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Hélder Câmara

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Hélder Câmara

Archbishop-Emeritus of Olinda e Recife
SeeOlinda e Recife (Emeritus)
Installed12 March 1964
Term ended2 April 1985
PredecessorCarlos Gouveia Coelho [de; fi; it; pt]
SuccessorJosé Cardoso Sobrinho
Consecration20 April 1952
by Jaime de Barros Câmara
Personal details
Hélder Pessoa Câmara

(1909-02-07)7 February 1909
Fortaleza, Brazil
Died27 August 1999(1999-08-27) (aged 90)
Recife, Brazil
BuriedHoly Saviour of the World Cathedral, Olinda
DenominationRoman Catholic
MottoIn manus tuas (into your hands)
Coat of armsHélder Câmara's coat of arms

Hélder Pessoa Câmara[a] OFS (7 February 1909 – 27 August 1999) was a Brazilian Catholic prelate who served as Archbishop of Olinda and Recife from 1964 to 1985 during the military dictatorship in Brazil. He was declared a Servant of God in 2015.

A self-identified socialist, Câmara was an advocate of liberation theology. He did social and political work for the poor and for human rights and democracy during the military regime. Câmara preached for a church closer to the disfavoured people. He is quoted as having said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."[1]

Early life and education[edit]

He was born Hélder Pessoa Câmara on 7 February 1909[2] in Fortaleza, Ceará, in the poor Northeast Region of Brazil. His father was an accountant and his mother was a primary school teacher.[3] He was educated in local Catholic schools and entered seminary in 1923.


Câmara in 1984

He was ordained a priest in 1931, with a dispensation from the Holy See since he was below the canonical age.[4] Câmara was named auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro by Pope Pius XII on 3 March 1952.[5] During his first years as a priest he was a supporter of the far-right Brazilian Integralist Action (Ação Integralista Brasileira, AIB), an ideological choice that he later rejected. He also founded two social organizations: the Ceará Legion of Work, in 1931, and the Women Workers' Catholic Union, in 1933. On 12 March 1964, Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of Olinda e Recife.[6]

During his tenure, Câmara was informally called the "bishop of the slums" for his clear position on the side of the urban poor.[7] With other clerics, he encouraged peasants to free themselves from their conventional fatalistic outlook by studying the gospels in small groups and proposing the search for social change from their readings. He was active in the formation of the Brazilian Bishops' Conference in 1952, and served as its first general secretary until 1964.[8] In 1959 he founded Banco da Providência in Rio de Janeiro, a philanthropic organization to fight poverty and social injustice by facilitating the contraction of loans by poorer populations.[9]

He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and played a significant role in drafting Gaudium et spes.[8] On 16 November 1965, a few days before the council ended, 40 bishops led by Câmara met at night in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside Rome. They celebrated the Eucharist and signed a document under the title of the Pact of the Catacombs. In 13 points, they challenged their brother bishops to live lives of evangelical poverty: without honorific titles, privileges, and worldly ostentation. They taught that "the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery". They called for openness "to all, no matter what their beliefs".[10][11]

Entrance to the branch of the Banco da Providência located in the Rio de Janeiro Cathedral

Under the guidance of Câmara, the Catholic Church in Brazil became an outspoken critic of the 1964–1985 military dictatorship and a powerful movement for social change.[9] Câmara spoke out and wrote about the implications of using violence to repress rebellion resulting from poverty and injustice in other venues than Brazil. Traditionalist Catholics urged the military government to arrest Câmara for his support of land reform[12] and Câmara's colleague, Father Antônio Henrique Pereira Neto, was murdered by unknown conservative forces.[13][14]

A proponent of liberation theology, he was Archbishop of the Diocese of Olinda and Recife from 1964 to 1985, the entirety of the dictatorship. Liberation theology brought forth the political aspect of the Church's charitable work and was criticized on the grounds that it was encouraging the armed revolutionary struggles that swept Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s.[9]

Câmara published Spiral of Violence in 1971, a short tract written when the United States was immersed in a still escalating Vietnam War. It is distinctive for linking structural injustice (Level 1 violence) with escalating rebellion (Level 2 violence) and repressive reaction (Level 3 violence). In it, Câmara called on the youth of the world to take steps to break the spiral, saying their elders became addicted to those escalating steps.

He died in Recife on 27 August 1999 at the age of 90.


Câmara endorsed the position of the Orthodox Church that spouses who were abandoned should be allowed to remarry within the church. He also admitted women's ordination.[15] He criticized Pope Paul VI's removal of artificial contraception from the purview of the Second Vatican Council as "a mistake" meant to "torture spouses, to disturb peace of many homes", "a new condemnation of Galileo",[16] "the death of the Council" and "the practical denial of collegiality".[15] According to the former Vatican's Secretariat of State, however, Câmara went on to send a telegram to the Vatican praising the encyclical Humanae Vitae.[17]

In his famous interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, he also stated that, despite his support for non-violence, he did not condemn violent tactics: "And I respect a lot priests with rifles on their shoulders; I never said that to use weapons against an oppressor is immoral or anti-Christian. But that's not my choice, not my road, not my way to apply the Gospels".[18]

Câmara identified himself as a socialist and not as a Marxist, and while disagreeing with Marxism, had Marxist sympathies. In the Fallaci interview, he stated, "My socialism is special, it's a socialism that respects the human person and goes back to the Gospels. My socialism is justice." He said, concerning Marx, that while he disagreed with his conclusions, he agreed with his analysis of the capitalist society.[18]

He never denied his communist sympathies and he openly supported dialogue with communists. He believed in the Fátima apparitons but he interpreted its call for the "conversion of Russia" as meaning that the Soviet Union would abandon his anti-religious policies but will not be rejecting communism. He wrote: "And what was the appeal of Fatima for?... Not for the annihilation of the USSR and China, but for their conversion... In 1967 the Russian Revolution will celebrate its jubilee... We must accelerate the pace, there is no more time to waste".[15] In a poem dedicated to French Dominican priest Louis-Joseph Lebret, Câmara states his belief that Karl Marx was in Heaven, and has him decorating Lebret of behalf of Jesus Christ: “Who decorated you/ in the name of Christ/ It was Karl Marx,/ taken to heaven/ for criticizing capital/ and for the protection of workers?!.../ And the lack of understanding regarding faith?/ It was the Christians' fault/ that he found around and gave him wrong vision/ of Christ and Christianity?...."[19][20]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Servant of God[edit]

On 15 February 2015, the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Antônio Fernando Saburido announced that he was sending a letter to the Holy See requesting the opening of the process of canonization of Câmara.[23] The letter was received on 16 February 2015, and less than ten days later, the assent was given by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, meaning that Câmara was given the title of Servant of God on 7 April 2015.[8][24][25][26] The opening of the beatification process took place on 3 May that year in Olinda Cathedral.[27] This marked the beginning of the diocesan phase of the beatification process.[28]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Quote: "Quando dou comida aos pobres, chamam-me de santo. Quando pergunto por que eles são pobres, chamam-me de comunista." – cited in Zildo Rocha, Helder, O Dom: uma vida que marcou os rumos da Igreja no Brasil (Helder, the Gift: A Life that Marked the Course of the Church in Brazil), Page 53, Editora Vozes, 2000, ISBN 978-85-326-2213-6. – 208 pages (in Portuguese)
  2. ^ "Hélder Pessoa Câmara | Brazilian Bishop & Human Rights Activist | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 13 April 2024.
  3. ^ O'Shaughnessy, Hugh (8 August 2003). "Helder Câmara – Brazil's archbishop of the poor". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 October 2017.
  4. ^ Santana, Ana Lucia. «Dom Helder Camara». InfoEscola. Retrieved 17 September 2016. (Portuguese).
  5. ^ Acta Apostolicae Sedis (PDF). Vol. XLIV. 1952. p. 433. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  6. ^ Acta Apostolicae Sedis (PDF). Vol. LVI. 1964. pp. 461, 861, 874. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  7. ^ Healy, Barry (14 July 2009), "'Bishop of the slums' — Dom Hélder Camara and Brazil's church of the poor", Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, retrieved 20 April 2015
  8. ^ a b c O'Connell, Gerard (27 April 2015), "Call Him a Saint?", America, retrieved 18 April 2015
  9. ^ a b c "Hélder Câmara". the Guardian. 31 August 1999. Retrieved 20 June 2021.
  10. ^ The Pact of the Catacombs (Domitilla); A poor servant Church (PDF), Rome: SEDOS - Documentation and Research Centre, archived from the original (PDF) on 27 April 2015, retrieved 20 April 2015
  11. ^ Sobrino, Jon (24 March 2010), "The urgent need to return to being the church of the poor", National Catholic Reporter, retrieved 20 April 2015
  12. ^ Lernoux, Penny (1989), People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism, New York: Viking, p. 341, ISBN 0-670-81529-2
  13. ^ Browne, Malcolm W. (12 July 1969), "Church Liberals in Argentina Target of Rightists", New York Times, p. 8
  14. ^ "Priest and Civilian Murdered in Brazil", New York Times, p. 7, 29 May 1969
  15. ^ a b c Come i progressisti non vinsero al Concilio / Una recensione di Roma, Due del Mattino di Monsignor Hélder Câmara / di Massimo Introvigne, CESNUR Official Website (Italian)
  16. ^ Camara, Helder (2015) [2009], "15a Circular (Reservada) - Roma 24/25.9.1965", in Luiz Carlos Luz Marques; Roberto de Araújo Faria (eds.), Dom Helder Camara Circulares Conciliares (in Portuguese), vol. I, Recifé (PE), Brazil: Companhia Editora de Pernambuco, ISBN 9788578581558, retrieved 9 April 2016
  17. ^ Blessed Paul VI, the Pope who led the Church's barque in troubled waters, Catholic News Agency
  18. ^ a b Entrevistas históricas: Oriana Fallaci entrevista dom Helder Câmara, Socialista Morena Website (Portuguese); Engl. trans. in Oriana Fallaci. Interview with History, London: Michael Joseph (1976). ISBN 0-7181-1530-9, pp. 288–309.
  19. ^ Dom Hélder Câmara e o Marxismo: Um Diálogo Possível, Revista Jesus Histórico (Portuguese)
  20. ^ Nelson Pilleti e Walter Praxedes, Dom Helder Câmara: entre o poder e a profecia, São Paulo, Ática, 1997, p. 409 (Portuguese)
  21. ^ Nobel Peace Prize nominations. American Friends Service Committee
  22. ^ "På lag med diktaturet" (english: "Cooperating with the dictatorship", NRK 9 March 2017
  23. ^ Brazil: Hélder Càmara, The Bishop of the poor, Comboni Missionaries, August 28, 2020, accessed 17 November 2021.
  24. ^ Modino, Luis Miguel (10 April 2015), "The initiation of Dom Helder Camara's path to sainthood now has a date", Iglesia Descalza, retrieved 18 April 2015
  25. ^ "Dom Hélder Câmara recebe título de 'Servo de Deus' da Santa Sé". 8 April 2015.
  26. ^ Dom Helder Camara is declared “Servant of God” by the Holy See http://news.cancaonova.com/dom-helder-camera-and-declared-service-for-santa-se/ Accessed 9 April 2015.
  27. ^ and-canonization-of-dom-helder-camara / Notice - Process of beatification and canonization of Dom Helder Camara. Accessed 9 April 2015.
  28. ^ http://site.adital.com.br /site/noticia.php?lang=EN&cod=84903 https://web.archive.org/web/20150518093834/http://site.adital.com.br/site/noticia.php?lang=EN&cod=84903
  • Regan, David (2002), Why Are They Poor? Helder Camara in Pastoral Perspective, Theologie und Praxis, vol. 13, Münster: Lit, ISBN 3-8258-6151-1

External links[edit]

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by Archbishop of Olinda e Recife
Succeeded by