193: RED CHRISTIANS #18: Bishop Helder Camara of Brazil

“Welcome to Zingcreed, the totally independent Christian/Atheist blog which may praise Catholic clergy one day and rubbish them the next!  I hope you find something to interest you here.” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

“The Dom” as Archbishop Hélder Câmara was known was one of the most distinguished Catholic clergymen of the twentieth century.

“The Dom” (1909-1999)

This guy is famous for one statement he made that got to the heart of the political and religious hypocrisy of his day:
“Quando dou comida aos pobres chamam-me de santo. Quando pergunto por que eles são pobres chamam-me de comunista.” or in english:-
“When I help the poor they call me  a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.”

Other noteworthy quotes are:
“In the Father’s house we shall meet Buddhists, Jews, 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 than we are.”
“I am an Archbishop of the Catholic church who, in imitationof Christ, has come not to be served but to serve.”

In the 1930’s as a priest, he helped organise the Young Christian Workers in Brazil. He was influenced by the fascist ideology of the Portuguese dictator Salazar at that time.

Camara became involved with “The Church of the Poor”: third world bishops, priests from the Mission de France etc. Their manifesto “Pour une eglise servante et pauvre” was writen by Yves Congar. The group addressed the enormous gulf between rich and poor, and its members lived in austerity.

From 1963-1985 Camara was Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, a miserably poor area in north eastern Brazil. This was at the time of the western-backed military dictatorship (1964-1973) which he criticized. Here he had the chance to implement the vision of “The Church of the Poor”:

  • he avoided wearing the Archbishop’s purple sash
  • he abandoned the archbishop’s palace in the pretentious suburbs for the “Church of the Frontiers” tucked away behind the city’s inner ring road.
  • he ate his supper at the taxi drivers’ stall across the road
  • he hitched lifts instead of using his official car
  • he gave away church land to provide a settlement for the landless
  • he set up a credit union
  • he brought clergy and laity into the running of the diocese
  • he took students out of the seminary and put them into the parishes
  • he set up a theology institute for both clergy and laity, and even had women lecturers

The military conducted a damage limitation exercise – they censored all news of him and of his criticisms of them, making him a “non-person”. The dictatorship even sent agents to assassinate him, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it, instead confessing and asking forgiveness of their victim!

Because of the government’s restrictions on him at home, Câmara, a fluent French speaker, traveled the world and gained a large following outside his native Brazil. When in Paris in 1970, he openly denounced the use of torture  in Brazil for the first time and immediately became the object of a vicious campaign by the Brazilian authorities and the conformist press, accusing him of “Slandering our fatherland among foreigners”. Sao Paulo’s governor went so far as to call him “a Fidel Castro in a cassock” who “belongs to the propaganda machine of the Communist party.”

He preached his vision of “Abrahamic minorities”, by which he meant a non-violent movement working for an end to injustice, through peaceful pressure and dialogue. He also wrote of a “Spiral of Violence” (1971) having 3 stages (i) the exploitation and oppression of the poor (ii) the reaction of the downtrodden against their oppressors (ii) a violent backlash by the ruling classes against all forms of protest.

In 1985, when he was 75, Câmara retired, and there was a scandal when Rome replaced him with a dour conservative who reversed all his reforms, sacked his appointees and dismantled all the structures he had so laboriously built up.

Books by Hélder Câmara: The spiral of violence
The church and colonialism
The desert is fertile

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Liberation Theology – dead or alive?
Red Christians #10: Church Base Communities (Brazil 1972-?)
Red Christians #21: Brazilian Bishops ~1973
I accuse #9: “CIA behind missions in Latin America”
How churches supress dissent today

(i) http://www.thetablet.co.uk/page/heldercamara
(ii) guardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/oct/13/brazil-helder-camara
(iii) Löwy, Michael “The war of Gods. Liberation theology in Latin america” Verso (1996)
(iv) McDonagh, Francis “Dom Hélder Câmara: Essential Writings” Orbis books


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