Dom Helder Câmera – Bishop of the poor

Dom Helder Câmera – Bishop of the poor

by Sr. Sheila Campbell MMM                       Ireland                         18.03.2024

‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a Saint’, mused Dom Hélder Câmara, ‘but when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.’

This is the story of a great man who inspired me a lot when I first went to Brazil in the 1970s. He, like Mother Mary Martin, was small in stature, often looked frail but had a generous and courageous heart.

Born in 1909 in the city of Fortaleza in northeast Brazil, Hélder Câmara was the eleventh of thirteen children. Five of them had died in the terrible ‘flu epidemic which hit that region in 1905. From the beginning of his priesthood, (he was ordained a priest at a young age, 22), he devoted himself to social issues, including the reform of education. During his whole life, the struggle to defend the rights of the less privileged and marginalized, the forgotten and the excluded, shone like a beacon before him. His nickname was “bishop of the slums”.

He was influenced and encouraged greatly by Pope Paul VI, whom he first met in 1950. As soon as Dom Hélder was ordained bishop in 1952, he played a major role in the founding of the Conference of Bishops of Brazil and of CELAM, the Latin American Council of Episcopal Conferences. At the same time, he was deeply involved in the growth of the Brazilian Catholic Action, which played such an important role in the linking faith and the everyday problems of life during the time when the power of repression tightened upon the people. At the Latin American Episcopal Conferences in Medellin in 1968, and again at Puebla in 1979, his voice in favour of the world’s poor was heard. Dom Hélder has left 7,600 written meditations. More than 350 books have been published about him.

Now Dom Helder is on the road to canonisation and sainthood, but for many people, myself included, any formal process is unnecessary. He has touched our lives and taught us a valuable lesson:

“If I joyfully spend the rest of my life, of my powers, of my energies in demanding justice, but without hatred, without armed violence, through liberating moral pressure, through truth and love, it is because I am convinced that only love is constructive and strong.”