The Christlike example of the bishop with the tattered cassock and wooden cross
Early in 2015, Rome gave the go-ahead for the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife in Brazil to open the process of beatification for Dom Helder Camara. It was about time.
If ever a man walked the path that Francis is advocating for his fellow bishops, it was Dom Helder. He was an inspiration not only to his people in Brazil but to the Church beyond the bounds of South America.
A man of deep humility, foresight and determination, his ideas gave support to Christian base communities and his innovative approach to priestly formation was groundbreaking.
Following his resignation in 1985, he was succeeded by (an appointment made by John Paul II) a man of very different attitude, Dom Cardoso Sobrinho.
Whereas Dom Helder rejected the pomp and circumstance of his rank, always wearing a tattered light brown cassock and having round his neck a simple wooden cross, his successor adopted a different stance.
I read an account of an interview with him back in the 1990s which was written up in the Tablet, where the interviewer asked Dom Helder if he was upset at the way his work was being dismantled. “He said nothing, only a tear rolled silently down his cheek,” the paper noted.
He was a humble man who questioned, who moved from the political right in his early years later to significantly embrace the politics of the poor. For this he was also criticized.
He is often remembered for this phrase: “If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist”. These words should not be forgotten for they apply to many societies across our planet today, even in the affluent West.
The “preferential option for the poor”
Helder Camara spent a period of his life living under the Brazilian military dictatorship whose political stance was opposed to so much that he stood for. But his mission continued.
His greatest achievement might well have come at the meeting CELAM (Conference of Latin American Bishops) held in 1968 in Medellin, Columbia when the “preferential option for the poor” was adopted.
How well does the public face of the faith of Pope Francis fit with that aspiration.
How fittingly does Helder Camara’s life as a pastor match the image that Francis has proposed, of a shepherd who lives with the smell of his sheep “and so brings the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized”.
When Dom Helder died in 1999 at 90 years of age his life shone as a testament to faith; it still does.
Some people we meet face-to-face on our journey in faith and we are the better for the encounter. Others we meet second-hand through their deeds and writings. We gain in a different way but still we benefit from the experience.
Following the lived example of those who follow the Lord helps us in our quest, often a lonely path, to do likewise.
May the life of the man in the tattered cassock and simple wooden cross be an example of the Christ to us all, that we may follow in his footsteps.
Chris McDonnell is a retired headteacher from England and a regular contributor to La Croix International.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International and Chris McDonnell.