Monday, February 4, 2019

In Praise of Dom Helder Camara

Just like Fred Korematsu, the subject of my previous blog article (found here), Helder Camara is similarly not a household name. But Camara, who was born ten years before Korematsu, is also a man well worth remembering with acclaim.
Introducing Dom Helder
Helder Pessoa Camara was born on February 7, 1909, in northeastern Brazil. From an early age, he played at saying Mass; when he was only eight or nine years old, he talked about becoming a priest. At age 14 he entered the seminary and was ordained eight years later, in August 1931.
Dom Helder, as he was usually called in Brazil, had 54 years of active ministry, including 21 years as an archbishop, before his retirement in 1985. Twenty years ago, in August 1999, he died at the age of 90.
The Washington Post article announcing Camara’s death referred to him as “a former Brazilian Catholic archbishop and proponent of Liberation Theology who became a noted human rights crusader and champion of agrarian reform.”
Dom Helder was a tireless advocate for and friend of the poor and marginalized people in his native country and around the world. Here are his most widely-cited words:  
Learning from Dom Helder
Through the years I saw various references to Camara and was impressed by what I read by and about him. Now that I have just finished reading the book Dom Helder Camara: Essential Writings (2009), I am even more impressed.
Camara championed liberation theology, which has often been charged with inciting violence. But Dom Helder was a man of peace. He declared,

"We, as Christians, are on the side of nonviolence, and this is in no way an option for weakness and passivity. Opting for nonviolence means to believe more strongly in the power of truth, justice, and love than in the power of wars, weapons, and hatred" (p. 81).

Dom Helder was also a poet. I like this poem that expresses the type of man he was:
If you disagree with me,
you have something to give me
if you are sincere
and seek the truth
as best you may,
honestly, with modest care,
your thought is growth
to mine, correction,
you deepen my vision.
As an archbishop, Camara often faced large audiences that applauded and cheered him. He wrote that at such times, “I turn to Christ and say to him simply: ‘Lord, this is your triumphal entry into Jerusalem! I am just the little donkey you are riding on!’ And it’s true” (p. 145).
Would that all God’s servants and church leaders had that sort of humility!
Praising Dom Helder
Although Dom Helder was a small man, barely five feet tall, he had a large following of admirers. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. The Brazilian military dictatorship, his constant adversary, actively worked again his receiving that award, and they were successful.
Nevertheless, Francis McDonagh, who wrote the Introduction to the book of Dom Helder’s writings, reports, “In compensation, Norwegian churches and NGOs awarded him a ‘People’s Peace Prize’ in 1974, one of twenty-one international awards and eighteen degrees that testified to the esteem in which he was held by the international community” (p. 33).
One such noteworthy recognition was the Pacem in Terris Award, which he received in 1975—ten years after it was awarded to MLK, Jr., and the year before it was given to Mother Teresa.
Camara’s dream of the liberation of the poor and the creation of a fully just society hasn’t yet become a reality any more than MLK’s dream has, but people of goodwill must keep that dream alive and actively work toward its fulfillment.


  1. This morning in less than an hour after I posted it, I had the following, much-appreciated comments from a Thinking Friend in Japan, whom I first knew when he was an MK (missionary kid) in Tokyo many years ago.

    "I just wanted to say 'thank you' for another wonderful posting from you. Once again you have introduced me to a person and life legacy that I wish I already knew about, but was sadly ignorant of. I especially appreciated and was deeply touched by Dom Helder’s words and sincere, humble character, especially his response to praise, and the poem. That is to say nothing of his legacy of working in behalf of the poor.

    "Your blogs inform, challenge, remind, enlighten, and gently prod us in the direction of your 4Ls. Thank you for continuing to take the time to prepare them."

  2. Local Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot, a lifelong Roman Catholic Sister, sent the following comments:

    "You place in the spotlight one of my favorites! Did you know that in the seminary he made a decision to set his alarm at 2 a.m. each day for the rest of his life? It was then he prayed and wrote his poetry. I have a small book of some of them--which I take out often to ponder--they are usually short but pack a wallop.

    "My other memory of him was his presence at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976. He was on the stage with Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa! His talk was dynamic, as you would expect. In the midst of it he left the microphone to kiss their hands as a reminder they were living the life he was sharing with us. He was truly a man of God. I'll share with you his book of night time poetry.

    "Thank you for today's reminder of his presence among us."

    1. Thanks, Marilyn, for your comments--and I was happy to learn that you had heard Dom Helder speak.

      Yes, in his book there was mention of his 2 a.m. waking hour--but I wonder how he got enough sleep. He must have gone to bed very early, or else how could he be awake enough to pray and write from 2 a.m. to daylight without dozing off?

  3. Andrew Bolton, another local Thinking Friend, shares these brief comments:

    "Thanks for a good blog on Dom Helder Camara. I enjoyed reading about him in the New Internationalist in the 1970s and 1980s. Good to have a fuller story about him."

  4. And then I also receive these comments from my Thinking Friend, my good Canadian friend who lives in Vancouver:

    "Thank you for reminding me again of Dom Helder’s passion for justice and peace, as well as his humility.

    "I give thanks to God for this humble “donkey” who made such a huge difference in so many lives."

  5. Thinking Friend, and good friend, Michael Olmsted in Springfield, Mo., shares the following comments:

    "I had never heard of Dom Helder until this morning when I read your blog. His image of being the donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem deeply touches me as I feel of little importance when it comes to changing our world of crisis, cruelty, and selfishness.

    "This morning I feel less lost in the inequities of this world for each of us can be an instrument for good in some way where we live. If each of us reflect the grace of God in Christ we will change society. Think about the early church against the world -- and here we are 2000+ years later!"