By Francesco Neves
"Are you going to heaven?", a reporter asked him once. "I have great
hope," answered Dom Hélder, a man who liked to be called just with the honorific
title for bishops, Dom, and whose main virtue wasn’t humbleness. He loved to tell this
little joke about himself: "Dom Hélder died, went to heaven and there was Saint
Peter waiting for him at heaven’s gate. Already impatient that the bishop didn’t make up
his mind to enter, the gatekeeper saint asks: "Why is he taking so long?" To
which one aide answers: "He is waiting for the media to cover the event."
And cover they did. The bishop whose name could not even be mentioned in the media
during the darker years of the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and who was derisively
called "Red Bishop" by one of the most influent Brazilian papers, conservative O
Estado de S. Paulo, found his death making front cover headlines across the country.
As witness to the love people had for him, more than 2000 people walked for two hours
under the sun following the Fire Department truck that carried his casket through the
streets of Recife to Olinda where Dom Hélder was buried at the mausoleum of the Alto da
Sé Church. Thousands more had come to the daylong wake. On their way to the mausoleum the
faithful sang the national anthem, church hymns, as well as Roberto Carlos popular songs
"Jesus Cristo" and "A Montanha".
Diminutive (he was 5"2′) and gaunt, Hélder Câmara was big enough to face the
powerful and condemn the atrocities they committed in the name of national security. An
admirer of Fidel Castro, he used to attack capitalism and the United States. An inspirer
of Liberation Theology he didn’t want to be linked to any ideology however. Contrary to
the Liberation Theology, which condemns the giving of alms, he used to give to the poor.
Talking about his dilemma with the military he declared in 1964: "If I give food to
the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a
During the Second Vatican Council in 1963 he suggested to his fellow bishops they
should abandon titles of nobility like eminence and excellency and to exchange their
valuable crosses for bronze or wood ones. He wrote: "Let us end once and for all the
impression of a bishop-prince, residing in a palace, isolated from his clergy whom he
treats distantly and coldly." Following his own advice when he took his post as
archbishop of Pernambuco state’s Olinda and Recife, on April 12, 1964less than two
weeks after the March 31 military coup against President João GoulartDom Hélder
chose to live in a little house behind a church instead of the Episcopal mansion. He also
took out the gilded throne his predecessor had and adopted a wooden chair in its place.
Dom Hélder kept his Franciscan habits until the end. Instead of the embroidered frocks
favored by his peers he preferred an old worn white cassock.
At his inauguration homily he talked about his beliefs: "On Judgement Day, we will
be judged by the way we treated Christ represented by those who are hungry, thirsty, and
go through life dirty, hurt and oppressed."
What he called "preferential option for the poor" was Dom Hélder’s life-long
undertaking. In the 1950s as Rio’s auxiliary bishop he had already developed two programs
to help the poor: the Saint Sebastian Crusade (1956) and the Providence Bank (1959). His
intent to go to the roots of what caused poverty gave origin to the CEBs (Comunidades
Eclesiais de BaseGrassroots Church Communities), an institution much maligned by the
military, which accused him of being a communist.
Late controversial rightwing playwright and journalist Nelson Rodrigues, who often
criticized Dom Hélder, wrote: "He would like to make the headlines of Kennedy, the
frontpages of Guevara and get the promotion of Martin Luther King." Combative and
renowned journalist David Nasser also used to write against Dom Hélder at the end of the
60’s and beginning of the 70’s, calling him "our Lenine in frock", "little
father Hélder", "hypocrisy globe-trotter".
As a young priest, Hélder Câmara was a fascist, a youthful sin for which he paid his
whole life trying to explain why he opted for that extreme-right movement inspired by
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). "This was a short political experience from which God
freed me totally," he declared once, adding: "I think everything in life can be
used: the things we’ve done right and the mistakes. When integralismo (Brazilian
fascism) appeared announcing God, country and family, it seemed to me that those ideals
were very similar to the ones I’d learned as a Christian."
At the end of the 40’s he opted for the left. In 1947 Dom Hélder organized the ACB
(Ação Católica BrasileiraBrazilian Catholic Action), which in turn inspired the
creation of CNBB (Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do BrasilNational Conference of
Brazilian Bishops) from which Câmara was the first general secretary.
The archbishop used to receive phone threats and shots were fired against his house
once. In May 1969, Father Henrique, one of his main aides, was kidnapped, tortured, stoned
and shot to death. Dom Hélder, with ten priests, led a 10,000 people procession to the
cemetery for the burial. He used to say at that time: "In Brazil, today, a bishop can
say things that a student, a worker, a teacher or an intellectual would not be able to
Forbidden from giving interviews and with newspapers prohibited from mentioning his
name (even to criticize him) the archbishop continued to talk outside of Brazil. In 1970
he denounced tortures and the plight of political prisoners in Brazil during a speech to
20,000 people at the Paris Sports Palace.
He explained once: "If I talk overseas it is mainly because the media is closed to
me in Brazil." His muzzle was removed only in 1977. But then there was already a
different climate in the country, even though the military dictatorship would remain in
power for eight more years.
Hélder Pessoa Câmara was born in the interior of Ceará state, on February 7, 1909,
the eleventh of 13 children of accountant João Câmara Filho and elementary school
teacher Adelaide Pessoa Câmara. While the mother wanted to name him José the father was
able to have it his way, naming the son for a little Dutch harbor. Later, he would sign
"Padre José" at the end of the meditations he used to write. He also
affectionately called his guardian angel José. "You cannot accuse those who are
thirsty for just justice," he once said. "In the Northeast, Jesus Christ is
From age four he showed an interest in the priesthood playing mass when children of his
age had less religious interests. Young Hélder entered the Fortaleza Diocesan Seminary in
1923. He became a priest on August 15, 1931 and a bishop on April 20, 1952. In 1985, when
he reached the age of 75 he was compulsorily retired.
Hélder Câmara won 25 international peace prizes and was nominated several times for
the Nobel Prize. Secret documents published in the just-released book Dom Hélder
CâmaraEntre o Poder e a Profecia (Dom Hélder CâmaraBetween Power and
Prophecy) by Nelson Piletti and Walter Praxedes, show that General Médici’s regime
(1969-1974) tried to sabotage his Nobel candidacy by spreading calumnies about him. Dom
Hélder also won 32 honorary doctoral degrees titles from Brazilian and foreign colleges.
Among the books he wrote were Revolução Dentro da Paz (Revolution Within Peace), Espiral
da Violência (Violence Spiral), O Desejo É Fértil (Desire Is Fertile), Mil
Razões para Viver (One Thousand Reasons to Live), and Sinfonia dos Dois Mundos (Symphony
of Two Worlds), the latter one with Swiss musician Pierre Klein. He wrote 22 books that
were translated into 14 languages.
L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican’s official newspaper, compared him once to Saint
Francis of Assisi: "He is a man of God, a man of Christ, a man of the poor." But
most typically he was bombarded by the left and right alike.
"I think that the world’s biggest problem is the ever widening gap between the
rich and increasingly richer countries and the huge mass of poor, increasingly poorer
"Poverty is an evangelical virtue. It’s different from misery that goes against
God’s plans. What we have is misery."
"I believe that an economic system, whatever its name (because today there are
capitalisms, it’s important to stress the plural), whose main concern and sometimes
exclusive concern is profit, is also an intrinsically materialistic, inhuman system."
"People ask me why and when I started to get interested in social justice. I could
answer that this is a duty of every priest. But I cannot forget that I personally knew
hunger and misery. That I saw my mother crying and my father silent with bitterness when
there was nothing to eat, when there was no bread to divide among the children."
"I’m not tired and I’ll not get tired of proclaiming that when we denounce
violence, pointing to the reaction of the oppressed or the youngsters who try to act on
their behalf, this violence is already number 2. I’m not tired and I’ll not get tired of
proclaiming that violence number 1, the violence mother of all other violence, is the
injustice that exists all over."
"I don’t fear the word revolution. I’m only very careful when I use it. As much as
I respect those who are fighting for a deep and fast social change, forget democratic
methods and use armed force, in bloody revolutions and guerrilla warfare, I don’t believe
"Sometimes, extremists tried to call me communist bishop, red bishop. I never had
the slightest link with any communist system. After 1964, it seemed that to preach about
agrarian reform was to advocate communism. But this has been refuted so much that today no
one has the courage to call me a communist."
"If tomorrow the Latin America masses open their eyes … they will distance
themselves from Christianity because it will seem to them that their religion is allied to
"The privileged groups and the governments never fight against Christianity. They
would never do that since they are the defenders of the Christian civilization. What they
fight is the `communist infiltration’ inside the Church. What seems to be a clever
"You can criticize me as much as you wish. Everyone has the right to do this. You
can attack if you feel like it. But, be honest. Don’t raise the gravest suspicions just on
the basis of imagination. Don’t judge me by what the newspapers and magazines say that I
said. Attack me only after checking first if I will have a real chance of defense: it’s
not fair to beat someone who has his arms tied."
"The difference between Reagan and Carter is the same that exist between Coca-Cola
Some sites about Dom Hélder on the Internet: