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The Bishop of the Slums


Dom_Helder_CamaraEarlier this week, the Vatican opened the cause for the canonization of Dom Helder Camara, the “bishop of the poor” and one of the most influential Latin American church leaders of the twentieth century.
 
I never met an archbishop who was smaller in stature than me. However, his smallness of height was no indication of the influence of his soul and life. He was almost 70 but seemed older with a wizened brown face, battered by years of exposure to the harsh sun of drought-ravaged Brazil. I remember, above all, his gentleness and his concern for everything in the world around him, including animals and plants (which had earned him the nickname of St. Francis).
 
It was the early 80s; I was pastoral associate at St. James Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y. Dom Helder had been nominated four times for the Noble Peace Prize, but it was never awarded to him. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, Riverside Church in Manhattan recognized his greatness and invited him speak at an evening of prayer during a major disarmament conference. I had the good fortune to be his host for the weekend. No fancy hotels; no special meals. He drank tea, and he ate bread and vegetables.
In 1959 Dom Helder was appointed archbishop of Olinda e Recife, a very poor diocese in Northeastern Brazil. He rejected the pomp and ceremony of his rank. He always wore a battered brown cassock, adorned only by a simple wooden cross. This was what he wore that weekend to Riverside Church. For me, one who is so concerned about appearances and wardrobe, this was a reminder of what is important.
 
Dom Helder also refused to live in the archbishop’s house! “I’m not one of those evil elitist Church-people you know. The poor are at the center of MY Gospel,” he said. He lived in a small, three-room house behind the sacristy of the cathedral. During his tenure, he was informally called the “bishop of the slums” for his clear position on the side of the urban poor. He encouraged peasants to think beyond their conventionally fatalistic outlook by studying the Gospels in small groups and asking what conclusions could be drawn for social change. He was active in the formation of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference in 1952, and he served as its first general secretary until 1964. In 1959 he founded Banco da Providência in Rio de Janeiro, a philanthropic organization to fight poverty and social injustice by making it easier for poor people to receive loans.
 
Dom Helder Camara founded a seminary where the formation of the priest candidates in social action was as important as formation in theology.
 
When we arrived at Riverside, the church with its two balconies, which seats 1900, was jammed. After bringing Dom Helder to the sacristy, I squeezed into a spot in the balcony. The music was glorious; the procession included 25-foot-high puppets mocking armaments as a way to peace. High-ranking clerics from all over the world processed into the church, the colors and designs of the vestments were astounding. As Dom Helder entered the nave the congregation stood and applauded for what seemed to be a solid twenty minutes. Tears ran down my cheeks. I recall that as he spoke that evening he made a statement that has often been quoted since: “When I feed the hungry they call me saint. When I ask why they are hungry they call me a communist.”
 
Camara attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and was instrumental in developing the document The Church in the Modern World (Lumen Gentium). Perhaps Camara’s greatest achievement was to help organize the historic meeting of CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamerican or the Latin American Episcopal Conference) in Medellin in Colombia in 1968. In a decisive break with their old role of supporting the rich and the powerful, the bishops declared a “preferential option for the poor,” openly identifying themselves with the excluded and the exploited. It was an important victory for the progressive wing of the Church, which at that time was enthused with the ideas of liberation theology sweeping through the continent, particularly Brazil.
 
Will people call Oscar Romero, a martyr for the faith who will be beatified this month in El Salvador; Dom Helder Camara of Brazil; and Pope Francis of Argentina and Rome communists because they actually love the poor?
 
You can read more about Dom Helder Camara in his downloadable book, The Spiral of Violence.
 
Sister Honora is the Assistant Director at RENEW and a Dominican Sister of Amityville, NY.

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