A native of Slovenia and passionate advocate for the poor, Rev. Pedro Opeka, C.M., whom St. John’s University honored with the Spirit of Service Award during its 2015 President’s Dinner, was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by its Prime Minister, Janez Janša.
For nearly 50 years, Rev. Pedro Opeka, C.M., has ministered to the poorest of the poor. After he was ordained to the priesthood, he chose to minister in a place in desperate need of hope: the country of Madagascar, where many people are forced to live a meager existence by foraging the waste hills for something to eat or sell. “I went there because there was an urgent need for missionaries in the country where St. Vincent de Paul had first sent them in 1648,” he said recently.
Fr. Opeka fled Slovenia with his parents when it became part of Yugoslavia after World War II, settling in Argentina. At 18, he entered the seminary of the Congregation of the Mission of St. Vincent de Paul in San Miguel, Argentina.
“I quickly discovered Jesus was the best friend of the poor, and the Congregation of the Mission (also known as the Vincentians) saw the face of Jesus in every poor person,” Fr. Opeka stressed, adding that he wanted to emulate the life of St. Vincent in permanent service to those on society’s margins.
After ordination in 1975, Fr. Opeka requested assignment to Madagascar after serving as a missionary there for two years. “Missionary life requires a lot of sacrifice and renunciation,” he explained. “You have to learn a new language, culture, traditions, and history. You are welcomed as a brother and start a new life with the people with whom you share the Gospel.”
Bearing witness to the extreme degradation in which the derisively named “garbage people” live, Fr. Opeka was determined to lift as many of them as he could out of this situation by teaching them skills such as farming or masonry (expertise he learned from his father) so they could build their own homes and produce their own food.
“I tried to live like them to get closer and convince them that I was in their land to work with my hands and serve its people not by sitting in an office. My office is the street,” Fr. Opeka stressed.
“There I can meet people and find an immediate solution to their problems. That has surprised them, because many poor people think that when you have power and influence you set yourself above others, directing and giving orders with pride. They believe you cannot live their life, because it is hard and without mercy. For this reason, becoming incarnate in the lives of the poor is a necessary first step in order to create bonds of trust and friendship,” he explained.
In 1989, he founded the humanitarian association knows as Akamasoa, which means good friends. “In extreme poverty, you have to be true friends to work together and overcome the daily difficulties you face. Friendship and fraternity go together. They go hand-in-hand with each other. They do not envy each other; they complete and perfect each other.”
Pope Francis visited Madagascar and Akamasoa in 2019, which Fr. Opeka called “a gift from divine providence.” Fr. Opeka recalled that the Holy Father’s visit inspired joy in the people of Akamasoa, especially its children.
“Pope Francis gave us a new spiritual strength to continue our struggle for the dignity of the abandoned poor. His visit was historic because he spent a few hours in the middle of a town that has been forgotten. He saw a light in Akamasoa and said it must spread throughout Madagascar and beyond its borders.”
Upon learning he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Fr. Opeka observed that he felt a “new weight” fall on his shoulders. “It is not just an award. It is a new mission. The Nobel Peace Prize is not a coronation of a work or a life. It is the beginning of a new mission with more spiritual and moral strength and international support.” Fr. Opeka believes that ultimately he will not receive the Nobel Peace Prize but values the attention the nomination has garnered for his cause.
“For those who love Jesus from the heart, nothing is impossible. Love conquers all. I had that idea in 1970 when I first came to Madagascar—and 50 years later, I believe in the same ideal.”
The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize is scheduled to be announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo on October 8, 2021. The award ceremony is scheduled to take place in Oslo on December 10, 2021.