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Dom Paulo: a voice for human rights

Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, 81, retired cardinal archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil, was appointed archbishop of São Paulo in 1970, and since then the words “Dom Paulo” and “human rights” have come to be synonymous throughout Latin America.

His uncompromising advocacy for the poor and oppressed have won him many friends and enemies in class-divided Brazil. He, together with Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, Archbishop Helder Câmara, and Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga led bold efforts to turn the church in Brazil on its head, breaking away from its centuries-old ties with the ruling elite and committing it to a radical social involvement and a preferential option for the poor.

Penny Lernoux, the late NCR Latin America affairs writer, reported that Arns became involved in the human rights struggle almost immediately after his São Paulo appointment when the military’s secret police raided a priest’s house where they found papers advocating better wages for workers. Using the papers as alleged proof of “subversiveness,” the police brutally tortured the priest and his assistant. When Arns learned of the arrest he went to the governor’s office to protest and then to the prison where he was denied entrance. Outraged, he denounced the incident in the archdiocese’s newspaper and on its radio station. He ordered a description of the arrest to be nailed to the door of every church in the city.

Lernoux termed the incident the beginning of “an open war between the archdiocese and the military.” The war would go on for years.

Arns then forced the Brazilian conference of bishops to take up the issue of torture, while he personally spoke out against it. The New York Times described his statement “as the strongest, most courageous affirmation ever made by a Brazilian prelate against the torture of prisoners.”

In his own investigation of institutionalized torture, Arns worked with a Presbyterian minister, Jaime Wright, to photocopy and smuggle out of Brazil the military’s own records of torture in its jails. Wright’s brother, Paulo, had been “disappeared” and tortured to death by the military. A book based on these records, Brazil Never Again, quickly became a bestseller and created such a revulsion of public opinion that in 1985 the military was forced to withdraw to its barracks and return control to a civilian government. A 21-year period of terror ended, in no small way due to activity of these church leaders.

A native of Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil, Arns, a Franciscan, did advanced studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, taught as a professor at the Franciscan seminary in São Paulo, and later at the Catholic University of Petropolis, also in Brazil. Soon after becoming archbishop, Arns sold the Palácio Pio XII, the official residence of the archbishop, used the money for charitable work, and moved to a two-story house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. His place was burglarized twice before he decided to move to his new quarters, a little house in the back of a downtown monastery.

Since his retirement, Arns has been a member of UNESCO’s Chair for Peace Education, Human Rights, Democracy and Tolerance at the State University of São Paulo. He chose to live near a large center for the elderly, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. He celebrates Sunday Mass there every week.

Arns is currently writing a book on the teaching of St. Francis and another on his favorite football team -- world “football” or soccer, not the U.S. variety.

About the Translator
The translator for Cardinal Arns’ Lenten series in NCR is Ana Flora. Forty-three years ago this American — then known as Florence Mary Anderson — went to Brazil on a Fulbright Scholarship to do master’s work in Brazilian history. She has lived in her adopted homeland ever since, discovering a vocation to theology. A former student at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, she has been teaching New Testament studies in Brazil since 1970. She was a close friend of the late Penny Lernoux, a frequent Latin American contributor to NCR. It was Penny who introduced her to NCR and its peace and justice mission.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003