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In Appreciation

Câmara’s preference was for the poor


Dom Helder Pessoa Câmara, retired archbishop of Recife and Olinda in the parched and impoverished Northeast of Brazil, a brilliant thinker and one of the Catholic church’s most inspired and charismatic leaders of the 20th century, died Aug. 27 at his modest home in Olinda. He was 90.

Under his moral leadership the Catholic church in Latin America moved from its traditional support of the wealthy landowners and business elite to a preferential option for the poor.

When the Second Vatican Council assembled in Rome in 1962 Dom Helder participated as an auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro. Although at age 53 one of the youngest of the more than 2,000 participants, he quickly emerged as a leader. Wearing a wooden cross over a simple black cassock, he urged his fellow bishops to give their silver and gold pectoral crosses to the poor and drop such titles as eminence and excellency. He helped create a small think tank headed by Cardinals Pierre Gerlier of France and Giacomo Lercaro of Italy that became known as the church-of-the-poor group.

Although shunned by bishops from the Anglo-Saxon world, some of whom saw the group’s ideas as merely a device to extract a higher level of aid for the missions, the group attracted widespread sympathy and support. In 1965, two weeks before the end of the council, Dom Helder summed up the group’s findings. “Almost 2,000 years after the death of Christ, at a time when the Declaration on Religious Liberty is to be promulgated, nearly two-thirds of humans live in a subhuman condition that makes it impossible for them to understand the true meaning of liberty. ... Underdevelopment has plunged Latin America and the whole Third World into a situation unworthy of the human person; it constitutes an insult to creation. A revolt by Latin American Christians against the church is inevitable if the church sins today by omission, in an hour of oppression and slavery.”

The press loved the tiny, almost emaciated Brazilian who gave interviews in a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish and French, and who made himself understood more by his exuberant gestures than by his words. I had an extraordinary experience of his simplicity, honesty and humility when, during the second session of the council in 1963, he asked for my help. An organization of young European businessmen based in Brussels had invited him to address their convention in English, a language he never succeeded in conquering, though this did not stop him from getting his message across.

My assignment was simply to revise the text for linguistic accuracy, but at one point I noticed a misinterpretation of some economic data. Hesitantly, I pointed this out to him. He thanked me profusely. “I really know very little about economics,” he said. “But these things have to be challenged, and when no one else is doing it, I have no choice. I do my best and learn as we go.”

Learn he certainly did, and he also persuaded many of his Latin American colleagues that the future of Christianity in the hemisphere hung on the church’s response to the economic and social crisis that had been building up since World War II.

An article in Vózes de Petropolis in 1968 sums up his thought in five short paragraphs:

“The church must overcome that magic and fatalistic Christianity that she has transmitted to the Latin American masses; a religion preached to men without freedom easily becomes a magic and fatalistic one; there should be real hope here on earth, not only an otherworldly reward.

“The church must speak clearer and louder to the rich and the powerful. They often mistake a stratified disorder for law and public order.

“The church should encourage the use of lawful nonviolence, a democratic political pressure.

“The social revolution necessary in Latin America presupposes a social revolution in North America; there is a problem of justice in the relations between a developed and an underdeveloped world.

“The church should stop thinking that this implies an intrusion into politics, realizing rather that it is her duty because it deals with the common good and relates directly to world peace.”

Dom Helder practiced what he preached. When I visited him in 1969 in Recife, to which he had been promoted as archbishop five years earlier, he welcomed me to the single room that was both his living and working space -- the sacristy of an old church no longer used for public worship. He slept next door behind the altar in the church.

One of the Oblate missionaries from the United States with whom I was staying was taking me one day to a meeting at which the archbishop was speaking. He braked the car unexpectedly and pulled over to the curb. Dom Helder opened the door and got in. My friend later explained that the bishop had no automobile. When he wanted to go somewhere, he simply went out to the street and waited until a passer-by gave him a lift.

When he came to Recife, a regional seminary was nearing completion in the neighboring town of Olinda. It was an offshoot of Pius XII’s effort to promote priestly vocations in Latin America. As theologian José Comblin explained when I visited him there in 1969, the bishops had been animated by the new pastoral insights of the council to bring theologians, sociologists and historians from Europe to staff it. One of the innovations was to send seminarians to work in a parish for a year before ordination. When the seminarians discovered the enormous difference between the concept of the priestly ministry as taught them in the new seminary and the reality of priestly life and practice in a typical parish, a majority of them decided to leave. Most bishops simply wrote them off as failed vocations. Not so Dom Helder. “Even if you decide not to be ordained,” he told them, “that is no reason why I cannot use your knowledge and experience. As laymen you can still work for the diocese.”

By this time Dom Helder had become a non-person in Brazil. The military dictatorship, which with U.S. support overthrew the constitutional presidency in 1964, had in the interval muzzled the press and abolished labor unions and all other bodies that shielded the weak and voiceless from arbitrary mistreatment. Although many church lay leaders and clerics were among the victims of the repression, Dom Helder alone protested publicly. He continued to call for fundamental social changes such as land distribution and access to education until the military regime banned all news coverage of him. While silenced at home and the recipient of many death threats, he traveled abroad as often as he could to denounce the torture and killing of innocent people.

Dom Helder gained an important ally in 1970 when Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns was named archbishop of São Paulo. Outraged by overwhelming evidence of torture in the military prisons, Arns issued a series of editorials in the diocesan newspaper as well as pastoral letters. “It is not lawful to use physical, psychological or moral means of torture. ... It is not lawful to deprive the accused of his right to full defense. ... We deplore the suspension of habeas corpus.”

Encouraged by Arns, other church leaders began to join Dom Helder in open challenge to the regime. In his investigation of institutionalized torture, Arns worked with a Presbyterian minister, Jaime Wright, to obtain and smuggle out of the country the military’s own records of torture sessions in its jails. 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. The end of a 21-year period of terror ended, in no small way due to activity by church leaders.

Perhaps the most important contribution of Dom Helder to the church in Latin America was his role in the creation and development of the Conference of Latin American Bishops -- CELAM. Through a friendship with Giovanni Batista Montini, then an official in the Vatican Secretariat of State and later Paul VI, he won Roman approval in 1955 for CELAM as a regional body with canonical authority to make decisions binding on its members. The Roman bureaucracy moved quickly to get control of the new body by setting up a parallel curial body, the Commission for Latin America.

Dom Helder, however, in cooperation with such like-minded bishops as Sergio Mendez Arceo of Cuernavaca, Mexico, Leónidas Proaño of Riobamba, Ecuador, and Manuel Larrain of Talca, Chile, succeeded after fierce conflict in establishing CELAM’s independence. This made possible the 1968 CELAM meeting at Medellín, Colombia, in which Dom Helder again played a prominent part, helping to formulate the documents that denounced the dependence of the people on internal and international power structures maintained by intolerable institutionalized violence.

Medellín coincided with the first flourishing of liberation theology, which insists -- as Dom Helder long had done -- that Christ came to free us from the sins of hunger and oppression too. Dom Helder soon emerged as a leading proponent of the first theology developed cooperatively by Catholics and Protestants since the 16th-century Reformation, a position he maintained until his death.

He defended the use of class analysis as the central and indisputable element for understanding the social situation, insisting that one could use the insights of Marxism without becoming a Marxist. His response to those who denounced him as “the red bishop” serves as the perfect synthesis of his world-view: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Gary MacEoin is a Latin America expert and frequent contributor to NCR. He can be reached at gmaceoin@compuserve.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999