Dom Helder and a church of the poor

Dom Helder Câmara died on August 27, 1999, at the age of ninety.

Dom Helder Camara, 1982

In many ways his life was a reflection of what we hear in today’s first reading (1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8):

After we had suffered and been insolently treated…we drew courage through our God to speak to you the Gospel of God with much struggle…. We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.

He was a small man, just over five feet tall. His English was highly accented. But he was full of energy. His whole body was expressive of the energy of God in his heart.

A man of deep prayer, as bishop of Recife in the poor northeast of Brazil, he took the side of the poor, before the “option for the poor” became the motto of the Latin American Church. He was such a threat to those in power that the Brazilian military government banned him from speaking publicly for thirteen years and prohibited the media from mentioning his name.

He was a man of both prayer and action. He would rise at 2:00 am to pray and began his day with Mass.

He was an outspoken advocate of the poor and of non-violence, rooted in a prayerful love of God. He lived simply in a small house, not in the archbishop’s mansion. His pectoral cross, like that of our Savior, was wooden.

At the Second Vatican Council he and 39 other bishops saw the need to be not just “a poor church and a church for the poor,” as Pope Francis has called for. They saw the need to be  “a church of the poor.”

These bishops prepared a document, The Pact of the Catacombs, translated here, that committed the bishops to a simple life, to solidarity with the poor and with those who work with the poor, and to a ministry rooted in the Gospel, that embraces both justice and charity. They believed that episcopal collegiality “finds its greatest evangelical fulfillment in communal service to the majority in physical, cultural and moral poverty — two thirds of humanity…”

Dom Helder lived this and is an example of what a minister – a servant – of the Gospel can be – living in the presence of God and present to the poor.

Dom Helder also knew the importance of a ministry that is prophetic. He allied himself with those struggling for land, with the poor and oppressed, with movements for nonviolence and disarmament.

I love his most famous quote: “When I give to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask ‘Why are they poor?’ they call me a communist!”

But what impressed me when I saw him up close in the early 1980s was the energy that he radiated, an energy that, I believe, came from a life rooted in prayer and lived among the poor. He lived a church nor only for the poor, but of the poor.

Can we do less?

2 responses to “Dom Helder and a church of the poor

  1. Ironic, yes. And, sorrowfully, our hypocritical appetite for war and killing goes on — and on, numbering most among its victims the already poor and suffering.

  2. Ironic you write about this, just as the U.S. is preparing for another war in the Middle East, allegedly to stop the “spiral of violence”… a term coined by Dom Helder (his out of print book on this is available on PDF:

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