Hélder Câmara

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The Most Reverend
Hélder Câmara
Archbishop-Emeritus of Olinda e Recife
Helder Camara 1974.jpg
See Olinda e Recife (Emeritus)
Installed 12 March 1964
Term ended 2 April 1985
Predecessor Carlos Gouveia Coelho
Successor José Cardoso Sobrinho
Ordination 20 April 1952
by Jaime de Barros Câmara
Personal details
Birth name Hélder Pessoa Câmara
Born (1909-02-07)February 7, 1909
Fortaleza, Brazil
Died August 27, 1999(1999-08-27) (aged 90)
Recife, Brazil
Nationality Brazilian
Denomination Roman Catholic
Motto In manus tuas
Coat of arms

Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara (Portuguese: [dõ ˈɛwdeɾ peˈsoɐ ˈkɐ̃mɐɾɐ]; February 7, 1909 – August 27, 1999) was Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil, serving from 1964 to 1985 during the military regime of the country.

An advocate of liberation theology, he is remembered for the aphorism, "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 in Fortaleza, Ceará, in the poor Northeast Region of Brazil. His father was an accountant and his mother a primary school teacher.[2] He went to local Catholic schools and decided to become a priest, completing seminary.


Hélder Câmara in 1984

He was ordained a priest in 1931 and appointed auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro in 1952. In 1959 he was appointed archbishop of Olinda e Recife.[3] During his tenure, Câmara was informally called the 'Bishop of the slums' for his clear position on the side of the urban poor.[4] With other clerics, he encouraged peasants to think beyond their conventionally fatalistic outlook by studying the gospels in small groups and asking what conclusions could be drawn for social change. He was active in the formation of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference in 1952, and served as its first general secretary until 1964.[5] In 1959 he founded Banco da Providência in Rio de Janeiro, a philanthropic organization to fight poverty and social injustice by making it easier for poor people to receive loans.[6]

He attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council and played a significant role in drafting the Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World.[5] On November 16, 1965, a few days before the Council ended, 40 bishops led by bishop Hélder 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, without privileges, and without 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".[7][8]

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

Under the guidance of archbishop Hélder Câmara, the Catholic church in Brazil became an outspoken critic of the 1964-85 military dictatorship and a powerful movement for social change.[6] 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[9] and Câmara's colleague, Father Antônio Henrique Pereira Neto, was murdered by unknown conservative forces.[10][11]

A proponent of liberation theology, he was Archbishop of the Diocese of Olinda and Recife from 1964 to 1985, during a period when the country had a series of military rulers. Liberation theology politicised the church's charitable work and brought criticisms that it was encouraging the armed revolutionary struggles that swept Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s.[6]

He published Spiral of Violence (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. By the early 21st century, this book had been out of print in the United Kingdom for about 20 years. A scanned version in English is available on the web at the link given below.

He died, aged 90, in Recife.

Legacy and honors[edit]

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 (Portuguese)
  2. ^ O'Shaughnessy, Hugh. "Helder Câmara – Brazil's archbishop of the poor", The Guardian, October 13, 2009
  3. ^ Cheney, David M., "Archbishop Helder Pessoa Câmara", The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church, retrieved April 20, 2015 
  4. ^ Healy, Barry (July 14, 2009), "'Bishop of the slums' — Dom Hélder Camara and Brazil's church of the poor", Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, retrieved April 20, 2015 
  5. ^ a b c O'Connell, Gerard (April 27, 2015), "Call Him a Saint?", America, retrieved April 18, 2015 
  6. ^ a b c Bellos, Alex. "Helder Camara" (obit), The Guardian, August 31, 1999
  7. ^ The Pact of the Catacombs (Domitilla); A poor servant Church (PDF), Rome: SEDOS - Documentation and Research Centre, retrieved April 20, 2015 
  8. ^ Sobrino, Jon, SJ (March 24, 2010), "The urgent need to return to being the church of the poor", National Catholic Reporter, retrieved April 20, 2015 
  9. ^ Lernoux, Penny (1989), People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism, New York: Viking, p. 341, ISBN 0-670-81529-2 
  10. ^ Browne, Malcolm W. (July 12, 1969), "Church Liberals in Argentina Target of Rightists", New York Times: 8 
  11. ^ "Priest and Civilian Murdered in Brazil", New York Times, May 29, 1969: 7 
  12. ^ Nobel Peace Prize nominations. American Friends Service Committee
  13. ^ Modino, Luis Miguel (April 10, 2015), "The initiation of Dom Helder Camara's path to sainthood now has a date", Iglesia Descalza, retrieved April 18, 2015 


  • Regan, David. C.S.Sp (2002), Why Are They Poor?: Helder Camara in Pastoral Perspective, Theologie und Praxis 13, Münster: Lit, ISBN 3-8258-6151-1 

External links[edit]