Tuesday, February 7, 2012

February 7 - Helder Camara, Priest, Bishop, Friend of the Poor

Helder was the eleventh of thirteen children born in Northeastern Brazil to a middle class family with roots in the Roman Catholic church. Much to the pain of Helder and his family, five of his brothers and sisters died from the flu epidemic that swept through Brazil claiming souls in 1905 (four years before Helder was born). Even as a child, he showed an interest in the priesthood. His priests and family would often remark to him that they felt something special about him and would ask him if he knew what it meant to be a priest. One of his priests even went so far as to tell him that to be a priest was forever and it meant he would never be his own and would always be pouring himself out for others. This didn't deter young Helder and he continued holding mock masses in his home on an alter he built out of boxes and playthings.

As he grew, he followed God's willing and ended up studying to become a priest. It wasn't especially uncommon for young Brazilian boys in Northeastern Brazil to become priests since it was a region that placed a high value upon the priesthood. But it was surprising that Helder was ordained at the age of twenty-two. He had to receive special dispensation to be ordained prior to the age of twenty-four but it was given and he took his vows. This new avowed state was a good fit for Helder and he spent his time as a minister of a church but, also, as an advocate for the poor.Like many Brazilian priests of the time he was heavily invested in liberation theology and social justice ministries. Eventually, he became bishop and then archbishop and this allowed him to set the tone and pace for ministry within Brazil. Even when he had taken on the political roles of an archbishop he still did not fail to advocate for the poor.

Helder is perhaps best remembered for a quote that summed up his professional life: "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 his work as a friend of the poor he was nominated for a Nobel peace prize and received the Pacem in Terris award. Though he was not poor, he became associated with the slums. Though he was not oppressed, he became associated with the weak and disenfranchised. Being a priest was a forever commitment and Helder lived into it. When he was vilified and slandered he reminded himself that he had been called not to a profession but to a way of life and part of that way of life was a devotion to pouring himself out for the least of his brothers and sisters. Helder died in 1999.

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