IN A COUNTRY ravaged by poverty and corruption, a visit by the Holy Father (Sept. 6-8, 2019) is good news for its population of 25.5 million people, 58 percent of whom are Christian.
On the diocesan grounds of Soamandrakizay, in Androhibe, on the southern fringes of the capital city of Antananarivo, the authorities are preparing a vast field in readiness for the large outdoor Mass which will be celebrated by Pope Francis on Sunday Sept. 8. This will be the first visit to the island by a Pope since the visit of Saint John Paul II in 1989.
Lazarist Father Pedro Opeka tells Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that people have been eagerly awaiting Pope Francis. “It’s going to be crazy,” he says with a smile, adding that “he will be coming here, to the former rubbish tip which we transformed into a village. It’s like a consecration!” The papal Mass will put the spotlight on a project initiated on behalf of the poorest of the poor back in 1989, the year of the visit by Pope John Paul II, and which in 30 years has improved the lives of more than 500,000 destitute people.
Madagascar was already poor when the missionary first arrived in 1975; however, he has seen the poverty increase since then. The rural poor, the majority of the population of the island at the time, are rubbing shoulders today with urban dwellers struggling to find work. Tensions are growing. “30 years ago I could travel wherever I wanted on my adopted island,” the priest recalls, but “today that’s no longer possible, given the situation in the country, which is bordering on civil war.” Madagascar is the fifth poorest country in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The missionary believes that the island has suffered above all from its abandonment by the politicians. For although the country is rich with mineral wealth, especially aluminium and nickel, barely 1 percent of this wealth comes back to benefit the country as a whole. “At a broader level there is a mentality of entrenched thinking, of institutionalized corruption, which continues to undermine the future of Magascar,” the priest laments. The illiteracy rate in Madagascar stands at 31 percent, while only 15 percent of the population has access to electrici
He does have hopes for the new Madagascan president, Andry Rajoelina, who was elected in 2018. This youthful head of state, born in 1974, gained the votes above all of the ordinary people in society, and he has promised them that he “will not forget them.” “If reforms are not made, then Madagascan society will explode,” Father Opeka warns.
Franciscan Father Jacques Tronchon, whom ACN is currently supporting in a project aiming at the rural reintegration of families living in great poverty in the massive suburban slums around the capital agrees. He says: “the ancient antagonisms between the different regions in the country and the economic situation resulting from the power struggles between the major political forces—to say nothing of the climatic problems linked to the seasonal cyclones—make it very difficult to achieve a harmonious development of this beautiful country.”
The country is also divided along religious lines. The ancestral pagan religions still have great influence in society and at the same time all kinds of different sects, often rival ones, are proliferating alongside the major Christian denominations. However, Father Tronchon explains, “the leadership of the Catholic Church is very much in evidence thanks to the powerful presence of the dioceses and the many different religious congregations, along with the various social projects they have undertaken.”
Despite all the difficulties, he is convinced that “without a doubt, there is a whole People of God who will come from every corner of this great island to welcome Pope Francis and give thanks together with him.”
The Church is concerned about the rapid advance of Islam, especially in the north of the country. “There are plans, supported from abroad, to Islamize many parts of Madagascar,” says Bishop Rosario Vella of Moramanga: “Recently I visited villages located in the woodlands of the diocese of Ambanja and there are numerous mosques under construction, without there being any Islamic faithful. We bishops are concerned because people convert to Islam after having been pressured or with the promise of economic incentives.”
In 2018, ACN supported the work of the Church in Madagascar with projects totaling more than $1.4M.