Fr Kevin Hegarty
Archbishop Hélder Câmara was once the second-best-known Brazilian in the world after Pele, the majestic footballer. For over half a century, he championed the cause of the impoverished masses in Latin America.
The distinguished commentator Gary MacEoin claimed that ‘under his moral leadership, the Catholic Church in Latin America moved from its traditional support of the wealthy landowners and business elite to a preferential option for the poor’. Less worthy people have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Though he was nominated four times for the award, the Brazilian government of the time, who deeply resented his prophetic wards and actions, lobbied successfully against him being honoured.
Câmara was born in 1909 in Fortaleza in North Eastern Brazil, the second youngest of 13 children. The family was relatively comfortable. His mother was a teacher, and his father was a journalist and drama critic.
Tragedy struck when a whooping-cough epidemic wiped out five of his siblings. Câmara’s mind was shaped by his parents. His mother was a devout Catholic while his father was a free thinker. He wrote later that his father taught him ‘that it is possible to be good without being religious’.
He later devoloped this ecumenical insight: “In the Father’s house we shall meet Buddhists and Jesus, Muslims and Protestants – even a few Catholics too, I dare say. We should be more humble about people who, even if they have never heard of the name of Jesus Christ, may well be more Christian then we are.”
From the age of four, he wanted to be a priest. He entered the seminary at 14 years of age. He was a gifted student and was ordained when he was 22.
As a priest he did not confine his ministry to the altar and sacristy. He was interested in politics and social affairs. He had a youthful flirtation with a fascist party, which he later regretted.
He soon came to realise that social reform begins by listening to the people who are denied human rights and are estranged in the ‘unjust structures of poverty’. He wrote that ‘when you live with the poor, you realize that, even though they cannot read or write, they certainly know how to think’. This insight was crucial to the development of liberation theology.
Câmara was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro in 1952 and Archbishop of Olinde and Recife in 1964. He disdained the rich trappings of episcopal life in Brazil. He abandoned the episcopal palace and lived in simple accommodation behind a church. He dressed in a brown cassock. He dined with construction workers in a local bar. When he wanted to go somewhere, he hitched a lift.
Câmara came to international prominence in the early 1960s when all the Catholic bishops came to Rome for the Second Vatican Council. His simple cassock stood out against the purple and red of his fellow bishops. Accustomed to ceremony, elaborate robes and pomp, they found that his shabby attire was an uncomfortable reminder of the spartan lifestyle of Jesus Christ. They resented his suggestion that they should sell their gold and silver pectoral crosses and give money to the poor.
At the council he made common cause with like minded bishops. They were known as the ‘Church of the Poor’ group. In 1965, they declared: “Underdevelopment has plunged Latin America and the whole Third World into a situation unworthy of the human person; it constitutes an insult to creation. A revolt of Latin American Christians against the Church is inevitable if the Church sins today by omission, in an hour of oppression and slavery.”
Câmara believed that one could use the insights of Karl Marx without becoming a Marxist. To right-wing Catholics, who accused him of being tainted with communism, he replied: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, when I ask why are they poor, they call me a communist.”