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Rogue bishop's rebellious example lives on



Standing slightly taller than his living height of four feet 11 inches, the statue of Dom Hélder Câmara stands between the entrance to the Igreja das Fronteiras (Borders Church) and the mile-high gate to the adjoining provincial house for a religious order.

Dom Hélder CâmaraCâmara was Archbishop of Recife and Olinda during Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. A nearby plaque notes his years of service as archbishop, and his role in advocating for human rights during that repressive time.

I pay a visit to the statue in late August. Câmara was an important figure in the liberation theology movement which infused my religious upbringing, and I want to remember the life and message of a powerful clergyman who refused all the trappings of office; an activist who made no distinction between the practices of challenging authority, structural critique, personal belief, and inner life.

And I want to honour my parents and others in the Australian community of contrarian Catholics who brought me up with the teachings of such people and encouraged me to see and speak the truth when it was being repressed in the interests of conservatism and capital.

While I take photographs of Câmara's likeness, well-dressed church personnel exit and enter the provincial house gate on my right, some in nice cars for which the gate opens by remote control. On my left, a few of the city's homeless people are sitting in the shade on the steps of the church, sharing a bottle of water to drink and wash their feet.

It's so hot that my camera starts to shut down, so I sit on a step and drink some water of my own while I wait for it to cool down. Looking up, I notice that the gate has a surveillance camera, which appears to be trained on Câmara's statue.

There are few who have confronted the Roman Catholic Church — on its own terms, and from within — like Dom Hélder Câmara, so it's not surprising that he still appears to be spooking them in statue form, arms outstretched between poor people seeking the church's sanctuary and the traditional training ground of the institution's elite.

Many Brazilians, as do many Catholics around the world, remember the 'Red Bishop' as much more than a defender of human rights. For these people, Câmara is included reverently in the litany of rogues who drew the ire of church and state authorities by demanding both do a better job of embodying Jesus Christ's message of social justice, and providing a lived example of how to do that.


"The example of Dom Hélder Câmara is reflected in many of Australia's current moral troublemakers, such as Love Makes A Way, Father Rod Bower, Mums for Refugees, and the Knitting Nannas Against Gas."


Câmara refused to live in the archbishop's palace in Recife, instead occupying the house behind Borders Church. He led a council of Brazilian bishops that advocated the expropriation and transfer of land to the poor. He denounced racism and sexism and stood publicly with the dictatorship's many political prisoners while constantly at risk of becoming one himself. He was a leading participant in the 1968 Latin American bishops conference in Medellín, Colombia, when Latin American churches committed to 'the preferential option for the poor', having the Church stand with those most oppressed by capitalism before all others.

He was also an influential participant in the Second Vatican Council in Rome, during which he was a party to the Pact of the Catacombs, made in the catacombs of Domitillio between around 40 bishops who professed their dedication to ensuring that Catholic Church 2.0 embraced simplicity, humility and openness in its dealings with all people, and sought structural justice for the economically oppressed without fear or favour.

Many observers have noted the consistency of Pope Francis' vision with the commitments made in the Pact of the Catacombs. Indeed, the Vatican announced last year that Dom Hélder Câmara was being considered for canonisation — a striking move considering that one of Câmara's best-loved quotes is 'When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.'

For many years, the kitchen in our family home bore a poster with this quote, and an image of the bishop, commemorating his visit to Australia in 1985. For the Australian Catholics who brought me up, figures like Câmara oriented and emboldened their commitment to Jesus' message of radical equality. As a kid I hung around their reading groups, marched with them in the streets, and watched them risk (and sometimes lose) their employment, friends, and family on account of their advocacy for women, the poor, gay and lesbian people, Aboriginal people, and others traditionally excluded from the deep structures of power in both the Church and the society around us.

It was a powerful idea to grow up with: that this imposing and defining institution I had been born and baptised into — the product of the culture, faith, and identity of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, which structured so much obedience — contained a rebellious truth that often demanded we go against the institution's own grain. Câmara occupied the moral authority of a Catholic archbishop, but the greater authority flowed from his embodied resistance to the institutional, systemic oppression of people under elitism, capitalism and dictatorship.

The example of Dom Hélder Câmara is reflected in many of Australia's current moral troublemakers, such as Love Makes A Way, Father Rod Bower, Mums for Refugees, and the Knitting Nannas Against Gas. We need people like this if we are to achieve our hopes for justice at the national scale of catastrophes such as the impoverishment, incarceration and torture of Aboriginal people, the destruction of the environment, and the arbitrary detention and abuse of refugees and asylum seekers.


Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, Dom Hélder Câmara



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Existing comments

Awesome article Ann. My faith was formed and inspired by Joseph Cardijn's: "See, Judge and Act" method in the 1960s. I now find myself part of "Love Makes A Way" Brisbane. A real Blessing to be part of such a team! Peace & All Good, Mike Campbell

Michael Campbell | 01 September 2016  

A few of us from North Ringwood Victoria listened to him when he came in 1985 and decided to form a social justice group called the Camara group which for many years worked for projects that were local, national and international. We were so inspired by him.

Sue | 01 September 2016  

Great article, Ann. I too am grateful to have been influenced by a community of contrarian Catholics, including an inspiring woman we both know well who led a liquid paper based revolt against gender exclusive language in our parish hymn books in the eighties! Look forward to reading more of your reflections.

Michelle | 01 September 2016  

Thank you. Very interesting. But the Knitting Nannas are ignorant and misled by nonsense. Please don't associate them with the good works you laud rightly

Andrew LUkas | 02 September 2016  

Congratulations Ann. You've seen the opportunity to do something wonderful by reminding us of this man and you've taken it. A full moving act of witness to the faith that does justice. I still feel anger at one of the first acts of John Paul 2's papacy, his going to Medellin and distancing himself as much as he could from what Camara saw and stood for.

Joe Castley | 02 September 2016  

Great article about a great man whose influence is so evident today in the lives of people who work for peace and justice. Pope Francis is today's expression of the Church's true role, our hope for the future. As we reflect on the life of Helder Camara let's also remember the efforts of Bishop Belo in East Timor during those same years as he struggled with Indonesia, Australia and the Vatican for recognition of his people's rights and justice in his land.

Anne Doyle | 02 September 2016  

Great article Ann - you write so well. Dom Helder is one of my heroes too and shone the light for me in term marrying theology and being involved in social justice movements. It is good to acknowledge the role parents and loved ones play in continuing to expose our children to these important leaders in the Catholic Church that inspire the next generation to give witness to the current social justice issues in Australia and the world. Keep up the great work

Megan Hughes | 02 September 2016  

I don't recall Jesus of Nazareth expounding a "preferential option for the poor". The gospels seem to indicate that he rather favoured the sinner which no doubt included the rich and the oppressors of the poor. Perhaps the saintly bishop's brief should have addressed reforming those sinners he blamed for the misfortunes of the poor. Pope John Paul II, as Jesus of Nazareth's authority on Earth, was correct in his condemnation of the militarily armed liberationists of the liberation theology movement, Joe Castley, even if many were members of the Society of Jesus.

john frawley | 02 September 2016  

Great article Ann. He's such a grounded, earthy, compassionate, wise, challenging member of the uncanonised saint club. Thanks for bringing him to the fore again - and for the reminder of those small, but beautiful actions in the St Bernadette's community and beyond. Meg

Meg Hegarty | 02 September 2016  

This is a good article.It should be sent to all Australian Bishops

peter moylan | 02 September 2016  

The early Church was able to create many new traditions as circumstances changed, in order to make progress.But later,out-dated traditions became so entrenched that they, the 'letter', assumed greater status than the Spirit that originally prompted them. This is why Pope John XXIII called for 'aggiornamento, though he didn't realise how difficult and complicated it would be. Perhaps our hopes lie with Pope Francis to update the Spirit.

Robert Liddy | 02 September 2016  

I doubt Dom Helder Camara knew the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Paris and London, child refugee and hero of the French Resistance. One of Metropolitan Anthony's insights was that Jesus had not intended to found an institution but to change the world. The man who most symbolises what is right about Australian Catholicism is that super-maverick Father Bob Maguire. He doesn't talk the talk. He walks the walk. God bless him and all like him.

Edward Fido | 02 September 2016  

Dear Ann, Thank you for your your article. It has helped me recall many cherished memories. We need to hold onto the memory of our prophets.

Ann Laidlaw | 02 September 2016  

Roy Chen Yee: Gays and lesbians are internally afflicted by a spiritual illness; ..... gays and lesbians need to be healed. To whoever moderates these comments ... Could we please have comments such as those I have quoted here not allowed through the net. It's one thing to have an opinion but the above is simply wrong, not to mention offensive.

MargaretMC | 02 September 2016  

Thank you for a wonderful article reminding me and keeping alive the spirit of Jesus as demonstrated by Helder Camara.

Patrick Kempton | 03 September 2016  

Beautiful article Ann. Wonderful reminder and celebration of living our lives emboldened by and in tune with 'inner' life, as Camara did. Also love the image of the surveillance camera trained on Camara's statue - you just never know! Thank you!

Sharon Doyle | 03 September 2016  

wonderful article Ann. you have taken us back to times of heady possibility in the Adelaide church when we tried in a small way to break open the structures towards a more inclusive and relevant church. we did this from a small Adelaide parish full of wonderful visionary people - including you and your family. thank you

monica conway | 04 September 2016  

Mr Frawley, I'm a bit baffled why a dirt-poor illiterate peasant defending his hilly, stone-filled corn field against right wing death squads with AK47s would be interested in talking about theology, given that Latin Americans Catholics are far more conservative and traditional in faith and doctrinal matters than Australian or other English speaking Catholics.

AURELIUS | 10 September 2016  

"Mr Frawley, I'm a bit baffled why a dirt-poor illiterate peasant defending his hilly, stone-filled corn field against right wing death squads with AK47s would be interested in talking about theology." Yep - you nailed it.

David Healy | 07 December 2016  

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