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Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

Brazilian archbishop’s vision still challenges church

Recife, Brazil

The voice of Dom Helder Cāmara, the former archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil’s poor northeast, rang out here again Aug. 26 as Erika Bauer’s film, “O Santo Rebelde” (“The Holy Rebel”), was previewed at a conference marking the fifth anniversary of his death. The passionate tones recreated the effect this slight, mercurial figure had on all who met him. “I visit communities,” he explained in a voice filled with anger, “and hear them sing: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want’ -- and yet they want for everything!”

Present in Recife to celebrate Câmara were many leading Brazilian church progressives: Archbishop Marcelo Carvalheira, recently retired from João Pessoa; Dominican theologian and adviser to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Frei Betto; and Cândido Mendes, one of Brazil’s leading intellectuals. Only imminent surgery prevented Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology, from joining the group.

Friends remembered how Câmara’s passion to put the church at the service of the poor led him to transform his archdiocese when he took over days after the Brazilian military coup in 1964. The diocesan administration, led by his auxiliary and close friend, José Lamartine, became collegial, based on regular meetings of the bishops with the coordinators of the various ministries -- priests, religious and lay people. The de-clericalization of church structures was taken further with the decision that seminarians would live in groups in the communities they would later serve, with theological studies coordinated in a theological institute open to seminarians and laity.

The role of the laity in this model was crucial, most prominently in the defense of human rights, symbolized by the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission. But “the apple of Dom Helder’s eye,” according to a collaborator, Fr. Ernanne Pinheiro, was the movement of base communities, “the meeting of brothers and sisters,” as the communities decided to call it, “the poor evangelizing the poor.”

This commitment had a price. Henrique Pereira Neto, a 28-year-old priest working with students, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in May 1969, an unmistakable message to Câmara, who was himself later made a nonperson in Brazil, as the military forbade the media to make any reference to him. It was at this point that he became an international figure, accepting invitations to talk, not just about torture in Brazil, but about the gap between rich and poor in the world, and the need for people of goodwill to unite in a nonviolent movement to press for change.

For Câmara, this style of ministry was what the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had called for. Câmara wrote 297 letters from the council, and the climax of the fifth anniversary celebration was the launch of an edition of 122 of these letters. Though he never spoke in the council hall, Câmara was an active networker and lobbyist, advocating a “church of the poor,” and one of the defenders of what was at the time a controversial and radical document, “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” identifying the church with the “joys and sorrows” of ordinary people. For Câmara, Vatican II’s failure to engage wholeheartedly with world poverty meant that it had failed.

Câmara’s radical interpretation of Vatican II made him a threat to church conservatives. When he resigned his diocese in 1985, a successor was appointed to dismantle the model he had created. According to Fr. José Comblin, the Belgian theologian who has worked in Latin America since 1958, “The repression by the present archbishop was very heavy, very violent, very visible. He expelled 14 priests, those who were working on social problems. He dissolved the Pastoral Land Commission, he dissolved the Human Rights Commission, closed the regional seminary. He took a whole series of quite aggressive measures that provoked opposition.” Privately, the Vatican subsequently admitted that this brutal onslaught was a mistake. Said Comblin: “I have a friend who is a bishop in another Brazilian diocese. When the nuncio informed him of his appointment, he told him: ‘You are being appointed because we don’t want to repeat the mistake we made in Recife.’ ”

The heavy-handed crackdown in Recife sparked the birth of a group of laity known as the “New Church,” which acts as a focus for those in Recife who wish to keep alive Câmara’s vision. With the unofficial support of several bishops and the participation of leading Brazilian theologians, this group has gone from strength to strength since Câmara’s death. The publication of Câmara’s letters from the council is now setting this vision in its proper context.

Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, the Recife celebrations of 2004 challenged the church to take forward the vision of Vatican II and develop it, perhaps at a new council. Here in Recife, 40 years after Vatican II, it was proposed that the church widen its horizons: Why not Bombay I? Interviewed in Bauer’s film, theologian Leonardo Boff summed up the message: “Helder Câmara was a prophet, a seed that is constantly producing fruit.”

Francis McDonagh writes from Lima, Peru.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004

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