Obituary: Archbishop Helder Camara

Sue Branford
Thursday 02 September 1999 00:02 BST

HELDER CAMARA was the Brazilian Catholic archbishop who became renowned throughout the world as the inspirer of Latin America's "liberation theology" movement.

On Saturday, thousands of mourners, many in tears, followed his coffin, carried in an open car, as it made its three-hour journey to the Cathedral of Olinda, where Dom Helder was buried. After spending a week in hospital because of a renal infection, he had returned to his modest, three-roomed house behind a church in the city of Recife in the north-east of Brazil. He died as he would have wished, lying in his hammock, surrounded by his closest friends.

A tiny figure, barely five feet tall, Dom Helder rejected the pomp and ceremony of his rank. He always wore a battered brown cassock, adorned only by a simple wooden cross. I met him once, just before his retirement in 1985. He already seemed old, with a wizened brown face, battered by years of exposure to the harsh sun of the drought- ravaged north-east. I remember, above all, his gentleness and his concern for everything in the world around him, including its animals and plants (which had earned him the nickname of St Francis).

Helder Pessa Camara, who was the second youngest of 13 children, was born in the port of Fortaleza in the north-east of Brazil in 1909. Though far from wealthy, his parents had enough money to give the children a good education. Tragedy struck when an epidemic of whooping cough wiped out five members of the family, a disaster that Camara never forgot. He said later that he knew from the age of four that he wanted to be a priest. He entered a seminary at the age of 14 and, after proving himself a highly gifted student, was ordained at the age of 22.

From the beginning of his priesthood, Camara campaigned for social change, but in the early years he sought it on the right of the political spectrum, something that he later bitterly regretted. Identifying Communism as "the worst of all evils", he was recruited in 1931 into the Integralist Party, a Brazilian nationalist party with strong fascist tendencies.

But in 1936 he was transferred to Rio de Janeiro, where he started a campaign to eradicate the shanty-towns perched precariously on the hills around the city. It failed. Installed in new blocks of flats, the former shanty-town dwellers, most of whom were still out of work and had not been properly consulted about the move, pulled out the electric fittings and water taps to sell them, and sub-let rooms.

The experience transformed the young priest. He abandoned "integralism" and began to talk of the "unjust structures of poverty". He said that the Church needed to work, not just for the people, but with the people. He wrote: "When you live with the poor, you realise that, even though they cannot read or write, they certainly know how to think." These ideas had an important role in the later formulation of liberation theology.

In the early post-war period, Camara watched with growing dismay as the two super-powers carved up the world between them. He began to believe that the fundamental division in the world was not between the East and the West, but between the rich North and the impoverished South.

In 1952 he was made auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro, and he played a key role in the formation of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB). For 10 years Camara was its secretary-general and, under his tutelage, this collective of bishops began to voice concern over Brazil's pressing social problems, particularly its highly concentrated form of land tenure. By then an important figure in the Catholic Church hierarchy, Camara continued to live very simply. One of his colleagues recalls how he used to eat every day in the bar on the corner, with construction workers and alcoholics.

In 1955 Camara was one of the prime movers in the formation of Celam, the Latin American Bishops' Council, the first organisation of its kind in the world. And then, in the early 1960s, he took his social concerns to Rome, to the preparatory meetings for the Second Vatican Council organised by Pope John XXIII. He moved heaven and earth to bring together the delegates from Asia, Africa and Latin America behind a campaign to persuade the Catholic Church to identify itself publicly with the the poor and exploited, particularly in the Third World. He even went as far as suggesting that Pope John XXIII should, in a symbolic gesture, hand over the Vatican and all its fine works of art to Unesco, and go to live in a much more modest building as Bishop of Rome. It was a proposal that was not taken up.

Perhaps Camara's greatest achievement was to help organise Celam's historic meeting in Medellin in Colombia in 1968. In a decisive break with their old role of supporting the rich and the powerful, the bishops made a "preferential option for the poor", openly identifying themselves with the excluded and the exploited. It was an important victory for the progressive wing of the Church, which at that time was enthused with the ideas of liberation theology that were sweeping through the continent, particularly Brazil.

While he was gaining recognition abroad, Camara faced revilement at home. In 1964 - the year of the military coup in Brazil - he had been appointed Archbishop of Olinda and Recife. By 1968 the Brazilian military dictatorship was entering its most repressive and violent phase, and Camara was scathing in his criticisms. From 1968 to 1977, he was blacklisted. With censorship in full force, his name disappeared from the press and his voice from the air waves.

Camara continued with his daily routine. He went to bed early, waking for an hour or two in the middle of the night to read poetry and to write, then sleeping again for a few hours before rising for mass at 5am. But he suffered from having his voice silenced, as is clear from some of the meditations he wrote at the time:

We must have no illusions

We shall not walk on roses

People will not throng to hear us and applaud

and we shall not always be aware

of divine protection

If we are to be pilgrims for justice and peace

we must expect the desert

Camara refused to live in the Episcopal Palace, and he liked recalling how one day, at a crowded meeting in the palace, he had persuaded a peasant to take the only remaining seat - the episcopal throne. Another favourite anecdote that he recounted with great glee concerned Mother Teresa. When she asked him how he managed to retain his humility, Camara replied that he had just to imagine himself making a triumphant entry into Jerusalem, not as Jesus but as the donkey who carried him. Years later Mother Teresa reminded Camara of this conversation, saying that she had adapted his advice to Indian conditions by thinking of herself serving God as an old cow.

During this period Camara was nominated four times to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but his name was never accepted. According to a book published recently in Brazil, this was largely because the military government, through its embassy in Oslo, waged a secret campaign against him.

Camara received countless awards from foreign universities, becoming second only to Pele in the international recognition he received. Worried that Brazil's prestige abroad would be seriously damaged if Camara were assassinated, the federal police offered him the protection of 24-hour security guards. When Camara said that he already had people protecting him, the police asked for their names. He replied: "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

It was not until 1982 that Camara was given an honorary doctorate in Brazil. In a packed auditorium in the Catholic University of Sao Paulo, Camara wept as the main speech in his honour was made by a woman leader from one of the basic Christian communities in his diocese.

Despite his complete lack of self-importance, Camara was always prepared to take advantage of his rank in a good cause. Distraught parishioners sought him out one night to say that a member of their family had been arrested and was being beaten up in the police station. Camara didn't hesitate: he phoned the police, "Dom Helder here. I gather you have arrested my brother." Highly embarrassed, the officer immediately had the man released; "Brothers with the same Father," explained Dom Helder to his astonished parishioners.

In 1985, Camara, by then aged 75, retired as archbishop. In his place, Pope John Paul II selected a very different man, Dom Cardoso Sobrinho. At the ceremony it was already clear that there would be fundamental change: whereas frail and weather-beaten Camara wore as usual his scruffy cassock, Sobrinho, a large and healthy man, wore ornate purple vestments, with a huge gold cross. Camara never complained publicly, but one of his closest friends said that his eyes filled with tears whenever he discussed events in his old diocese. The close group of progressive priests and lay people who had gathered around Camara was disbanded. The human rights campaign was effectively ended.

Five years ago Dom Helder began to suffer from lapses of memory and lucidity. One of his friends said that, having been a communicator all his life, Dom Helder suffered greatly when he failed to find the words he needed. Death, he said, came as a release.

Helder Pessa Camara, priest: born Fortaleza, Brazil 7 February 1909; ordained priest 1931; consecrated bishop 1952; Auxiliary Bishop of Rio de Janeiro 1952-64; Archbishop of Olinda and Recife 1964-85; died Recife, Brazil 27 August 1999.

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