employs 700 workers. There too he was greeted by thousands of people in a gathering of song and music and some short speeches.
Then, he recited the following prayer for workers which he had written himself, as a prayer for all workers and not just those at this mine (full text below).
From there, Pope Francis drove to the Jesuit-run Collège Saint Michel for a meeting with priests, women and men religious and seminarians. After which, his final engagement of the day was a private meeting with the Jesuits of Madagascar.
POPE FRANCIS’S PRAYER FOR WORKERS.
God our Father, Creator of heaven and earth, we thank you for gathering us as brothers and sisters in this place. Before this rock, split by human labour, we pray to you for workers everywhere.
We pray for those who work with their hands and with immense physical effort: soothe their wearied frames, that they may tenderly caress their children and join in their games. Grant them unfailing spiritual strength and physical health, lest they succumb beneath the burden of their labors.
Grant that the fruits of their work may ensure a dignified life to their families. May they come home at night to warmth, comfort and encouragement and together, under your gaze, find true joy.
May our families know that the joy of earning our daily bread becomes perfect when that bread is shared. May our children not be forced to work, but receive schooling and continue their studies, and may their teachers devote themselves fully to their task, without needing other work to make a decent living.
God of justice, touch the hearts of owners and managers. May they make every effort to ensure that workers receive a just wage and enjoy conditions respectful of their human dignity.
Father, in your mercy, take pity on those who lack work. May unemployment - the cause of such great misery – disappear from our societies. May all know the joy and dignity of earning their daily bread, and bringing it home to support their loved ones.
Create among workers a spirit of authentic solidarity. May they learn to be attentive to one another, To encourage one another, to support those in difficulty and to lift up those who have fallen.
Let their hearts not yield to hatred, resentment or bitterness in the face of injustice. May they keep alive their hope for a better world, and work to that end.
Together, may they constructively defend their rights. Grant that their voices and demands may be heard.
God our Father, you have made Saint Joseph, foster father of Jesus and courageous spouse of the Virgin Mary, protector of workers throughout the world.
To him I entrust all those who labor here, at Akamasoa, and all the workers of Madagascar, especially those experiencing uncertainty and hardship. May he keep them in the love of your Son and sustain them in their livelihood and in their hope. Amen.