I saw the famed Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, the archbishop of Brazil’s impoverished northeast, only once. It was in 1994 and I was a student at the University of Paraíba in Campina Grande. The eighty-five-year-old archbishop of Olinda and Recife came to speak in our town, and I had to squeeze into a grandstand seat in a crowded gymnasium.
I was taken aback when I first saw him. This was the famous prophet and government critic? He looked so tiny, so fragile. Scarcely over five feet tall, he was accompanied to the speaker’s table by two taller men who supported his arms. But then he began to speak. “My sisters and brothers,” he said in a strong voice that belied his diminutive appearance, “do you want God to hear your voice?” He paused before the mute audience. “Well,” he demanded, “do you?” The crowd broke its silence with a thunderous yes. “Then lend your voice to the voiceless poor, because God hears their cry.” He then pleaded the cause of those he called “the miserables”—the millions of homeless and hungry in Brazil. We must show solidarity with them by demonstrating for justice, jobs, housing, and health care. But we were to do this as Jesus taught: prayerfully, lovingly, nonviolently. “We need to ‘act out’ our prayers,” he said.
While the media made much of Dom Hélder’s confrontations with government officials and multinational companies, commentators seldom spoke of his prayer, the center of his life. It was this that made him keenly aware not only of God’s presence but also of the poverty and injustice around him.
Born in Fortaleza on February 7, 1909, he was ordained a priest at the age of twenty-two. He became such an advocate for poor children that he was appointed secretary for civil education in his state. Then, in 1952, Pius XII named him auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro. There, using his organizational skills, he helped form the national conference of Brazilian bishops, and later, the conference of Latin American bishops, which set directions for the church in the Southern Hemisphere.
At Vatican II, Dom Hélder was one of the council’s “leading cast,” according to historian Giuseppe Alberigo. The late Cardinal Leon Suenens, one of the council’s four moderators, agreed. Although Dom Hélder never took the floor at the assembly, the Belgian prelate wrote, “he animated a discussion group regularly attended by about twenty European and South American bishops. This resulted more than once in landside votes in favor of our proposals.”
In 1964, just after a coup that would put Brazil under military rule for the next twenty-one years, Paul VI appointed him archbishop of Olinda and Recife. Under the guise of combating communism, the nation’s rulers clamped down on the press, arrested union leaders, and persecuted student leaders, many of whom were assassinated. Dom Hélder consistently raised his voice in defense of human rights. He so outraged the government that he was barred from public speaking for more than ten years and the media were forbidden to mention his name.
His friends called him the “bishop of the poor,” his critics “the red bishop.” He lived with the poor and like them. He had no housekeeper and ate in a small corner restaurant where local workers ate. He had neither car nor chauffeur, and slept in the sacristy of an old chapel. His door was always open, a door that was eventually riddled by machine-gun fire. Once, an anonymous phone caller announced that Dom Hélder had an hour before the house would be blown up. Dom Hélder replied, “How kind of you to let me know. So few people are able to know in advance that they soon will have the ultimate joy of being with the Lord.” “You’re quite mad!” the caller said, slamming down the phone. No bomb exploded.
Dom Hélder quietly lobbied for a less ostentatious church. Instead of a bishop’s cassock and gold pectoral cross, he wore a black soutane and a simple wooden cross. Cardinal Evaristo Arns of São Paulo called him “the greatest man in the history of the church in Brazil,” describing him as a mystic, poet, and missionary: one “who knows how to say things that people understand,” “who lives praying and passes his whole life always with God,” and “who brings the ideas of God to the hearts of the people.”
Dom Hélder died in 1999 at ninety, but his memory lives on. Next month, people from all over Brazil and around the world will gather in Recife to celebrate his centenary. They will recall the words that Sirach used to describe the prophet Elijah, words applied to Câmara in his lifetime: “During life he feared no one, nor was any man able to intimidate his will” (Sirach 48:12).