Helder Camara was born in the poor North East region of Brazil of an accountant father and primary school teaching mother. He entered the seminary in 1923 and was ordained in 1931 with a papal dispensation as he was below the normal ordination minimum age of 24. As a young priest he supported a far right political organisation similar to European fascist movements. However, he soon renounced these views, founding two Catholic worker movements to improve the lot of the poor.
In 1952 he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janairo, in that role, helped found a bank which would give low interest loans to the poor. He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council where he helped draft one of the major documents, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) which clarified and reoriented the role of the church’s mission to people outside of the Catholic Church. It was the first time that the church took explicit responsibility for its role in the larger world. In March 1964, Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Olinda e Recife. Towards the end of Vatican II Câmara organised 40 bishops to meet at night in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside Rome. They celebrated mass and signed a document under the title of the Pact of the Catacombs. In 13 points, they challenged their brother bishops to live lives of evangelical poverty: without honorific titles, privileges, and worldly ostentation. They taught that “the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realisation in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery”. They called for openness “to all, no matter what their beliefs”. Eventually 500 bishops signed this document but Paul VI, in the middle of the cold war, ignored it not wishing to give cause to Maxist countries by criticising Capitalism. The Pact is now best seen in the ministry of Pope Francis.
Câmara spoke out against the military dictatorship in Brazil, championed the rights of the poor and upset the ruling classes by advocating land reform. He is reputed to have said: “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a Communist.” Câmara associated himself with Liberation Theology – a movement seeking to analyse the Gospel and Society using the insights of Karl Marx whilst not supporting all his conclusions. On social issues Câmara supported the right of abandoned spouses to remarry – the position of the Orthodox Churches – and he supported the right of married couples to use birth control. In 1971 Câmara published “The Spiral of Violence” which is distinctive for linking structural injustice with escalating rebellion and repressive reaction – all, for Câmara, forms of violence. Câmara called on the youth of the world to take steps to break the spiral, saying their elders became addicted to those escalating steps.
On Câmara’s retirement John Paul II replaced him with a rather more conservative archbishop, but Câmara continued to write and speak out for the poor. He died in 1999 and the first stage of his recognition as a saint took place in 2015 when he was declared a Servant of God.
St Matthew 18: 1 – 4
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
When I came to faith Dom Hélder Câmara was one of my heroes. A saintly pastor, concerned with the poor, radical in political and social views, I puzzled at how on earth he’d become a bishop in the first place! (One suspects John Paul II shared that sense of wonder.)
The idea of a senior leader in the Church eschewing titles and status in order to work and identify with the “two thirds of humanity” who are poor is both so radical and Gospel-focused that it surprises us. We know all too well how easy it is to compromise – and I write this all too aware of my own privilege.
In the URC we can get quite smug about not having political or social power; unlike the Brazilian government in Câmara’s time, our rulers give not a hoot about what we may say on the issues of the day. Our senior leaders aren’t expected to grace the grand occasions of state nor give spiritual cover to the government (we have Established churches for that) and so we like to think we’re on the edge.
Do we, I wonder, use our edginess to any good effect? Does our being on the edge of the social and religious life of these islands give us a perspective to see things as they really are or do we moan about our decline and lack of status? Do we seek out those who are poor, excluded, and oppressed and open our churches to them or just leave that work to Church Related Community Workers? Do we want to be a church which is open to all, child-like in its approach and welcome, or do we, deep down, hanker after the trappings of power and status?
Born in a poor region of Brazil Câmara knew his faith, and his ministry, had to make a difference. What difference does our, and your, ministry make to those around us?
Come Lord! Do not smile and say you are already with us. Millions do not know you and to us who do, what is the difference? What is the point of your presence if our lives do not alter? Change our lives, shatter our complacency. Make your word flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood and our life’s purpose. Take away the quietness of a clear conscience. Press us uncomfortably so that your peace is made. Amen
Dom Hélder Câmara
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and a member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Kirkwall, Orkney.