New York Times Service
Archbishop Helder Pessoa Camara of Brazil, who died last week
at 90, worked
tirelessly on behalf of the poor and was considered one of the fathers of Liberation
He pushed the Roman Catholic Church to move beyond mere charity
for the poor
and to advocate fundamental social changes such as land redistribution and
access to education.
As liberation theology swept through Latin America in the 1970s
opponents accused it of lending philosophical legitimacy to armed revolutionary
Camara was denounced as ``the Red Bishop'' and ``Fidel Castro
in a cossack.''
To that, he retorted: ``When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked,
`Why are they poor?' they called me a communist.''
Camara died Friday from respiratory failure, at his home in Olinda,
Brazil. He had
served as archbishop of Olinda and Recife, in Brazil's parched and impoverished
northeast, retiring in 1985.
He was born in Fortaleza, a port city in northeast Brazil. He
told an interviewer he
was one of 13 children, only four of whom survived childhood.
He entered a seminary at 14 and was ordained at 22. He rose through
church's ranks to become auxiliary bishop of Rio de Janeiro in 1952.
When the Second Vatican Council was meeting in Rome in 1963, Camara
on his fellow bishops to drop such titles as ``excellency'' and ``eminence'' and to
exchange their silver and gold pectoral crosses for bronze or wooden ones.
``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,'' he wrote in
a paper to the bishops.
When he arrived in Recife as archbishop in 1964, he put the archbishop's
traditional gilded throne in storage and replaced it with a simple wooden chair. He
chose not to live in the palatial official residence. He lived instead in a sparsely
furnished room behind a church.
Clerics like Camara helped create a radical transition in the
Church in Latin America, from an ally of the military and wealthy land-owning elite
to an advocate for the poor and landless.
When Brazil's military regime began a campaign of repression,
many church lay
leaders and clerics were among the victims. Camara traveled abroad denouncing
the torture and killing of priests, nuns and seminary students. His phone was
tapped, he received death threats by phone and mail, and, in 1969, a hail of
bullets pierced the walls of his living quarters. He was out of the country at the
He became an international hero of the Catholic left and was nominated
Nobel Peace Prize. But in his own country the military government banned news
media coverage of him.
In 1980, Pope John Paul II went to Recife and met with Camara,
a ``nonperson'' by the military government. On live television broadcast nationally
and internationally, the pope embraced him and said: ``This man is a friend of the
poor. He is my friend.''
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald