Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 6, 1999
'Red bishop' dies at 90
Helder Camara devoted life to defending Brazil's poor
By Catholic News Service
Retired Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara of Olinda and Recife, a defender of the poor and world-renowned human rights champion, died of cardiac arrest in Olinda. He was 90.
Branded the "red bishop" by the Brazilian military dictatorship he opposed, Camara was known universally to his people by the simple, familiar title, "Dom Helder."
He died Aug. 27 and was buried at his cathedral Aug. 28 following a wake attended by thousands of mourners. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso Aug. 29 declared three days of national mourning.
At the Vatican, Pope John Paul expressed sadness at news of Camara's death and called him an "energetic pastor." The pope praised the archbishop for his role in creating the Latin American bishops' council and the Brazilian bishops' conference.
Camara was nominated four times for, but never won, the Nobel Peace Prize. He received scores of other honours and awards, however, including more than 30 honourary doctorates. At least 27 other countries have made him an honourary citizen.
At home it was a different story. His advocacy of land reform and human rights in the impoverished northeastern Brazil archdiocese he led from 1964 to 1985 earned him death threats and the lasting enmity of the military government then in power.
"When I feed the poor," he once said, "I'm called a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, I'm called a communist."
As archbishop he lived the humble life he preached. For the past 35 years his home had been a single back room of the Church of the Frontiers in Olinda.
The room was sparsely furnished with bare necessities: a sink, a little stove, a table and a hammock hung from the ceiling, which served as his bed.
More than any other Latin American Church figure of his time, Camara symbolized the fight for human rights and the effort to get the Church involved in the political, economic and social struggles of the poor.
He advocated non-violent social change as the only permanent way to improve the lot of the poor, who he said must be allowed to participate in the economic, political and economic decisions of the country.
Born in the Brazilian port city of Fortaleza Feb. 7, 1909, Helder Pessoa Camara was ordained a priest in 1931, at the age of 22.
Stationed in Fortaleza as a young priest, he became active in the Integralists, an anti-communist Brazilian fascist party.
His transfer to Rio de Janeiro in 1936 marked the beginning of a profound personal transformation.
Working in Church charities, he encountered millions of poor people, living in miserable shacks, underfed and without medical care, and was shocked to find that any new idea or suggestion to alleviate their misery was immediately dismissed as "communist."
Made an auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro in 1952, and given the personal title of archbishop three years later, he organized the Brazilian bishops' conference and for 12 years was its first general secretary, a position that put him in frequent contact with the nation's political leaders.
He was also instrumental in forming the Latin American bishops' council, which played a significant role in Church renewal throughout Latin America in the 1960s and '70s.
When he was named archbishop of Olinda and Recife in 1964, he renounced use of the archbishop's palace and took up residence in the plain back room of the church in Olinda.
At the Second Vatican Council the previous year he had urged the world's bishops to forgo fancy titles and replace the gold and silver crosses they wore with less expensive ones.
In 1964, 21 years of military rule began in Brazil.
Camara regularly angered the government with his denunciations of human rights violations by its security forces and with his arguments against the style of capitalism practised in Brazil.
He often received death threats and once, when he was out of the country, his home was riddled with machine-gun bullets.
Ironically, in the 1970s his name was possibly better known in Europe and North America than inside Brazil, because the government pressured news media never to mention him.
It was in that context that Pope John Paul, on a 12-day visit to Brazil in 1980, visited Recife and embraced Camara before a nationwide television audience.
In a speech to the UN General Assembly in 1982, the archbishop said, "The North continues to hold onto its riches, always increasing its wealth, oppressing the South by injustices perpetrated through the politics of international trade."
When he retired in 1985, he continued to work for the poor.
He launched an international campaign to renegotiate and reduce Third World debts to First World institutions.
Camara visited Canada eight times, saying he had a special place in his heart for the country because it "has a voice among the rich countries" for the sake of poor nations and world peace.
In May 1986, he made his only visit to Alberta and, in a talk in Edmonton, praised the development of food banks.
But the movement for justice must go further, he said. "Also I had a dream of a justice bank. Without justice and love, peace will always be the great illusion."