Dom Helder Camara: Poet, Mystic, Missionary
om Helder Camara, Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, Brazil, died on August 27, 1999, at 90 years of age. The twelfth of 13 children, son of a bookkeeper and a grade school teacher, he became one of the most loved and, at the same time, most opposed persons of Brazil in this century. With his death, his image gains new stature.
Dom Helder, as he was known, was internationally acknowledged as “a man of God and a defender of the poor.” In the 60’s and the 70’s, he was with Pele, the soccer player, the Brazilian most known throughout the world.
small frail man, to whom it applied the sobriquet of “the red bishop,”
was a source of embarrassment for the military regime.
Under the pretext of national and personal security, Dom Helder
was for many years subjected to endless interrogations and threats.
The personal protection he refused saying, “I don’t need
you gentlemen, I have my own security guards.
They are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
As to his supposed threat to the national security, endlessly he would
declare that he was no communist, no Marxist, and no subversive. “I feed the poor, I’m called a saint. I ask why the poor have no food, I’m called a communist.”
He raised his voice when many held their silence. So he was silenced. From 1970 and for 13 years hence, in a miserly attitude which is habitual to dictators, the government banned him from any public spaking and forbade even the publication of his name in any media. Exiled in his own country.
Persecuted and Admired
Personal persecution and calumnies did not discourage him. But a more painful fate fell on him as he was to see friends and colleagues – priests, catechists, and lay people – repeatedly imprisoned, tortured, or killed because of their association with him. Many a tear he shed for them.
One night a frightened family sought Dom Helder. One of theirs had been arrested and was being tortured in the police barracks. The bishop immediately telephoned the chief of police: “This is Dom Helder. You are holding my brother.” The policeman, surprised, stutters: “Your brother, Eminence?” “Yes, despite our different names, we are sons of the same Father.” The chief made all sorts of excuses and ordered the release of the man, brother of the archbishop, sons of the same Father. That’s how Dom Helder was, a Gospel man, simple.
Another day a hired assassin knocked at his house behind the Church of Fronteras. The man was so undone at the sight of the diminutive bishop that he abandoned his mission saying, “I can’t kill you. You are one of the Lord’s own!”
Without complexes and man of much faith, he never knew fear. Cardinal Arns of Sao Paulo, on being asked by Pope Paul VI “What do you tell me about Dom Helder?”, answered: “Dom Helder is a poet, a mystic and a missionary. As a poet he knows how to say things and the people understand what he says… As a mystic, he lives praying, and passes his whole life always with God… But he is also a great missionary, a man who brings the ideas of God to the hearts of people. I have no doubt that he is the greatest man of the Church in Brazil.”
The Bishops are United
a bishop, he dressed in a traditional soutane, and a simple wooden pectoral
cross signified his option for the poor.
He lived in a humble house, where he himself would answer the door bell.
He’d say: “People are too heavy for you?
Do not carry them on your shoulders, hold them in your heart.”
At the Vatican Council II he was known as the bishop of the poor because of his concern for the problems of the Third World. In 1968 and 1979 he took his concerns for the poor and the suffering people to the Latin American Conferences of Medellin and Puebla.
He was also greatly responsible for the creation of the National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) in 1952, and, of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) in 1954. The two bodies, both the first of the kind, have left a mark on the whole Catholic Church since the 1960’s. He wanted the bishops to be united and alert to the great social problems as the Vatican Council II would later confirm.
“That’s exactly what I want to be!”
When in his early teens, Helder told his father, a Masonic freethinker, that he wanted to be a priest, his father said to him, “Do you know what it means to be a priest? It means to belong to yourself no more. A priest belongs to God and to others.” To this young Helder firmly responded, “But that is exactly what I want to be!” And that he was till he died last August 27.
Today, the name of Dom Helder Camara needs to be counted among the saints and prophets for our time. He has embodied the Church’s option for the poor and defined through his actions the intimate relationship between love and justice. Vigorous advocate for the poor and defender of human rights that he was, he came to the conclusion that charity was not enough. What was needed was social justice. This in turn required empowering the poor to be the agents of social change. He would say: “Hope is to believe in the adventure of love, to bet on fellow human beings. to leap into the dark trusting in God.”
For all his fierce challenge to injustice, however, Dom Helder conveyed a deep spirit of interior peace and almost childlike joy. This man of God, at just over five feet tall, and weighing no more than 120 pounds, he hardly looked the part of a dangerous revolutionary. He had made a vow, “the vow of the clock.” To rise at 2:00 o’clock every dawn to pray, until the Holy Mass at 6:00 am. Thus rooted in prayer and nourished of the simple truths of our faith, Dom Helder Camara was able in each situation or encounter to discern the face of God. He was the Lord’s songbird; his hands had an eloquence as convincing as the words he used so masterfully to denounce the inequalities of an unjust world and the stormy times affecting Brazil.
Don Helder has taught us all to love God passionately. Not however, a distant God that surveys his creation from afar without getting involved in it. He has taught us to see God, Father of wonder, who sends his Son Jesus Christ to be God-with-us, sharing our life, eating, drinking, laughing, crying, loving, and teaching that we were created for life in fullness which begins here and continues through eternity.
Within the body of this frail old man, there beat the ardent and joyful heart of a troubadour, who, in the likeness of St. Francis of Assisi, blessed all, animal and human being and everything. As he often said, “In the heart of a priest, there cannot exist a drop of hatred. We share the same Father, we are blood sisters and brothers, in the blood of Jesus Christ.”
(From Xaverian Mission Newsletter)