Above: The Grave of Archbishop Camara
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HELDER PESSOA CAMARA (FEBRUARY 7, 1909-AUGUST 27, 1999)
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife
The “Red Bishop,” Advocate for the Poor, Defender of Human Rights, and Vocal Opponent of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship
When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.
Helder Camara was not a Communist or even a Marxist. No, he was a Socialist and an advocate of Liberation Theology. He understood the reality of structural economic injustice and the demands of the Gospel of Jesus Christ upon the Church to condemn such inequality and to work for social justice, especially the poor. This proved controversial in the Church and in Brazilian society. It also eared him the official disapproval of Brazil’s repressive military dictatorship.
Camara, born at Fortaleza, Ceara, Brazil, on February 7, 1909, decided at an early age to become a priest. He, ordained in 1931, was a member of a fascist party for a few years. (Fascism is conservative tyranny. Communism is liberal tyranny. The chief word is tyranny.) Ministering among the poor of Rio de Janeiro changed our saint’s politics, starting his shift from the right to the left. In 1952 Camara became the Auxiliary Bishop of Rio de Janeiro. He helped to form the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. For a decade he, serving as the organization’s secretary-general, led the bishops to address issues of economic injustice, especially that related to the concentration of land ownership into the hands of a relative few. Our saint also pressured his brother bishops to identify with the poor and the oppressed, not the rich and the powerful. Camara also asked Pope John XXIII to donate the Vatican and its works of art to UNESCO and to live in a modest building instead.
From 1964 to 1985 Camara was the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, in a poor region of the country. He refused to live in the Episcopal Palace and to wear expensive vestments and a golden cross. Our saint, the “red bishop,” wore a scruffy cassock and a simple wooden cross, lived in a humble dwelling, and defended democracy of human rights at a time when a brutal military dictatorship governed Brazil. He survived assassination attempts, although many people associated with him did not. The government feared the archbishop. From 1968 to 1977 that government blacklisted Camara, forbidding the press from reporting on him and barring him from speaking in public.
Camara, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times, was humble. Once, during a meeting at the Episcopal Palace, invited a peasant to sit in the episcopal chair. The archbishop also told Mother (now St.) Teresa of Calcutta that, when he struggled with his ego, he imagined himself as the donkey carrying Jesus during the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Camara did, however, pull rank to embarrass the police into releasing parishioners they had arrested unjustly.
Camara, aged 75 years, retired in 1985. Pope John Paul II appointed a conservative successor, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, who opposed Liberation Theology, ended our saint’s human rights initiatives, and wore a golden cross and expensive vestments. Camara was diplomatic in public, but he took the situation hard in private.
Our saint died at Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil, on August 27, 1999. He was 90 years old.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
NOVEMBER 29, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF GEORGE DAWSON, ENGLISH BAPTIST AND UNITARIAN PASTOR
THE FEAST OF THE INAUGURATION OF THE CHURCH OF NORTH INDIA, 1970
THE FEAST OF JENNETTE THRELFALL, ENGLISH HYMN WRITER
O God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served,
and to give his life for the life of the world.
Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help.
Through us give hope to the hopeless,
love to the unloved,
peace to the troubled,
and rest to the weary,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
—Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60