Dom Hélder Câmara
by Aida Ferreira from Brazil
Dom Hélder Câmara was born in Fortaleza on February 7th , 1909. He was from a poor but respectful family. At the age of fou,r he began to realize his desire to become a priest. In response to the boy’s assertion that wanted to be a priest, his father told the young man, “My boy, priest and self-centeredness don’t go together. A priest is not his own master. He has only one reason for living: to live for others.” The child, Hélder Câmara, followed the advice. As a man, he would exemplify this ideal of living his life completely for others.
He entered the seminary for Diocese of Fortaleza and studied philosophy and theology. When he was 22 years old, he was ordained. After hearing Câmara speak “erudite and little used terms,” one of his teachers, Father Breno, told him to “stop being of a shepherd foolish…” Câmara’s first endeavors as a priest included setting up the Catholic Youth Labor Movement and the Catholic Organization of Feminine Labor. In 1952 he was chosen as Assistant Bishop of Rio de Janeiro. He was a secretary general in the Conference of Brazilian Bishop. He was active in spreading the message of the “Church of the Poor” at Vatican II. At the council, he requested his fellow bishops cease using exalted titles and abandon jeweled pectoral crosses for simple wooden ones. His own simple, wooden cross often served to incite the photographers, who made him out to be a hero and an example. In 1964 he occupied the position of Archbishop of Olinda and Recife. He shocked the archdiocese by moving out of the palatial residence of former archbishops and into sacristy room adjoining a small church. He often ran into trouble with the military dictatorship that was in power at the time. One of his priests, Father Henrique, was kidnapped, tortured and killed. He often said, “If I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have not food, they call me a communist”.
Dom Hélder Câmara was true example of a shepherd, a man who used his office for tremendous good. He lived among the poor and downtrodden. He loved them, and he spoke out for them. He knew the suffering that his people had to endure, and he was known for understanding their plight, especially that of prostitutes. He said they are victims.
In 1985, Dom Hélder reached the age limit for retirement, and devoted the rest of his life to lecturing and writing books. He remained in his beloved Recife and continued to be a witness among the poor until his death on August 27, 1999, at the age 90. His legacy will be forever remembered and especially his message that humans must love one another.