Tag Archives: Dom Helder Camara

Dirty hands

How we greet people is very important and often shows what we think of the person we are meeting.

One thing I’ve noticed here in Honduras is that in public  men usually shake hands with other men, but not often with women or children. There is also some deference to those with power, money, or influence.

So I’ve taken up the custom of shaking hands with everyone – men, women, and children. I want them to know that I value them, even if I can’t remember their names.

Sometimes this gets a little tricky. The young mechanic with greasy hands or the worker with dirty hands are often reluctant to shake hands, apologizing for their dirty hands.

I reply that the only dirty hands are the hands of the corrupt and proceed to try to shake hands. They sometimes offer me their arms instead of their hands.

I had forgotten where this response came from until this morning when I picked up Dom Helder Câmara: Essential Writings. There are two quotes that describe a similar experience.

I think about the man I saw working in the street, emptying dustbins. I had caught his eye. He didn’t dare offer me his hand. I virtually had to force him: “Work isn’t what soils our hands, friend. No hand was ever soiled by work. Self-centeredness is that soils them.”   (p. 121)

I know a priest who likes to shake hands with the trash collectors when they are loading the refuse onto the truck. They try to clean their hands on their clothes. The priest, rightly, says: “No work stains human hands. What makes hands dirty is stealing, or greed, or the blood of our neighbors!”   (p. 143)

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of this Brazilian bishop, friend of the poor, apostle of nonviolent liberation.

Dom Helder identified with the poor, recognizing their dignity. He also identified with the Lord Jesus who became flesh as a poor man.

He would get up at 2 am each morning to pray and he would open his own door when someone knocked.

His simplicity, his willingness to touch the hands of the poor, inspires me to be even more committed to prayer and to solidarity with the poor.

Hands joined in prayer should be hands that embrace the poor.


The foolishness of love

The wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.
1 Corinthians 3: 9

 What can be as crazy as loving your enemies, as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, Matthew 5: 44?

What can be as foolhardy as praying for your persecutors – except praying that they may die before killing you?

An “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” makes sense, until you realize, with Gandhi, that taking an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

Love your enemies.

We won’t even talk to those who hold a political position different from ours.

This is not just a problem in the polarized situation in the US. It is a problem here in the deeply polarized climate of Honduras. A friend recently told me of a base community in which two families have stopped coming – since they are in conflict largely because they supported different political parties (the Nationalists and LIBRE) in the last election.

Pray for your persecutors.

You’ve got to be kidding; they are out to kill me and take away my liberty.

But Saint Polycarp, the second century bishop of Smyrna whose feast is today, made sure that the soldiers who came to take him away had dinner. He went off to pray as they ate.

Closer to our time, one day, Dom Helder Camara, the twentieth century bishop of Recife, Brazil, opened the door of his humble dwelling to a man who was sent to assassinate him. The man demurred – “I cannot kill a man of God.”

Praying for persecutors, responding in love to them is not going to assure that we are not killed or injured. But it can make a difference in our lives and in the world.

Consider the example of Bud Welch whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was not easy and it took him a while but he went and visited the father of one of the bombers, Timothy McVeigh.

Bud came to realize that it would be wrong to kill McVeigh and the other bomber, for “the day that we might kill either one of them would be a day of vengeance and rage, and vengeance and rage is exactly why Julie and 167 others are dead.”

How to begin this?

Very simply, pray each day for someone with whom you are in conflict. Let God change your heart as well as theirs.

When I was a kid we prayed at the end of each Mass for the conversion of Russia. We forgot to pray for the conversion of our own country, the United States.

We forgot what Thomas Merton wrote at the end of one of his most poignant articles “The Root of War Is Fear”:

…instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

Let us pray for our own conversion and then we may be able to begin to love our enemies.

How foolish!





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?

Two Brazilian witnesses for faith and nonviolence

Today I’d like to recall two Brazilian witnesses for faith and nonviolence.

Dom Helder Câmara, archbishop of Recife, Brazil, defender of the poor, apostle of nonviolence, born on February 7, 1909, in Fortaleza, Brazil. He died in 1999.

This small frail man was such a threat to the Brazilian dictatorship that for several years it was not permitted to mention his name in the press or other medias of communication.

I saw him once at a “coffee shop” and center run by the Fellowship of Reconciliation at the 1982 United Nations Second Special Session on Disarmament. I can’t remember what he said and he spoke in English with a very strong accent. But I remember most of all his enthusiasm with wide gestures. Looking back they make me recall his large heart and his love for all people and, indeed, for all creation. But he also could speak very forthrightly, denouncing injustice wherever he encountered it:

“I used to think when I was a child, that Christ might have been exaggerating when He warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one’s eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people’s hands, eyes, lips, and hearts. That is the source of my conviction that it is both democratic and Christian to bolster human frailty with a balanced, firm, and just moral pressure based on nonviolent action.”

On February 7, 1988, Dominique Barbé, O.P., a French Dominician missionary to Brazil, peacemaker, died. He too was an advocate of nonviolence in the face of injustice and oppression. He saw his role as a missionary for the nonviolent reign of God. As he wrote:

“A missionary, an evangelist, is a person sent to destroy the structures of selfishness and to build the structures of sharing. This happens on three levels: the level of the individual, the community, and the society. It is like three intersecting wheels: the circle of personal life, the circle of community of the followers of Christ, and the circle of society.”

Prayerful witnesses to justice and love

Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife, Brazil, may not seem to be have much in common, but they were both faithful and prayerful witnesses of God’s care for the poor and marginalized.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity,  was born on August 27, 1910. To many she is a symbol of care for the poorest of the poor. Some, though, have questioned whether she realized the presence of structural injustice. But once she said:

 “Let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion. Let us preach the peace of Christ as He did. He went about doing good. If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we should still need tanks and generals?”

On August 27, 1999, Dom Helder Câmara, retired bishop of Recife, Brazil, died. He was an outspoken advocate for the poor and against the injustices of the world, as well as a witness to Gospel nonviolence. One of his most quotes is:

“When I gave food to the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why they were poor, they called me a communist.”

But this commitment to the justice was not separated from a deep spirituality:

 “Personally I have so many mysteries which I have not succeeded in understanding. . . . When I arrive at the House of the Father I will have a series of questions to ask the Lord. But that won’t be in the first moment, because I will be crazy with joy to contemplate the Lord face to face and encounter my brothers and sisters. But I’ll get to it in a few days… Naturally this is only a way of speaking, since I know that when I am face to face with the Lord, all the obscurities will blow away like smoke.”

It is so easy to try to separate and compartmentalize the works of charity, the struggle for justice, and a deep relationship to God. Both Dom Helder and Mother Teresa – as well as Dorothy Day – show us that we should strive to integrate all these aspects in our daily lives if we seek to follow Jesus.