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Dom Helder Camara: one of my three top (male) heroes

dom helder camara







My top three (male) heroes are Jesus of Nazareth, Dom Helder Camara, and Francis of Assisi, in that order…

(He’s one of three 20th/21st century Catholic Archbishops I admire, each of whom chose slightly different routes in opposing violent regimes. The other two: Pope Francis, and Archbishop Oscar Romero).

Dom Helder Camara addressed a packed Melbourne Concert Hall on May 15, 1985. After a rapturous welcome, he stilled the crowd by saying ‘I’m just Christ’s little donkey…’ When a baby in the balcony cried he stopped, looked intently towards the sound, and with the tears glistening in the spotlights said: ‘We want to make the world safe for you, little one!’

In his playful, down-to-earth, simple way he told us: ‘Friends, we have 40 times the nuclear potential needed to kill all life – not just human life – on our planet.’ ‘Let us be Christians not only in name, but by our lives.’ ‘The perpetrators of violence who are sinners, yes, but we’re all sinners. Help us Holy Spirit!’ ‘Vatican 2 insisted that the whole church, not just its hierarchy, are the people of God… So we priests must work not just for the poor, but with the poor… Alone we are weak; together we are a force…’

Many (like Jose Comblin introducing Into Your Hands Lord, 1987) say he’s the ‘only Catholic bishop who has a true audience in the non-Catholic world’.


Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999) was for millions the male counterpart of Mother Teresa: a tireless servant of the poor.

He was born into a poor Fortaleza family (his parents had 13 children, but five of them died very young in a croup epidemic). Ordained a priest in 1931, until 1947/8 he was an educator. But his appointment as auxiliary bishop (1952) and archbishop (1955) of the diocese of Rio de Janeiro led to his developing a high profile – with weekly TV and daily radio programs. He denounced the city’s social and racial divisions. With the help of Presidents Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1961) and Joao Goulart he initiated many programs to help the poor, acquiring an international reputation as the ‘bishop of the favelas’ – and making many powerful enemies, not least of which was the US government. A socially progressive Latin America did not fit with US policy in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. On March 31, 1964, President Goulart was overthrown in a military coup supported by the US.

The next day Helder Camara arrived in Recife as Archbishop. He said to the diocese: ‘I am a north-easterner talking to north-easteners… In imitation of Christ I have not come to be served, but to serve.’ He avoided wearing the bishops’ purple sash, and quickly abandoned the pretentious palace for three rooms in the outbuildings of a parish church. He ate at the taxi-drivers’ stall across the road and hitched lifts around the city instead of running an official car. He gave away church land for the landless, set up a credit union, took students out of seminaries to form small communities in the parishes, and set up a theological institute in which future priests studied alongside laypeople, even receiving lectures from women.

He was one of the few bishops critical of the military’s reign of terror. Progressive priests, social activists, trade union leaders, members of Congress, writers and journalists were tortured and/or imprisoned. Accused of being a ‘communist subversive’, Helder Camara was exiled in his own country; for 13 years from 1970, the government banned him from public speaking and forbade even the publication of his name in any media. Although under constant threat of assassination he refused a bodyguard or even a lock on his door.

One night a frightened family sought Dom Helder. One of theirs had been arrested and was being tortured in the police barracks. The bishop phoned the chief of police: ‘This is Dom Helder. You are holding my brother.’ The policeman, surprised, stutters: ‘Your brother, Eminence?’ ‘Yes, despite our different names, we are sons of the same Father.’  The chief made all sorts of excuses and ordered the release of the man…

One of Dom Helder’s collaborators, Father Henrique Pereira Neto, was barbarously assassinated in Recife, after being tied up, dragged along the ground, shot three times, and hung from a tree… Another priest, Father Tito de Alencar, was given electric shocks, kicks, and blows with a rod. His torturer asked him to open his mouth to ‘receive the sacrament of the eucharist’. When he did they inserted an electrified wire… Helder: ‘It’s absolutely terrible. I go regularly to hospitals or prisons, or the morgue, to collect or identify collaborators who had disappeared – priests or laypeople…’

But internationally, he was a ‘star’ – receiving over 80 invitations a year (accepting only four or five). ‘And I go not to attack Brazil, but injustice everywhere.’  Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, he missed out (once to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho). So the ‘People’s Peace Prize’ was created for him – worth two and a half times as much (which he donated to agricultural projects in his diocese). He was also awarded the Pacem in Terris (‘Peace on earth’) Award (named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that urged all people of good will to secure peace among all nations). And many doctorates – often from prestigious universities (Harvard, Louvain, the Sorbonne etc.). ‘It’s never for myself: I’m simply the representative of the people sem vez sem voz, with no hope and no voice…’  


Dom Helder Camara was a prophet, rather than a revolutionary or theologian. Within the body of this frail man, there beat the ardent and joyful heart of a troubadour, who, like Francis of Assisi, blessed all people. He often said, “In the heart of a priest, there cannot exist a drop of hatred.  We share the same Father, we are blood sisters and brothers, in the blood of Jesus Christ.”

He articulated the suffering of the poor, espousing pacifism (rather than ‘passivism’):

‘The seven capital sins of the modern world: racialism, colonialism, war,  paternalism, pharisaism, alienation and fear.’

For me, [humans] are not divided into believers and atheists, but between oppressors and oppressed, between those who want to keep this unjust society and those who want to struggle for justice.’

‘Charity is not justice… Aid is necessary, but not enough. Until… international trade policy [is addressed] the poor countries will continue to get poorer, to enrich the wealthy countries more and more…’

‘Capitalism which  puts profit before people, is intrinsically evil.’ ‘But a radical version of Catholic social policy is as anti-communist – because we are non-violent – as it is anti-capitalist.’ ‘I never saw Cuba as a solution… Changing orbits isn’t really liberation – becoming a satellite of Russia rather than of the U.S.’

‘28% of incomes in Brazil go to 1% of the population; 80% of the cultivated land belongs to 2% of landowners.’ (1970, UN Commission for Latin America). ‘Paul VI was right to say “The earth was given to us all, not just to the rich.” ‘In our continent more than two-thirds live in sub-human conditions.’

‘Read the encyclicals, especially Populorum Progressio which encourages the wealthy to stand in solidarity with the poor.’

More people know Dom Helder’s famous quote than anything else about this great man:

       When I give to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask ‘Why  are they poor?’ they call me a communist!

The 1985 Garth Hewitt song says it well:

And Fortaleza, your most famous son
has shown us all the way,
Dom Helder Camara,
he had the right words to say,
He said when you feed the hungry
they’ll call you a saint,
but never ask the question why…
Why are they hungry?
They’ll call you a communist
for asking the question why.
For they’re hungry from our opulence,
and they are homeless from our greed,
as the rich world makes its living
from the poor world on its knees.
And a nation roams the streets tonight,
you can see them everywhere,
One hundred million children
like an army of despair.


‘They’ll call you a saint’. Will they?  My vote would be ‘yes’.

For example:

# He knew the difference between Pharisees and saints: ‘Pharisees are strict with others; saints are rigorous only with themselves… as generous as the goodness of God, boundless as the mercy of God.’

# Saints are prayerful. Dom Helder had made a vow – “the vow of the clock”  – to rise at 2 am every morning to pray, until Mass at 6:00 am. He kept this vigil every night since seminary.

# Saints tend to inhabit simplicity the other side of complexity. (Dom Helder had a favourite guardian angel, Jose, with whom he conducted entreatries when in trouble – which was often).

# They’re willing to ‘cleanse the Temple/ speak truth to power’. To a young ‘forceful’ bishop who told Camara he disagreed with his ‘non-Christian humanism’ Dom Helder asked ‘What have you read or heard about my view of the world?’ ‘Nothing’. ‘And have you read other works you denounce?’ The bishop answered: ‘I can see that today is going to be a turning-point in my life!’  

# Their friendships include everyone from [some] popes and cardinals (especially Montini and Suenans), to ordinary poor folks.

# They know their spiritual gifts, and use them. One of Camara’s was networking, eg. his brilliant behind-the-scenes lobbying-for-the-poor at Vatican 2 and his various efforts (eg. Medellin) at convening conferences of bishops. 

# Dom Helder was obedient to his superiors, and was a faithful Roman Catholic to the end. ‘Yes, I argue [with everyone] but my bishop must always have the last word’.

# Miracles? How about these: those sent to kill the archbishop, disguised as beggars or taxi-drivers, could not bring themselves to do it, but confessed and asked forgiveness from their intended victim.  

#  They’re humble. ‘There’s real danger of pride in humility: “Look at me! I am a poor bishop, a bishop of the poor! Not like those bourgeois bishops!”.’ His regular prayer was that of St. Francis: ‘Pray to the Lord that I may become what people think I am’. ‘My education thesis was a disgrace: I haven’t kept a single copy of it and I hope no one else ever finds one!’ He was short of stature (just over five feet tall, and weighing about 120 pounds): that would have helped. He wrote meditations in his vigil-time, perhaps read them to a few friends, then destroyed them. (‘Flowers bloom, then must fade…’). Fortunately some survived, like these (from A Thousand Reasons for Living, pp. 63, 112):

By the grace You grant me

of silence without loneliness,

give me the right to plead,

to clamour

for my brothers and sisters

imprisoned in

a loneliness without silence!


It is worth any sacrifice,

however great or costly,

to see eyes that were listless

light up again,

to see someone smile

who seemed to have forgotten

how to smile;

to see trust reborn

in someone

who no longer believed

in anything

or Anyone. 

I once invited Dom Helder to write a chapter for a book  (with a ‘discursive meditation’ flavour ) I was editing. His postcard reply (in Portuguese):

‘If the Lord gives I will give… Shalom! Dom Helder.’

How can you argue with that? I’ve used this response ever since when asked to do something beyond my wisdom or outside my time constraints!

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries  jmm.org.au

January 2013



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