Hélder Câmara

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Tomb of Dom Helder Camara in Olinda Cathedral

Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara (born February 7, 1909 in Fortaleza , Ceará , in northeastern Brazil , † August 27, 1999 in Recife ) was a Brazilian archbishop of Olinda and Recife . Câmara founded the first basic ecclesiastical congregations in Brazil and was one of the most prominent representatives of liberation theology . He was considered one of the most important fighters for human rights in Brazil, who denounced the torturers and murderers during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 all over the world .


Dom Helder Câmara (completely Hélder Pessoa Câmara) came from Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceará in the underdeveloped north-east of Brazil, where politics, economy and society were dominated by cattle barons and plantation owners well into the 20th century. He was the eleventh of an accountant's 13 sons. His mother was an elementary school teacher and a devout Catholic. Five of his siblings died in childhood during a flu epidemic. At a young age he developed tuberculosis from which he never fully recovered. As a child, Câmara wanted to be a priest; He entered the seminary in 1923 and was ordained a priest at the age of 22.

After his ordination, Câmara worked in Fortaleza for five years. Striving to anchor the church more firmly in the people, he built up the Catholic lay movement Catholic Action and then acted as its national secretary. In 1931 he founded the Labor Legion of Ceará, in 1933 he created the Catholic Workers' Union. Like a large part of the intelligentsia not affiliated with the old oligarchy, Câmara was close to the fascist “green shirts” ( Ação Integralista Brasileira ) for a time in the mid-1930s , from which he soon distanced himself.

Within the Catholic Church, Câmara quickly made a career; Pope Pius XII appointed him secret chamberlain. In 1934, Câmara headed education in the state of Ceará as State Secretary, and in 1936 he was transferred to the then capital, Rio de Janeiro , where he took on an important post in the Ministry of Education. In Rio he got to know the miserable living conditions of the population in the slums, which was the turning point of his life.

On April 20, 1952, Câmara was ordained auxiliary bishop of the Archbishopric of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro , and two years later appointed closest collaborator ( coadjutor ) to the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro. In close consultation with Pro-State Secretary Giovanni Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI. , he played a key role in preparing the foundation of the Brazilian Bishops' Conference ( CNBB ) (foundation on October 14, 1952), of which he was general secretary until 1964. During this time this body developed into one of the most influential institutions in the theology of liberation. In 1955 he was general secretary of the World Eucharistic Congress; in the same year the Latin American Bishops' Conference CELAM emerged from his initiative .

His visits as a bishop to the slums of Rio, his efforts to provide decent housing for the poor, and his televised sermons made him extremely popular at the time. In 1956 he initiated the Saint Sebastian campaign in Rio de Janeiro, aimed at solving the problems of the slum dwellers . In 1959 he founded the pension bank ( Banco da Providência ) in Rio de Janeiro , which deals specifically with the issue of misery.

Archbishop Câmara (center) 1970 in Bonn at the German Forum for Development Aid; far left: Günter Grass

At the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) Câmara was one of the most prominent spokesmen for the Church of the Third World. On the eve of the second session of the council in 1963, he addressed an open letter to his fellow bishops urging them to cast off external wealth in order to reduce the distance between them and the working people. On November 16, 1965, this resulted in the Catacomb Pact , which 40 bishops around the world entered into the Domitilla Catacombs . The pact took up the motto of John XXIII. from a “Church of the Poor”.

On April 1, 1964, the reform efforts of Brazilian Presidents Jânio Quadros and João Goulart were ended by a military coup. Shortly before (on March 12, 1964) Câmara was by Pope Paul VI. appointed Archbishop of Olinda e Recife . Under the military dictatorship, Câmara initially remained largely unmolested during the tenure of President Castelo Branco . Câmara continued to campaign nationally and internationally for non-violent social and land reforms for the benefit of the exploited small farmers in Brazil and the rest of the Third World. He initiated an education program, a self-help program for farmers and the “Action Peace and Justice”, which was attacked by right-wing conservative circles as a “social agitation forum”. After Artur da Costa e Silva became president in 1968, he was increasingly terrorized as a “red bishop”. Several assassinations were carried out on him; his spiritual secretary, Father Antonio Peirera Neto, was shot. In an internationally acclaimed speech on May 26, 1970 in the Palais des Sports in Paris in front of 10,000 spectators , he denounced the torture of political opponents in his home country. After his return to Brazil, the military government ensured that he was ostracized by the local press from now until the end of the military dictatorship (1983).

Meanwhile, Câmara's popularity increased abroad. Numerous lecture tours have taken him to the USA, Canada, Japan and Europe. He has received international peace prizes and 18 honorary doctorates from universities abroad. He was nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize. In contrast, the military sparked a covert campaign in the early 1970s - and with success. Instead, he was awarded an “Alternative Peace Prize” in 1974.

On April 2, 1985 Câmara resigned from his office of archbishop due to reasons of age. His successor was Dom José Cardoso Sobrinho , a conservative man who had previously been professor of canon law in Rome for twenty years. Câmara had to experience that his successor was commissioned to “correct” his pastoral work. Sobrinho ended the social projects and fought the influence of liberation theology in Brazil.

Archbishop Câmara's tomb in the mausoleum of the bishops in Olinda Cathedral

Dom Hélder Câmara died on August 27, 1999 in Recife. His grave is in the "Mausoleum of the Bishops" in the Cathedral of Olinda . The last slow beatification process is promoted by Pope Francis .


With proposals on social laws, the education of the illiterate, in statements on human rights, on agrarian reform and in direct dialogue with politicians, Câmara tried to influence the political, social and economic spheres of public life, to accuse grievances and to bring about their overcoming. So he made a determined commitment to adult education by founding grassroots groups and creating radio schools.

Câmara's influence was not only limited to the Brazilian and Latin American clergy, but was also noticeable into the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) - especially in the passages of the Pastoral Constitution On the Church in Today's World , which the Church turned to to the poor and oppressed.


  • In view of the misery in his poor ecclesiastical province , in which thousands of children starve to death every year, he said: “Quando dou comida aos pobres chamam-me de santo. Quando pergunto por que eles são pobres chamam-me de comunista. ” - “ When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. If I ask why you are poor, call me a communist. "
  • “If one dreams alone, it is only a dream. When many dream together, that is the beginning of a new reality. "



The Instituto Dom Helder Camara (IDHeC) next to the Igreja das Fronteiras in the Boa Vista district of Recife reminds of the personality and life's work of Dom Hélder . A museum also belongs to this documentation and research center.


In 1974 the Swiss Walter Marti  and  Reni Mertens made  the film Prayer for the Left with Hélder Câmara.

Selected works in German translation

  • Revolution for Peace . Translated from the Portuguese by Franz Wilhelm Heimer. Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau a. a. 1969.
  • It's time . Translated from the French by Marianne Weiss and Ellie Petertil. Styria, Graz a. a. 1970.
  • The spiral of violence . Translated from the French by Marianne Weiss. Styria, Graz a. a. 1970.
  • Make me a rainbow . Translated from the French by Alfred Kuoni. Pendo, Zurich 1981, ISBN 3-85842-386-6 .
  • Blessed are they who dream. 5-minute radio sermons . Translated from the Portuguese by Horst Goldstein. Pendo, Zurich 1982.
  • Hope against all hope . Translated from the French by Alfred Kuoni. Pendo, Zurich 1981.
  • God lives in the poor . Translated from the French by Franz Mayer. Walter, Freiburg im Breisgau / Olten 1986.
  • Maria, a mother on my way. Meditations and prayers . Translated by Josef Schwind. Verlag Neue Stadt, Munich u. a 1985.
  • In your hands, sir. Thoughts and prayers . Translated into German by Karl Kraut. 3. Edition. Verlag Neue Stadt, Munich u. a. 1991.
  • Letters from the Council. Night vigils in the battle for Vatican II . Translated from the Portuguese by Conrad Berning and Luis Bedin Fontana. Edition Exodus, Lucerne 2016, ISBN 3-905577-93-3 .

Individual evidence

  1. Banco da Providência .
  2. ^ Fifty Years of the Council (PDF; 142 k) Archdiocese of Munich and Freising . Archived from the original on July 28, 2013.
  3. Eugênio Mattos Viola: Brasil - O deserto fértil de Dom Helder  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. . Agência de Informação Frei Tito para a América Latina (Adital), January 13, 2009, accessed on February 24, 2017.@1@ 2Template: Dead Link / www.adital.com.br  
  4. ^ Rome paves the way for "red bishop" . In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 2, 2015.
  5. Quoted from: Zildo Rocha (ed.): Helder, o dom: uma vida que marcou os rumos da Igreja no Brasil , Editora Vozes 2000, ISBN 85-326-2213-5 , p. 53.
  6. Hans-Albrecht Pflästerer: Dreams Spirituality ( Memento from October 12, 2010 in the Internet Archive ).


  • Urs Eigenmann : Political Practice of Faith. Dom Hélder Câmara's path to advocate for the poor and his speeches to the rich . Edition Exodus, Freiburg (Switzerland) a. a. 1984, ISBN 3-905575-10-8 .
  • Thomas Seiterich: Camara Pessoa, Helder . In: Edmund Jacoby (ed.): Lexikon left Leitfiguren, Gutenberg Book Guild, Frankfurt am Main et al. 1988, ISBN 3-7632-3028-9 .
  • Dom Helder Camara , in: Internationales Biographisches Archiv , 02/2000 of January 3, 2000, in the Munzinger archive ( beginning of article freely available)
  • Stefan Silber: “We forego wealth forever.” Dom Helder Camara and the Catacomb Pact . In: Steins, Georg; Nauerth, Thomas (ed.): Faces of the Council. A lecture series on Vaticanum II (1962–1965) , Osnabrück 2014, pp. 139–160 ( pdf )

Web links

Commons : Hélder Câmara  - Collection of images, videos and audio files