Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
September 20, 1999
Helder Camara was pilgrim in the desert
In Brazil, a country with the greatest disparity in the world between rich and poor, the Roman Catholic Church traditionally identified with the minority elite which controlled the wealth and power at the expense of the oppressed masses.
As in other Latin American countries this clear division between rulers and ruled was accepted as the unalterable divine order.
A small man, barely five feet tall, but a man with a heart and spirit out of proportion to his physical stature, is often credited with questioning this established order through a process of conscientization which has disquieted the Church in every corner of the world.
Helder Pessoa Camara, born in Fortaleza on Feb. 7, 1909, the 12th child of 13 children, didn't start out as a revolutionary. He was educated in the seminary to advance the Church's partnership in social and political authority at a time when Benito Mussolini ruled Italy, when Hitler was gaining power in Germany and Franco in Spain.
Brazil had its own fascist movement and for two years, with the blessing of his bishop, Camara was active in the Integralists, or "Green Shirts," which tried to mobilize the population under the motto of "God, Country, Family."
The humiliation he felt, looking back at that period, was a blessing in disguise, because "it made it easier for me to understand the weaknesses of others," he said. After his flirtation with fascism he was asked to minister to the four million desperately poor in the slums of Rio.
There he discovered that the greatest enemy of the Church was not communism, but rather the revolting living conditions which drove people to despair.
Troubled by the contradictions, he realized that the Church's programs, policies and priorities not only failed to meet the desperate need of the masses, but failed most miserably in living out the liberating Gospel mandate to bring "good news to the poor."
In 1952, after being named auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro, he helped found the Brazilian bishops' conference and launched the Church into massive social programs for the poor.
He soon recognized that working for the poor is not enough, but that the Church had to work with the poor by learning how to be poor itself.
In 1961 he established the Movement for Grassroots Education to wipe out illiteracy, using Paulo Freire's method of consciousness-raising. In small base communities the excluded people became aware of their own dignity and learned that it was not God's will that they be poor and oppressed.
The powerful decided they could no longer count on the Church as a reliable ally and on April 1, 1964, the U.S. staged a military coup. Only a few days later Helder Camara was installed as archbishop of Recife and Olinda and called for immediate release of the leaders of popular movements who were jailed for alleged subversion.
Despite death threats and assassination attempts, Dom Helder continued to speak out. In 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, he involved the whole Church with his observation that "communism will disappear, it seems to me, when spiritual leaders are moved, not by secret ambition or Machiavellianism, but by the crisis of humanity, to take up the defence of the human person."
Banned by the dictatorship from public speaking (newspapers couldn't even print his name), Dom Helder and his base communities non-violently resisted 21 years of military oppression. "If we are to be pilgrims for peace and justice," he explained, "we must expect the desert."
On Aug. 27 the pilgrim reached his destination. May he rest in peace.
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