Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Relevancy of Dom Helder Camara for the new generations and the Church of Francis

by Natasha Pitts (English translation by Rebel Girl)
November 21, 2014

The communion between Dom Helder Camara's life and his preaching is his greatest achievement against those who accuse him of having been a demagogue, says Professor Lucy Pina Neta, a historian at the Instituto Dom Helder Câmara (IDHEC), based in Recife, State of Pernambuco. In an interview given to Adital, she analyzes the socio-political and cultural context that permeated the actions of Dom Helder and made him a point of reference who has remained current for future generations.

According to her, Dom Helder's work has acquired greater dimensions, beyond the walls of the Catholic Church, especially through his work for the promotion of and respect for human beings. These actions made the priest leave an indelible mark in the service of others, in the defense of the fundamental rights of all, especially the lives of the needy, considered the quintessential manifestation of the presence of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel.

The historian points out that the bishop's work behind the scenes helped weave the plot that gave a new look and presence to the Catholic Church, articulating different social, political and cultural realities. Therefore, the image of the shepherd who is one with his flock in weaknesses and virtues, is what most inspires the social and pastoral actions of Dom Helder. For Lucy Pina Neta, he has made an important contribution so that today, Pope Francis can revive a more humane and authentically Christian Church model.

ADITAL: What does the figure of Dom Helder Camara represent currently, in and out of the Church? What are his most defining traits?

Lucy Pina: Don Helder is current. Although, to understand him, it's always necessary to read him in his socio-political-cultural and especially ecclesial context. This leads us to recognize how much of a visionary and prophet he was, from his early social activities until his last years. The coherence between his life and his preaching is his greatest achievement against those who accuse him of having been a demagogue. In the church, a recurring memory associated with his name is his [episcopal] collegiality, a model of democratic governance that has been rescued by the pontificate of Pope Francis.

The collegiality he upheld came from his training at Prainha Seminary [located in Fortaleza, Ceará] which he consolidated during his social and pastoral experience in all phases of his life and which acquired institutional form with the organization of the National Conference of Brazilian (Catholic) Bishops. [This evolution is obvious] if we think of the Church in Brazil and the work done during the Vatican II sessions [held between 1962 and 1965] with the Council fathers in South America, Asia, Africa and parts of Europe, when we perceive the dimension of the worldwide Catholic Church. This doesn't exhaust its representation at all, but they are clear examples of the collegiality I mentioned earlier, which I would classify as a hallmark, or rather, as the memory most persistently associated with the image of Dom Helder.

Beyond the walls of the Church, Dom Helder's work reached enormous proportions because of his commitment to the advancement of and respect for human beings -- understood as creatures created in the image and likeness of their Creator, irrespective of creed, color, race, nationality or any other sort of classification.

One aspect specifically of the training he received at Prainha Seminary, directed at the time of his studies by the Vincentian Fathers, stands out in Dom Helder -- the importance of social work.

These works produced an indelible mark in young Helder, as he himself said. "A priest doesn't exist in a vacuum. The priest only exists for the glory of God, serving others." This service is protecting human dignity, respecting their basic rights, fighting in defense of the neediest, in the love of Christ who lives in the poor, in the ever-present need to remember at all times, the living presence of Jesus.

In that sense, the memories of his work with the workers and Catholic teachers in Ceará, at the head of the Cruzada de São Sebastião and the Banco da Providência in [the State of] Rio de Janeiro, and all his efforts committed to helping the Capibaribe flood victims, the rural workers and political prisoners of Olinda and Recife [Pernambuco], are justified.

ADITAL: Could you talk to us about the importance of Dom Helder's actions during Vatican II?

LP: I don't think it would be possible to write the history of the Council without at least mentioning Dom Helder's name. Although he never spoke during the Council sessions, his work behind the scenes helped weave the plot that gave a new look to the Catholic Church. His efforts can be divided into three distinct and complementary phases: the pre-conciliar work as consultant to the Commission on Bishops and Governance of Dioceses, and in the organization of the Brazilian episcopate for the trip to Rome, providing personal documents and tickets so that the Church of Brazil might be present with as many conciliar fathers as possible.

Later during the Council, his work was labeled that of a behind the scenes coordinator. Between the conciliar sessions, Dom Helder promoted smaller meetings at the residence of the Brazilian bishops in Rome, Domus Mariae. His goal was to bring to the priests and bishops -- not just the Brazilians but all those attending these meetings -- the best elements to discuss the proposed new Church preached by John XXIII and subsequently Paul VI, corroborating the thesis that, as well as forming spirits, Dom Helder also formed minds.

It's clear that his work went beyond those meetings. He wove -- not alone -- a web of relationships that enabled the Bishops' Conferences of the five continents put their problems on the table and be able to build their solutions together. This is a subject that, of course, is not exhausted in these words...But in general, I think of these two traits -- collegiality and the ability to link different social, political and cultural realities.

ADITAL: What was the influence of the Pact of the Catacombs on his religious and pastoral life?

LP: The Pact [a document drafted and signed by 40 bishops participating in Vatican II on November 16, 1965, shortly before the end of the Council, which contained 13 items, with the signatories committing themselves to lead a life of poverty, reject all symbols and privileges of power, and put the poor at the center of their pastoral ministry, among other things] was translated into Dom Helder's life experience. In sum, the document speaks of the need for a poor and servant Church, starting with its bishops who should renounce the title of "Princes of the Church" and, as such, everything it represents -- palaces, official cars, bank accounts, to name the most frequent examples.

Therefore, the first image that comes to mind when we think of Dom Helder is a thin bishop, in a beige cassock, with a simple cross hanging on his chest. That brought him close to his flock; in him, the figure of church administrator is overshadowed by the increasingly apparent figure of a pastor who is one with his sheep in their weaknesses and strengths.

Another distinctive characteristic of this experience is how we call him "Dom". Like that, simply. He was once asked why people called him that. He replied that someone had whispered to us that "Dom" was an act of kindness, a gift from God, and that he was our gift. Maybe he was right. In the dark years of repression, he really was that light, that gift to the Church of Brazil.

If we think about it from the pastoral-social point of view, we fall into a broad field. Dom Helder, when proposing land reform to governments and even to the segments of the Church, didn't do it just to use a theme that was becoming popular, but as someone who had already experienced the practical achievements, having done so himself, whether with land of the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife, or allocating money from awards he had received worldwide for the purchase of agricultural areas, relatively close to the cities, and distributing them among the farmworkers. The Pact [of the Catacombs] became a sort of second rule of life!

ADITAL: How did Dom Helder relate to liberation theology?

LP: Honestly, I can't see Dom Helder as a liberation theologian. But I acknowledge that, yes, there are aspects of the model of Church that he lived out, wanted, and about which he wrote, that permeate liberation theology. But I couldn't tell you more on the subject.

ADITAL: Why is Helder's spirituality alive, meaningful and current today?

LP: There are two types of memories about Dom Helder -- an emotional one, generally associated with the group of people who lived with or close to him, which reinforces the nostalgia for the good shepherd, for his humanized sort of Church experience. This type of memory is important. It makes the generations that didn't live physically with him be interested and seek him.

Roughly speaking, it's as they did great word of mouth publicity for the best experience they'd ever had and therefore, curiosity arises and hence the always recurring interest in Dom Helder. The other memory comes precisely from this group that has drawn near because they've "heard about him" and has found consistency between the memories, the documentation and the life of Dom Helder.

His greatest asset for keeping current is that he was real, he was true, his sins were confessed, or rather assumed, his weaknesses were human, his love for the Church was translated into a love that sees Christ in one's brother. So his spirituality doesn't "fall out of fashion".

ADITAL: Is the arrival of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, to occupy the so-called "Chair of Saint Peter" a boost to the recovery and strengthening of the ideas espoused by Dom Helder?

LP: Personally, I have high hopes! I think Francis, in his own way and in time, has shown that it is possible to revive, in part, the Church model that Dom Helder lived out in the second half of the last century. I'm glad for my generation, that packed Copacabana Beach [in Rio] to hear the words of the Holy Father, that is inspired by Francis for a poorer, more servant, more humane and warmer Church. I hope he lives for many years to be able to make the possible changes within the Church.

ADITAL: Is the book Novas Utopias, dictated by the spirit of Dom Helder and channeled by the medium Carlos Pereira, of the Sociedade Espírita Ermance Dufaux, in Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais) considered a work of the priest?

LP: For fans of Spiritualist doctrine and by the Asociación Brasileña de Normas Técnicas - ABNT.

ADITAL: Some historians and journalists have described Dom Helder not just as a popular figure but as an exhibitionist who liked being in front of the camera lens, as well as having amazing vanity. Where does that come from?

LP: Perhaps I'm not the one to answer that last question since I don't see Dom Helder that way. What I can say is that the censorship in the media caused him a lot of grief, that the misleading news articles hurt him and that not being able to answer them made him suffer. Despite that phase, his relationship with the media was respectful. He always knew the range of a microphone and a camera. So, when using them, he was very careful. But vanity is part of our human condition and some things they'd say about him, if they weren't true, he'd take them as anecdotes to teach something.