A man of faith, devoted to Brazil and to its people, Dom Hélder Câmara was born in Fortaleza in February 1909, the eleventh child in a family of thirteen children, of which five did not survive an epidemic of influenza which hit the region in 1905. At the age of four, he would go to church and play at giving Mass. In August 1931, with special authorisation from the Holy See, he was ordained as a padre at the age of 22, without being the minimum age as required.
This was how he started his religious life, which would change the direction of the Church in Brazil and the country itself. The creation of the Ceará Work Legion (Legião Cearense de Trabalho) and the Catholic Ladies’ working trade union were just two of his first decisions after being ordained. His efforts as an educator made him a kind of State Secretary for Education in Ceará, thus contributing in a significant way to the reorganisation of teaching methods and also the better development of state education in the State.
In 1936, he arrived in Rio de Janeiro with the mission of dedicating himself to Episcopal activities and also to be active in the State educational system. Restless and also an idealiser, during the 1950s Dom Hélder established a contact in Rome, with Monsignor Montini, who would later become Pope Paul VI. Thus, he took the first steps to the implementation of the Brazilian National Bishops’ Conference (Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil - CNBB). Dom Hélder Câmara was also a man of action and was very important in the execution of social change in the country.
Among the important initiatives, we could mention the establishment, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1956, of the Cruzada São Sebastião, to attend slum dwellers. Three years later, he founds the Pensions Bank (Banco da Previdência), thus materialising the proposal of providing practical help to the impoverished Brazilians.
Dom Hélder turned into reality things that many times would seem Utopian. “Injustice is one unit and is indivisible: to attack it and make it retreat, here and there, is always to make justice advance”. He therefore confirmed his ambition to fight. The creation of the Latin American Episcopal Council, with the main purpose of bringing Latin American Bishops together to boost change and joint activities, was yet another victory. Appointed as Archbishop of Recife and Olinda in 1964, in the region he established a clear cluster of resistance against the military coup. This position made him known as the Red Archbishop. During the dictatorship, he is persecuted, but never intimidated.
In 1969, he received, from the University of Saint Louis in the United States, the title of doctor honoris causa, the first of many that he would receive during his long life, in many countries. He died at the age of 90, in 1999, keeping his convictions intact to the very end. “The only legitimate war is that which is declared against underdevelopment and destitution”. For his struggle, Dom Hélder created his own strategy: if he could not take the world inside the Church, he would place the Church in the world.
100 Brazilians book (100 Brasileiros) (2004)