Today in Latin America, the death of Dom Hélder Câmara

dom-helder-camaraAlmost two decades ago today (19 years ago) in 1990, Dom Hélder Câmara passed away.

Born the twelfth of thirteen children in 1909 in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil, he grew up to a be a Roman Catholic priest of high ordinance, becoming archbishop of Recife and Olinda.

But it is his option for the poor that makes Câmara who he is today in the minds of not only Brazilians, but regular folks like myself. He chose to walk amongst and with the people of Brazil, through it all. All the military dictatorships and all the cyclical processes of democratic change. Through repression and death, Câmara kept his promise until August 27, 1990, when he passed away at his home in Recife.

“Do you know what it means to be a priest?” Câmara’s father asked his son, only a teenager at the time, “It means to belong to yourself no more. A priest belongs to God and to others.” Câmara responded: “But that is exactly what I want to be!” It was this passion that led him to a life that involved waking daily at 2 a.m. to pray until 6 a.m., a life that meant something more than material pleasures. A life of struggle.

Often called the “red bishop,” he was famous for the phrase:

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.

He was a source of embarrassment for the military regime, which ruled Brazil from 1964, after ousting democratically-elected João Goulart, until 1985. The government would harass Câmara, who responded to those who felt he needed protection, “I don’t need you gentlemen, I have my own security guards. They are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He was “red” because he feed the poor, but he never admitted to any political affiliation for he never felt one. He was no Marxist, no subversive – it was this indignation that forced him to utter phrases like the famous passage above. But the government got the better of him, and from 1970 until 1983, Câmara was banned for publicly speaking and even forbade his name from any media.

Paulo Evaristo Cardinal Arns, the current Cardinal Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo, said of Câmara:

Dom Hélder is a poet, a mystic and a missionary. As a poet he knows how to say things and the people understand what he says… As a mystic, he lives praying, and passes his whole life always with God… But he is also a great missionary, a man who brings the ideas of God to the hearts of people. I have no doubt that he is the greatest man of the Church in Brazil.

He was known for his traditional soutane and simple, wooden cross – symbol of his solidarity with the poor in Brazil. It was not utopia he fought for, he fought for social justice. In a saying enigmatic of his life, he’d say, “People are too heavy for you? Do not carry them on your shoulders, hold them in your heart.” The saying is rich with textures. It implies both a physical and existential reality. Sometimes the horrors of man and the sights of those dying or mistreated surround our senses and our televisions. Sometimes, people are too heavy for us to handle. In the metaphor, charity was not enough. Money was not enough. Loving one another would prevent military dictators, prevent the deaths of priests (like Óscar Romero in El Salvador among others), prevent cruelty and inequality.

Even for someone like myself, decidedly not religious, a man like Dom Hélder Câmara touches at what I feel is most important in life. We seek a righteous path any way we can. I take my way, men like Câmara take theirs. I believe that his and my path are not wholly separate from one another, despite it all.


~ by Daniel on February 7, 2009.

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