Page 5, 4th December 1964

4th December 1964
Page 5
Page 5, 4th December 1964 — Dom Helder C5mara the man they call 'The Electric Mosquito'

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Dom Helder C5mara the man they call 'The Electric Mosquito'

pOPE JOHN himself got up

to open the door in his Vatican audience chamber. "Oh," he said, "they told me 1 was going to meet a great archbishop, and here I sec a very little one."

Then he laughed and shook the hand of the thin, small-boned Brazilian prelate whose fame as a crusading churchman had long since reached Rome.

Dbm Helder Camara, fiftyfive, has been called the "most impressive figure in the Brazilian Church", in spite of his slight 5 ft. 4 in., 9 st. frame.

At first sight, there is nothing impressive about him. His cars are too big, he is losing his hair, his voice still breaks like a schoolboy's. and he radiates such open friendship that it's hard to believe that he is the confidant of Popes and the one Brazilian bishop .who has done the most for his poverty wracked, illiterate congregation.

He has been called "the electric mosquito" because he is always in a quiet flurry of motion. His legs and mind are everywhere, his capacity for work apparently boundless.

Simple things

Many church reforms may come from Dom Helder. He was the one who. at the Second Session of the Vatican Council, issued the now famous "An Exchange of Ideas with Our Brothers in the Episcopate."

Some of his ideas were startling. He wanted the bishops all over the world to "suppress" such titles as "excellency" and "eminence" and to drop the use of coats of arms and mottoes.

"It seems like nothing," he said, "but how this creates distance between our clergy and the faithful. It separates us from our own century, which has already adopted another style of life.

"It separates us, especially, from the workers and the poor." He also advised caution in the wearing of "expensive" pectoral crosses and rings "Silver-buckled shoes are ridiculous and out of place today."

Then he attacked the big, black limousines that have come to be associated with the hierarchy of the Church. "There are small and simple cars, the uses of which everyone understands and accepts, and there are cars that scandalise and revolt. Let us not make our moral strength and our authority depend on the make of the car."

No palaces

Nor did the living quarters of the bishops escape Dom Helder. "Let us end once and for all the impression of a bishop-prince residing in a palace, isolated from his clergy whom he treats distantly and coldly.

"Let us end once and for all the impression of authority which insists more i,n making itself feared than loved, of mak ing itself served rather than serving.

For a humble little man from the interior of an underdeveloped South American nation, this was quite a paper to deliver to the Vatican.

Dom Helder's talents and energies extend over an amazing field. He is a pastor and a church administrator, a leading educator, a promoter, a public-relations expert. a bank president, a slum clearer, a housing developer.

He was born in the droughtstricken Brazilian northeast State of Ceara on February 7, 1909. His mother was the village school teacher, and the family lived in the rooms behind the classrooms. His father was a 'book-kecper and—of all things a Freemason.

Ordained in 1931, he was asked by the governor of the State to serve in the Ministry of Education. With such success did he handle the problems of this backward area that he was asked by the mayor of Rio de Janeiro to come and work for him.

Shortly after, he was placed on the federal education board. Then in 1952, Rio's Cardinal, Dom Jayme de Barros Camara (no relation), took him on as his personal aide, and in 1955 the thin, energetic, little priest was promoted to auxiliary bishop of Rio.

Dom Helder made many friends (and enemies) with his reform ideas and appeals to wealthier Brazilians to help their less fortunate brethren. He was never afraid to tell a society matron or an industrialist what they were doing wrong with their money.

Rolled sleeves

"The attitude of the Latin American rich is extremely sad," he says. cannot protest against the failure of a great developed nation like the United States to collaborate in our development while our own upper and middle classes are fighting so blindly to block all change and maintain the old structure which prevents development."

Dom Helder has not waited for the Brazilian rich to do things. He has rolled up the sleeves of his own often unpressed cassock and gone to work. He has promoted radio schools and founded a controversial "Basic Education Movement", which is a mass programme designed to teach adult illiterates to read. He even wrote the textbooks.

He holds many annual charity bazaars which, apart from causing traffic jams and filling the Rio society columns with copy, manage to gather many thousands of dollars for the slum poor.

He is so good at making up phrases that catch in the mind ("What is not used in the house of the wealthy is wealth in the house of the poor." "Thousands need help, millions can help") that the Brazilian Public Relations Association once awarded him a scroll for "extraordinary capacity in our difficult field", He began the first slum clearance in Rio (where one out of every ten people lives in an appalling board-and-tin shack) single handedly in 1952. He promoted his now famous Sao

Sebastiao campaign and managed to get enough money to move the 928 families of the maggot and sewage plagued Praia do Pinto Weir, into a solid, new housing project.

Once the people were established, he organised free classes in cooking, hygiene. sewing, and child-care for the women and Classes in car mechanics, plumbing, and electricity for the men. The measure of his success with the relocated. often hostile. poor is that now, in the ten apartment buildings, a number of healthy babies all named Helder are running around the playgrounds.

His 'hank'

Once the apartment houses were built, he became a banker and founded the Bank of Providence in Rio, which counts on the co-operation of the rich and the store owners to keep the "hank" full of clothing. used furniture. and medicines. The bank includes among its assets not only usable articles but offers of service from doctors, lawyers, day-labourers, and other professionals pledged to give assistance freely when Dorn Helder calls.

The response to the bishop's initial plea far exceeded his expectations. In the first day alone, over a thousand tons of donations poured into the collection stations. Says Dorn Helder: "Nobody is so poor that he has nothing to offer. Nobody is so rich that he doesn't need help."

The "hank" also tries to find jobs for unemployed heads of families and widows with children. "The city and the federal governments must be alerted to the terrible human problem of the favelas, Besides, l want the faveladot to know that the Christians are at their side to improve their living conditions."

When Cardinal Montini visited Brazil shortly before becoming Pope, the high point of his trip was a tour of Dom Helder's slum project. and during the Ecumenical Council, Dom Helder visited Montini often and the two became close friends.


In a land as sharply divided and thoroughly confused as Brazil, Dom Helder's social reforms make him controversial.

"In Brazil," he says, "we are living through days of intense social change. The Church must join the battle for development and social justice so that, later, people will not say the Church deserted them in their hour of need because it was compromised with big business.

"lf that happens, the Church will suffer the consequences. The people will stay with the Church only in the measure that it is courageous in its defence of the people, and they will leave it in the measure that it is cowardly.

"Americans are prepared to lay down their fives in the cause of freedom, as they did in World Wars I and II and are doing now in Viet Nam. But they must realise that political freedom means nothing to a man who lives in subhuman conditions, without food, without health,

without education, and without hope of improvement.

"What is his freedom? The freedom to live in misery. We must elevate his standards of living to the human level, before he can even begin to think about political freedom."

Not everyone agrees, and Dom Helder is aware of this. "It is obvious to the most uneducated layman that there are two lines of thinking within the hierarchy of the Church. It would he frivolous to pretend otherwise,

"There are bishops who can seen nothing but the Communist danger and who preach for the defence of order and the existing laws. But all social reforms cannot he reduced to Communism. What we have now is not order; it is stratified disorder. For the Christian world, this is a moment of hatred and fear."

Much of the friction and disorder that Dom Helder talks about comes from the older members inside the Brazilian Church and Rio's Cardinal Dorn Jayme, in particular. The Cardinal is an arch-conservative and believes that everything has a way of being done inside the old traditions of the Church,

Critical job

Dom Helder, with his boundless energy and his crowd-pleasing ways, came to the place where he was far overshadowing the Cardinal and getting the credit for everything the Church accomplished in Rio.

A member of the Cardinal's staff, against the popularity and push of Dom Helder, says, "He owes everything to Dom Jayme. Dom Jayme made him, and now he's viscerally opposed to everything that Dom Jayme does."

Dom Helder denies this and claims that he tried to put the name of the Cardinal into everything he did. But even so, one evening in 1960, the Cardinal went on television and denounced the Communist threat in Brazil.

The next week, Dorn Helder took to the television stage to contradict him. He said he believed the nation's biggest problem was not Communism but misery. The Cardinal felt this was "putting the cart before the horse".

Shortly after that, the Cardinal began an open movement to have Dom Helder transferred to another archdiocese or, better yet, to Rome. Dom Helder does not hold this against him.

"Dom Jayme has always treated me honourably, but it is only natural for any chief to want to have his aides with more or less the same ideas as he does. When he discovers that his prin• cipal assistant disagrees with him on basic issues, it is only natural that he should say, 'Why don't you go somewhere else in the organisation?' " Cardinal Jayme got his way, but it was not what he had expected. Instead of Dom Helder's being assigned to an unimportant post. he was appointed in March of this year to be Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, one of the toughest and most critical jobs in the Catholic Church.

Recife, before the recent revolution of April 1, was the powder keg of Communist agitation and subversion. Castro-trained professors worked with the illiterate peasants and fomented revolt. Poor farmers handed together in rural syndicates, paraded with guns, and threatened to march on the cities.

Many huge farms were invaded by the rural union men, and dozens were killed in sporadic guerrilla warfare. Everyone agreed that if there was a Communist menace to Brazil, it would come from Recife and the north-cast.

Pope Paul's appointment of Dorn Helder to this post was an open approbation to the reformer's ideals. Though the revolutionary forces cleaned up the Communist influence on the surface, the reprisals have driven it underground, making it more difficult for people like Dom Helder to combat.

Open doors

"I am not going to be tremendous in Recife,he said shortly after his appointment was announced, "nor am I going to arrive there and start preaching piously for 'peace, peace, peace at any cost.' I don't want just any kind of peace, a false, lying peace. There is only one possible kind of peace, peace with justice.

"It will be inspiring to live in the north-east during these difficult times, full of problems and tendencies toward radicalisation. The doors are now closed. I am going to try to open them."

Then came the revolution of April 1, and Dom Helder, on orders from his immediate superiors, waited until the army had swept through and carried out most of their reprisals against the Communists in his archdiocese.

When he finally arrived in Recife, a mob of the faithful broke through police cordons. .swarmed across the landing field to the plane, and gave him a noisy welcome, Dom Helder moved into the old, overly ornate bishop's palace, threw open the windows, and let the fresh air come in. He brought in more freshness in his installation speech on April 12.

It wasn't the usual religious phraseology that his predecessors had mouthed; it was political and straightforward and pulled no punches. Coming from any other Church leader in Brazil, it would have been a surprise. Coming from Dom Helder, it was not only expected but eagerly hoped for.

Social justice

Aiming his speech almost directly at the new military government, he said: "Without prejudicing the measures of national security and the position of alert against Communism, let us not accuse of Communism those who only hunger and thirst for social justice and for the development of the country.

"If we wish to go to the root of our social evils, we shall have to help the country break the vicious circle of underdevelopment and want.

"There are those who feet scandalised when it is asserted that this is our social problem number one, more urgent and serious than Communism. There are those who deem it demagoguery to speak of the situation of men whose situation is less than human.

"The difference between the pharisee and the saint is mainly this: the pharisee is broadminded about himself and strict with others. He wants to send everyone to heaven by force. The saint, on the other hand, is strict only with himself."

Admitting that he was glad the pro-Leftist government of President Jango Goulart had been demolished, he asked the military in command not to postpone the urgently needed basic reforms.

"Now that the situation has changed, there is no time to be wasted. Let the reforms come without delay. Let us prove that democracy is able to get at the root of our evils."


Hardly had the celebrations of his installation died down than into his palace came Violeta Arraes Gervaseaux, the sister of Communist governor Miguel Arraes, now imprisoned by the military.

She had married a Frenchman, lived in Paris, and returned to Recife just a year ago. Now, she said, the military command was after her on charges of "subversion".

That afternoon. troops arrived and marched straight into Dom Helder's palace and immediately began searching for her. Dom Helder first gave the troops a tongue-lashing, then telephoned the regional army command and gave him one too. The commander ordered the troops removed, and made an official apology to the thin, little bishop.

Soon after, Dom Helder received a surprise summons from the Vatican. He was called urgently by Pope Paul to a secret conference, where the two modern-minded leaders talked over the Communist situation in Latin America in general and the new military rule in Brazil in particular.

His Holiness swore Dorn Helder to secrecy about their conversations, but the Recife Archbishop did let it be known that the Pope is considering a visit to Brazil. If this happens, it will solidify, once and for all, Dom Helder's position as leader of the modern social-minded churchmen in the Western hemisphere.

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