Câmara, Hélder (1909–1999)

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Câmara, Hélder (1909–1999)

Hélder Câmara (Dom Hélder; b. 7 February 1909, d. 27 August 1999), Brazilian Catholic archbishop. Born in the poor northeastern state of Ceará, C âmara was ordained as a priest at age twenty-two. As a young cleric, he joined Ação Integralista Brasileira, a movement that sympathized with fascism. In 1936, he went to Rio de Janeiro to work with archbishop Sebastião Leme. In the 1940s, when he served as national assistant to Brazilian Catholic Action, Câmara moved toward liberal theological and political positions.

In 1952, Câmara was named auxiliary bishop of Rio. That same year, he helped create the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB), which became the most important organization within the Brazilian Catholic Church. From 1952 until 1964, he served as secretary-general of the CNBB. In 1955, Câmara created the São Sebastião Crusade, a liberal organization whose objective was to improve the living conditions in Rio's favelas (slums).

On 12 March 1964, three weeks before the military coup, Câmara was named archbishop of Recife and Olinda. The new archbishop repeatedly denounced the military regime for human rights abuses, for neglecting the poor, and for imposing an economic model that concentrated wealth. His courageous statements in the face of constant intimidation made the diminutive cleric the most famous church leader in Brazil. At first relatively isolated in his criticisms of the military government, by the late 1960s Câmara had the support of a substantial part of the church hierarchy. He and many of his close associates in the archdiocese were frequently harassed by the military government; some were expelled from Brazil, tortured, and even killed. Câmara was a leading figure in the turn of the Brazilian church toward more progressive ecclesiastical and political positions in the 1960s and 1970s.

After retiring as archbishop in 1985, Câmara continued to work in Recife, mostly among the urban poor. His successor, José Cardoso Sobrinho, dismantled many of the programs Câmara had established and clashed with many who had worked with the retired archbishop. Up until his death Camara remained committed to the church though he also was a strong advocate of the poor and against world hunger.

See alsoBrazil, Organizations: National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB); Catholic Church: The Modern Period.


José De Broucker, Dom Hélder Câmara (1970).

Additional Bibliography

Piletti, Nelson. Dom Hélder Câmara: Entre o poder e a profecia. São Paulo: Editora Atica, 1997.

Regan, David. Why Are They Poor?: Helder Camara in Pastoral Perspective. Münster: Lit, 2002.

Serbin, Kenneth. "Dom Helder Camara: The Father of the Church of the Poor." P. Beattie, ed. The Human Tradition in Modern Brazil. Wilmington, SR Books, 2004.

                                  Scott Mainwaring