Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider: Champion of the Brazilian poor

Aloísio Leo Arlindo Lorscheider, priest: born Porto Alegre, Brazil 8 October 1924; ordained priest 1948; Bishop of Santo Angelo 1962-73; Archbishop of Fortaleza 1973-95; named a Cardinal 1976; Archbishop of Aparecida 1995-2004 (Emeritus); died Porto Alegre 23 December 2007

As leader, in 1976, of the first British Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Brazil for very many years, I asked the Governor of Rio de Janeiro if we could meet a heavyweight of the Roman Catholic Church concerned with human rights. Early the next day, we were in the office of Archbishop Aloísio Lorscheider. Flanked by extremely able young Jesuits, Lorscheider radiated intellect and seriousness of purpose. Here, obviously, was a commanding cleric, wrestling with the problems of Church, youth and poverty in Brazil, and all South America.

Lorscheider was born in 1924 in the city of Porto Alegre in the southern Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul, where his family had emigrated from Germany after the First World War. He was educated by Franciscans and ordained a priest in 1948. The 1950s under presidents Getulio Vargas and Juscelion Kubitschek were burgeoning times for Brazil. Millions poured into the cities, and the birth rate soared. Lorscheider, like many priests of his generation in South America, came to believe that the Church had to address itself to the real problems of society.

At the age of 38 Lorscheider became a bishop in the predominantly German-speaking community of Santo Angelo, in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul. For 11 years, from 1962 to 1973, he proved himself not only an able administrator but a serious theologian. In 1971 he became president of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, a post he was to hold for two terms. Two years later came the watershed in his life when in 1973 Lorscheider was elevated to Archbishop of Fortaleza. The hierarchy had evidently decided that he was the man to help resolve what had become an acute problem how to run the Church in the increasingly populated and poverty stricken north-eastern province of Ceará. Gone was the well-ordered and prosperous flock of Rio Grande do Sul. Instead, Lorscheider found himself in spiritual charge of peasant communities.

In 1976, at the age of 52, Lorscheider was made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI. He was one of 21 new cardinals appointed that year, as Paul VI continued to internationalise the body. Of the 21, only three were Italian. In 1978, the "foreigners" in the two conclaves that took place that year were decisive in the selection of Vatican outsiders as pope: the Patriarch of Venice, Albino Luciani, who became John Paul I, and, on his death 33 days later, the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, who became John Paul II. Lorscheider was crucial in mustering support for both men.

Most delicate among Lorscheider's problems throughout his career were the political activities of progressive priests in the developing world. From the 1970s onwards, the Catholic churches in the developing world were increasingly divided between those espousing the new "liberation theology" that stressed the Church's mission among the poor, and the more traditional forces. Lorscheider, a moderate in the progressive camp, skilfully brokered a compromise between the two groups as the president of the third Latin American bishops' conference (CELAM) at Puebla, Mexico, in 1979.

Later he offered views less amenable to a Vatican that was increasingly seen to side with the conservatives. In 1984, he defended the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff before the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In 1987, at the Synod of Bishops in Rome, there was controversy about the "new movements" within the Catholic Church. Their defenders suggested they were the modern equivalent of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the 13th century. Lorscheider launched a blistering attack on this view. The "new movements", he said, had become a "Church within a Church" and were dangerous; centralised international movements did not understand the realities of a local church, growing out of base communities; besides, the "new movements" were not adopting the "option for the poor" which is the basis of the Brazilian Church's pastoral policy.

Lorscheider was unafraid to involve himself in Brazilian politics. Partly on account of a good relationship with the Germano-Brazilian president General Ernesto Geisel, and his successor General João Baptista Figueiredo, Lorscheider was able to pursue his liberal causes without undue inhibitions. None the less, he pinned hopes on the ending of military rule in Brazil, and was dismayed at the premature death in 1985 of Tancredo Neves, just three months after his election as the first civilian president in 21 years.

Relations between Church and government became strained in May 1986, when Paulo Brossard, the minister of justice in the government of Neves's successor, Jose Sarney, alleged that there were "priests who are creating difficulties for agrarian reform". Lorscheider retaliated by refusing to turn up at a ceremony where he was due to be decorated by Sarney. If the Church was suspect, said Lorscheider, "the government can arrest the Pope".

On 10 May, a young priest, Father Josimo Tavares, was shot in the back by a professional gunman hired by a landowner. The government did nothing. Indeed, some members of the government suggested that the Church's "option for the poor" was responsible for rural strife. Lorscheider identified himself with the reform priests. A month later, three peasant farmers and a landowner died in an armed battle in Lorscheider's own state of Ceará. The police accused local Catholic groups of inciting the crime.

In March 1994 Lorscheider was one of 13 hostages held for 20 hours by prisoners at a jail to which he was making a pastoral visit in connection with human rights. Characteristically, he prayed for and forgave those who had seized him at knifepoint. In declining health, he transferred in 1995 to the archdiocese of Aparecida, where he continued his work until retirement in 2004.

Tam Dalyell