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A man remembered. Dom Helder Camara

by Chris McDonnell

Earlier this year. Rome gave the go-ahead for the diocese of Olinda and Recife in Brazil to open the process of beatification for Dom Helder Camara.  About time.

If ever a man walked the path that Francis is advocating for his fellow bishops, it was Camara. He was an inspiration not only to his people in Brazil but to the church beyond the bounds of South America.

A man of deep humility, foresight and determination, his ideas gave rise to base communities for Christians and his innovative approach to priestly training was ground breaking.

Following his resignation in 1985, he was succeeded by (an appointment made by John Paul II) a man of very different attitude, Dom Cardoso Sobrinho. Whereas Dom Helder rejected the pomp and circumstance of his rank, always wearing a tattered brown cassock and having round his neck a simple wooden cross, his successor adopted a different stance.

I read an account of an interview with him back in the 90s which was written up in the Tablet, where the interviewer asked Dom Helder if he was upset at the way his work was being dismantled. His reply… “he said nothing, only a tear rolled silently down his cheek”.

He was a humble man who questioned, who moved from the political right in his early years later to significantly embrace the politics of the poor. For this he was also criticised. His oft-quoted phrase “If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist” should not be forgotten for it applies to many societies across our planet today, even in the affluent West.

He spent a period of his life living under the Brazilian military dictatorship whose political stance was opposed to so much that he stood for. But his mission continued. His greatest achievement might well be Celam’s meeting in Medellin, Columbia in 1968 and the preferential option for the poor that came from its deliberations. How well does the public face of the faith of Francis fit with that aspiration. How fittingly does Helder Camara’s life as a pastor match the image that Francis proposed, of a shepherd who lives with the smell of his sheep “and so brings the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized”.

When he died aged 90, in 1999, his life shone as a testament to faith and still does, his and that of others who have been inspired by his example.

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