Sunday, February 8, 2009

Remembering Dom Hélder Câmara

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dom Hélder Câmara, the late archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil, and a great friend of the poor among whom he chose to live. When he was elevated to archbishop, he chose not to live in the palace that went with his position but in a small room in a nearby church. I think of this often as I walk past our bishop's luxurious residence -- a home that must be worth at least $1 million* in the local housing market, owned by a diocese that pays its administrative assistants substantially below the prevailing wage rate, when my parish cannot afford cancioneros for its Hispanic congregation, and "...mi pueblo deambula sin comida y sin trabajo..."

But, getting back to Dom Hélder: There are many stories about him, some real, some apocryphal. My favorite, and one that I hope will always inspire my ministry, tells of Dom Hélder walking with his aides and a poor laborer, dirty from a long day at work, approaches him, wanting to shake his hand. His aides discourage this, arguing that he will get dirty too. Dom Hélder replies that he can always wash his hands but that if he refuses to shake hands with the laborer, that man will never be able to recover his lost dignity. Jesus did not see the sweaty bodies and dirty clothes, only sons and daughters of God, and so should we.

Frei Betto, the Brazilian theologian, has written a special column about Dom Hélder in honor of his centenary. It was written in Portuguese; we bring it to you in English. In the column, Betto imagines Dom Hélder writing an e-mail from Heaven to those of us still struggling on Earth.

Message from Dom Hélder Câmara

To: Friends

Beloved: Had I been among you on February 7th, I would have commemorated 100 years of age. However the good God wished to bring me early to the glory of sharing His beatific vision. Moreover, Heaven is nothing like the idyllic image we make of it on Earth. No angelic harpists or pink clouds, though the music of Bach is heard a lot.

To enter the intimacy of the three divine Persons is to live in a permanent state of passion. Surrounded by so much love, the heart experiences an indescribable happiness.

Incidentally, the other day, Buddha, who is a neighbor of mine, told me this parable that reflects the path of happiness well: At a fair in India, among the remains of fruits and vegetables, a woman was staring at the floor a long time. They saw she was looking for something. One after another they asked her what she was looking for. "A needle." They did not give it much importance. But when she added that it was a gold needle, the number of those helping in the search multiplied.

Suddenly, one of them asked: "Does the lady have any idea on which side of the fair she lost it?" "It wasn't here at the fair", the woman answered. "I lost it in my house." They all became indignant when they heard this. "In the house? And you went looking for it outside?" The woman looked at them and replied: "Yes, just as you look for happiness in external things, even knowing that it is in the inner life."

Heaven is sweet, but that does not prevent us from experiencing indignation. Did Jesus not make hungering and thirsting for justice one of the Beatitudes? When I look out from here on the Catholic Church I confess that I feel, not frustration, but a touch of sadness. Pope Benedict XVI does not transmit joy and hope. He lacks the prophetic nature of John XXIII and the empathy of John Paul II.

Singing priests attract more disciples than those who are dedicated to the poor, to the landless farmers, the street children, the drug addicts. The "show Masses" in the churches are overcrowded, while in the seminaries the teaching of philosophy and theology tends to be superficial.

Prayer life is never stimulated; many seek the priesthood to gain social prestige and sometimes moralism predominates over tolerance, triumphalism wins out over the ecumenical spirit. How long will homosexuals be discriminated against by those who consider themselves diciples of Jesus?

I am pleased, however, to know that the Basic Ecclesial Communities are alive and are preparing to hold their 12th inter-church meeting in Rondônia next July. I thank God to see that CEBI -- the Center for Biblical Studies -- has more than 100 thousand centers throughout Brazil, formed by poor people interested in reading the Bible from a liberation perspective.

I am concerned, however, about the disagreement between the Boff brothers. Both Leonardo and Clodovis are theologians with solid training. I do not believe that Clodovis' accusation that liberation theology has prioritized the poor over Christ is justified. The Gospel shows us that Christ himself identified with the poor, as in the metaphor of salvation in Matthew 25:31-46.

Francis of Assisi, with whom I have enjoyed some good chats, reminds us that without any reference to the poor -- the living sacrament of God -- Christ is in danger of becoming a merely devotional concept legitimizing a clericalism that has nothing evangelical or prophetic about it.

I said to Peter that I dream of a Church where celibacy is optional for priests and women can celebrate Mass. A Church free from the moorings of capitalism, in which the oppressed feel at home, encouraged in the search for justice and peace.

As for the world, I regret that hunger, the eradication of which I fought for so hard, still continues, threatening the lives of 950 million people and causing the death of about 23 thousand people per day, mostly children.

Why so much money spent on ways to mow down lives, such as weapons, and investments that degrade the environment such as pesticides, irresponsible deforestation and transgenic crops? Why so few resources to make food -- the gift of God -- accessible on the tables of all people?

In celebrating my centennial, remember the principles and objectives that have guided my life. Despite slander and persecution, I lived 91 happy years, because I never forgot what my father told me when I informed him of my choice of the priestly life: "Son, priesthood and selfishness cannot go together."

Frei Betto is a writer and adviser to the social movement, co-author with Leonardo Boff of "Mysticism and Spirituality", among other books.

* Actually the bishop's house is currently assessed at $1,644,200.

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