Brazil: Hélder Càmara, The Bishop of the poor

“I believe in the force of the truth. I believe in what is called a moral liberating force.” Dom Hélder Càmara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife was one of the great prophets of the Catholic Church.

Hélder Càmara was born in 1909, the eleventh of thirteen children, into a family of modest means. He soon entered the seminary and was ordained priest at on 15 August, 1931, at 22 years of age. For five years he worked closely with religious and social institutions that were conservative and sometimes fundamentalist. It was a period of his life that Dom Hélder himself described as “an error of youth, the result of passion without reason.”

The turning point was reached in Rio de Janeiro, the city of which Pius XII appointed him auxiliary bishop on 3 March, 1952 (he was then 43) and where he was ordained bishop on 20 April, 1952. It was there, as he often said, the new bishop discovered “not so much poverty as the poor.” From this “encounter with the poor”, as he would later tell, was born the idea of the Providence Bank of St Sebastian to assist the poor, the marginalised and the rejects of society.

In Rio, the then capital of Brazil, he organised the 36th International Eucharistic Congress and the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil of which he was a very active general secretary for 12 years. He took part in the Second Vatican Council and made notable contributions on the theme of human promotion.

On 16 November 1965, a few days before the Second Vatican Council ended, 40 bishops led by bishop Hélder Câmara met at night in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside Rome. They celebrated the Eucharist and signed a document under the title of the Pact of the Catacombs. In 13 points, the pact insists on the evangelical poverty of the church: without honorific titles, without privileges, and without worldly ostentation. It insists on collegiality and on co-responsibility in the church as people of God. After the Council, his theological-pastoral reflections were decisive in the definition of the preferential option for the poor.

He was appointed Archbishop of Olinda and Recife on 12 March 1964, by Paul VI, nineteen days before the atrocious military coup in Brazil. The reaction of the newly appointed archbishop was swift and unequivocal: he expressed strong support for Diocesan Catholic Action which condemned the coup, and this inevitably led to his being dubbed “communist” by the new military authorities.

The local governor forbade Dom Hélder to speak in public, outside the walls of the church. It was then that Dom Hélder chose a new path: that of writing and holding conferences abroad. He published 23 books that were translated into more than 20 languages.

He played an important role in the conference of Medellin (1968) where the Latin American Church made a definite “option for the poor”.

Dom Hélder was the reference point for the base ecclesial communities for the whole of the Latin American continent and influenced many pastoral decisions. His policies led to his being branded communist and subversive. During a meeting he once said: «When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no food, they say I am a communist and subversive”.

He took part in numerous meetings and conferences around the world and, in 1970, in Paris, he courageously condemned the systematic use of torture in his country as well as the existence of thousands of political prisoners, many of them unknown. Speaking to a group of members of the European parliament who were visiting Recife, he said: “If I were bishop of Amsterdam or Paris, my pastoral policy would be different. But the Pope gave me this territory where the rights of the poor are to be recognised without compromise”.

He resigned as Archbishop on 2 April 1985, having reached retirement age and continued to live in the same popular housing he had lived in since the start of his episcopal ministry in Recife, until his death on 27 August 1999, at the age of 90 years.

On 15 February 2015, the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Archbishop Antônio Fernando Saburido sent a letter to the Vatican requesting the opening of the process of canonization of Archbishop Hélder. A few weeks later, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints granted its nihil obstat, authorizing the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife to open the beatification and canonization process for Câmara.


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