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  • Dom Helder Pessoa Camara

    Dom Helder Pessoa Camara | Photo: wikimedia

Published 7 April 2015
Dom Helder Camara is known for saying, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

Last week the Vatican authorized the beginning of the canonization of Dom Helder Pessoa Camara. Many feel that this is coming much too late: he was recognized as the Saint of the Poor many years ago. And it is a bit offensive for the Vatican, which opposed Dom Helder and all he stood for throughout his ministry, to try now to get in on the act by moving toward naming him a saint.

Helder Pessoa Camara was born in Fortaleza, Ceara, in the impoverished Northeast of Brazil on February 7, 1909.  The son of an accountant, who was also a Freemason, with a school teacher mother, his childhood was in modest circumstances, though not in poverty. He entered seminary at the age of 14 and was ordained priest in 1931, at the age of 22.  

The first 15 years of his priesthood were devoted to educational work, both for the diocese and later for the state as director of the Department of Education in the state of Ceara and as advisor in the Ministry of Education.

In the early years of his priesthood he was attracted to the Integralist movement in Brazil, a group that had fascist tendencies. He later said that his participation in that movement was one of his greatest regrets.

In 1947 he set up the National Secretariat for Catholic Action in Brazil, which soon became a significant social movement in Brazil.

In 1952, he was made Auxiliary Bishop of Rio de Janeiro, where he started a number of activities aimed at aiding the masses of poor people living in the slums (favelas) that covered the slopes of the mountains of the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City). Most of those projects were doomed to failure as there was not a significant political will to support them.

He was the instigator and organizer of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB), one of the first such organization in the Catholic world. He was the secretary-general of the CNBB for ten years and led it to speak out on social concerns, especially about the highly concentrated land tenure that was the root cause of the poverty of the rural masses.

In 1955, he directed the formation of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), the first organization of its kind in the Catholic world.

He served as a close advisor to President Jucelino Kubichek (1956-1961), the visionary president who moved the capitol from Rio to the middle of the country where he built the remarkable city of Brasilia.

In the early 1960s, Bishop Camara participated in a very significant way in the preparations for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Pope John XXIII called the Council to encourage the Catholic Church to engage with the modern world and Dom Helder worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get the Church to identify itself publicly with the poor and exploited in the world.  Many of the decisions of the Council clearly had his fingerprints on them.

During the presidency of João Goulart (1961-1964), what many called a “pre-revolutionary” climate grew, in which there were calls for land reform and a policy of income distribution to aid the impoverished masses. Dom Helder Camara lent his voice to those calls, which earned him the hostility and then the enmity of the wealthy in Rio, who had earlier supported his charity efforts to aid the poor.  When he began calling for systemic changes he was regarded as dangerous.

In 1964 the Brazilian military, urged, guided and aided by the CIA, overthrew Goulart and forced him into exile and established a military dictatorship that was to endure until 1985. Four days after the coup, Dom Helder was appointed Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, the economic capitol of the long-suffering Northeast of Brazil.

One of the first things he did on arriving in Recife was to sell the Archbishop’s Cadillac. For his entire time as Archbishop, he never owned a car. His usual mode of transportation could only be described as hitch-hiking. He would leave the Episcopal Palace, which he had converted into a social service center, keeping only a couple of rooms on the second floor for his office and reception area, and start walking up the street. He rarely got more than 50 feet before someone would stop and offer him a ride. His stock answer was, “Where are you headed?” If he was going the same way, he would hop in with anyone. If the driver said he was going in another direction, the Dom would decline the offer and walk on until another driver, who was going in the right direction, offered him a ride.

He was easily recognized on the streets in his worn brown cassock and wood pectoral cross.  Even going to Rome for Synod meetings he would not use the ceremonial robes used by most of his colleagues, but just his cassock.  

In 1968, Dom Helder was instrumental in the organization of the meeting of CELAM when the bishops met in Medellin, Colombia, to evaluate the Second Vatican Council and determine its implications for Latin America, one of which was to declare the “preferential option for the poor” as the central implication of the Council. Many consider the results of the Medellin CELAM gathering the most significant accomplishment of Dom Helder, as the Church became, for the first time in its nearly five centuries of history in the hemisphere, identified with the poor and exploited masses and not allied with the wealthy.

In Recife, he developed the radical Northeast Regional Seminary II, following the footsteps of Vatican II. Instead of having students study in a cloistered environment, they lived in homes in poor neighborhoods and favelas where they experienced the meaning of the “option for the poor.”

During these years, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, but Brazil’s military dictatorship pressured Norway mercilessly not to give him the award. When the prize was given to Henry Kissinger, Dom Helder wrote to the Nobel Committee and respectfully asked it never to consider him again. The outrage in Europe over Kissinger getting the prize instead of Dom Helder was such that the Alternate Peace Prize was established and a cash amount equal to the Nobel Prize was raised by popular subscription and given to Dom Helder, who used it for an experiment in land reform in the State of Pernambuco, of which Recife is the capitol.

Beginning in 1970, after the military dictatorship had taken off the gloves and was kidnapping, torturing, and even murdering persons suspected of being in opposition to the regime, Dom Helder began denouncing its practices in his many speaking engagements in Europe and the United States. This earned him the total enmity of the military, which resulted in his name being totally censored from the media in Brazil.  His home, which was in the sacristy of a centuries-old church in Recife, was machine-gunned on two occasions as an expression of the regime’s displeasure.

In May 1969, a young priest, Antonio Henrique Pereira da Silva Neto, known as Padre Henrique, who worked with university students, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, his body being left on the campus of the University of Pernambuco. This was seen by all as a clear message to Dom Helder of the regime’s displeasure.

From 1969 until 1974, between three and eight persons working with Dom Helder were kidnapped and tortured by the military each year in its effort to silence the Archbishop. In every case, the victims begged Dom Helder not to stop his denunciations, as that would render their suffering meaningless.

He continued his work, empowering the poor, supporting the Christian Base Community movement (which, today, has more than 100,000 cells in Brazil), being the Voice of those who have no voice, until his forced retirement at the age of 75 in 1985.  

As the Vatican never recognized his contributions and, in fact, under Popes John Paul II and Benedict, came to oppose him in everything, it chose as his successor a man whose specific task was to undo the work of Dom Hélder in Olinda and Recife. The man who replaced him worked diligently for the next 15 years to do exactly that. The Seminary was closed; various priests close to Dom Helder were transferred to other parishes. (This Archbishop even descended to the depths of excommunicating a nine-year-old girl who had been raped by her step-father and had an abortion because the doctors said her body was too small to carry a pregnancy to term without killing her.  She and the doctors were excommunicated by the Archbishop. The rapist was not.)

Dom Hélder continued speaking around the world for several more years before his death in 2009.  He is buried in the Cathedral of Olinda.

Fred Morris worked closely with Dom Hélder from 1970-1974. On September 30, 1974, he was kidnapped by the Brazilian military in Recife and held in their torture chambers for 17 days before being expelled from Brazil as “a person prejudicial to national interests.” During his torture, which included electric shock to all parts of his body, Major Maia, a proud graduate of the US Army’s School of the Americas, then in Panama, sought to get him to say that Dom Hélder was a collaborator with the Communist Party of Brazil.  An account of his experience was published by Time Nov. 18, 1974, and by Harper’s October 1975. Or: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article18627.htm 

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