Call Him A Saint, Call Him A Communist

A Brief Reflection On The Life And Times Of Archbishop Dom Helder Camara

By Greg Mashaba

One of the most critical challenges which I have faced as a contributor to Uncensored Opinion has been the quest to ensure that my articles are historically and factually correct. While I accept that a lot of readers will criticise my work from the point of view of my political orientation and analysis, I have always striven, quite often under very difficult conditions, to ensure that as much as possible my articles are devoid of historical and factual inaccuracies. Thus while I am aware that readers hold the inalianable right to criticise my work, I have dreaded the possibility of having been found to be wanting in my historical and factual argument. I dread being found to have misled future generations in my eagerness to have my work published.

It is within the context of this challenge that I felt compelled to correct a historical and factual lapse which appeared in a recently released book on the life of recently deceased Catholic priest, Fr Lawrence Macdonel SDB, entitled “Simply Larry”. (1)  In the book and banners promoting the same, a famous quotation by the late progressive-minded Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara is wrongly attributed to Fr Macdonel. The famous quotation by Archbishop Camara is:

               “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the people are hungry, they call me a communist”.

The difficulty I had while putting together this article emanates from three factors namely that;

  • I reluctantly and, under sustained request to contribute a chapter to the above-mentioned book, issued a presentation on behalf of my parents entitled “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus” (ie “Behold A Great Priest);
  • Prior to the launch of the book I drew the attention of Cde Elias to the fact that he had wrongly ascribed Archbishop Camara’s quotation to Fr Macdonel, and prevailed upon him to correct that historical and factual inaccuracy;
  • The book itself (sight of which I still have not yet had) was meant to be a collective effort by past pupils of Salesian High School, the school which had been established in Swaziland by Catholic priests of the order of the Salesians of Don Bosco, and further, that the proceeds from the sale thereof would be channelled towards the upkeep of the Salesian priests in Swaziland. Much to my disappointment, the book seems to have been issued under the auspices of Cde Elias’ foundation, namely, number43trelawneypark.org.

I wish to state from the onset the fact that I have no hard feelings towards Cde Elias. I have always regarded him not only as a comrade and friend, but over and above that, family. Our families had always maintained a close relationship in the 1970s and 1980s. His elder brother, the late Don Masilela at one point stayed with our family in Manzini. Accordingly, I remain willing to extend a helping hand to the best of my abilities whenever he seeks my assistance in his quest to document the history of our liberation struggle. I am not an expert in the history of our liberation struggle, hence the qualification that I will assist to the best of my ability to provide the few critical pieces of information which I have.

Given the fact that I have already made reference to Archbishop Helder Camara, it is perhaps prudent that I give a brief overview of his biographical background.

In summary, Helder Camara was the Catholic archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. His rise in the hierarchy of the Catholic church in Brazil coincided with the rule of the military dictatorship which seized power on the same day he was appointed Archbishop. During his apostolate he became famous as a proponent of human rights and a bitter foe of the military junta. Although there were other radical clerics in Latin America such as Gustavo Gutierezz who espoused the left-wing Catholic doctrine which would eventually be referred to as ‘liberation theology’, Camara differed from his colleagues in that he openly professed to be socialist and expressed support for the works of Karl Marx. He became reviled by the generals so much so that, having dubbed him ‘the red bishop’ because of his socialist inclination, they banned mention of his name for the duration of the reign of the dreaded generals. He was also dubbed ‘the bishop of the slums’ due to his work in promoting the cause of the poor and the dispossessed. In his quest to ease the burden placed on the poor by the system of capitalism, he established a bank, Banco de Providencia, whose primary mandate was to combat poverty and social injustice through facilitating the ease of access to loans by the impoverished sections of the population.

Helder Camara was born in Fortaleza on 7 February 1909. He had 12 siblings. At the tender age of four he expressed a strong desire to become a priest. Accordingly he gained admission to a seminary at the age of fourteen where he undertook the many years of study which all Catholic priests undergo. Consequently he was ordained a priest in 1931 at the age of twenty two. He was appointed by Pope Pius XII to be Auxiliary Bishop of Rio De Janeiro in 1952. On 1 April 1964, the day on which the generals overthrew the democratically elected leftist government of Joao Goulart, he was appointed Archbishop of Olinda and Recife.

Camara was not born a radical. In fact after his ordination, he had joined a far-right fascist organisation called “Integralisimo” which had been formed in 1932. The latter was a predominantly fascist, nationalist and Catholic organisation which was structured along para-military lines and was therefore highly regimented. It only differed from other fascist organisations in that it did not espouse racism. It is said that Camara would in later years express a sincere and profound regret for his initial poor choice of political orientation.

Having subsequently adopted a left-wing, social orientation, Camara justified his belief that the Church was obligated to take up the cause of the poor, the oppressed, the working class and the rural masses as opposed to that of capitalists:

               ‘….The Church must join the battle for development and social

               justice so that later people will not say that the Church deserted

               them in their hour of need because it was compromised by big

             business’ (2).

A gathering of left-wing bishops at the close of the Second Vatican Council (which was held between 1962 and 1965) in the chapel in the Catacombs of Domotilla near Rome, might serve to give a brief insight into the thinking of Helder Camara. At the end of the gathering, the bishops issued a document which has become known as “The Pact of The Catacombs”. The convenor of the gathering was none other than Camara. He was initially joined by Brazilian bishops Antonio Batista Fragoso of Cratens, Jose Maria Pires of Aracuai, Chilean Bishop Manuel Larrain Errazuriz, Marcus Gregorio McGrath of Panama and Leonidas Proano of Ecuador. In their document the bishops pledged that :

“ We renounce forever the appearance and substance of wealth, especially in clothing …..and symbols made of precious metals.

“We will do everything possible so that those responsible for our governments and our public services establish and enforce the laws, social structures and institutions that are necessary for justice, equality, and the integral, harmonious development of the whole person and of all persons and thus for the advent of a new social order, worthy of the children of God

“Since the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme and evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery, we commit ourselves :

  • to support as far as possible the most urgent of the espicopacies (ie bishops conferences ) of the poor nations, and
  • to request jointly , at the level of international organisations , the adoption of economic and cultural structures which , instead of producing poor nations in an ever richer world , make it possible for the poor majorities to free themselves from wretchedness….

“In our communications and social relations we will avoid everything that may appear as a concession of privilege , prominence , or even of preference to the wealthy and powerful ( for example , in religious services or by way of banquet invitations offered or accepted ).

Likewise, we will avoid favouring or fostering the vanity of anyone at the moment of seeking or acknowledging aid or for any other reason. We will invite our faithful to consider their donations as a normal way of participating in worship , in the apostolate and in social action “ (3) . I have intentionally put the paragraphs in an different order from that followed in the original document for purposes of impact and emphasis of what I consider to be the most critical components of the bishops declaration .

The document was originally signed by 42 bishops. However as news of its existence spread, more and more bishops signed it. The total number of signatories eventually stood at 500. Only one north American bishop signed, namely Bishop Gerard-Marie Coderre of Saint Jean de Quebec, Canada.

The then Auxiliary Bishop of Bologna, Luizi Bettazzi is of the opinion that Pope Paul VI, being sensitive of the Pact’s implicit attack on capitalism which happened within the context of the Cold War, was uneasy about being seen to endorse it. Accordingly it soon became ‘lost’ and ‘forgotten’ within the context of the universal Catholic church, except in Latin America.(4). It was on that continent that the Pact of The Catacombs instilled inspiration and eventually became an essential aspect of what would eventually be referred to as ‘theology of liberation’. Reflecting on the life of Camara following his death, the Irish Times stated with regard to ‘liberation theology’:

              “Liberation theology challenged inequality and human rights abuses

                 in the name of gospel values and urged the poor not to wait until

                 the afterlife to free themselves from misery” (5) .

                                                                                                                                   Camara was very hostile to capitalism and imperialism. His views on capitalism are contained in a number of his writings, especially the famous book, “The Violence of a Peacemaker “ which was published in 1970. Given my lack of resources, in presenting some of his views on the this particular subject, I have had to rely on Keith Michael Estrada’s article, ‘Dom Helder Camara on Capitalism’ (6 ) in respect of bibliographical support and for the quotations which follows hereunder:

         “ I am not convinced that capitalism or neo-capitalism represents

               anything good for us in Latin America….

              The United States is a living demonstration of the internal contradictions

               of the capitalist regime…The USA manages to arouse fractricidal conflicts

               between whites and blacks, within the context of anti-communism, but

               in fact out of a thirst for prestige and expansion of its sphere of influence.

               It conducts the most shameful war the world has ever known. “

( Nb. The war being referred to herein being the long-drawn out US military intervention in Vietnam).

Although he rejected the Soviet model of socialism , Camara was nonetheless attracted to the works of Karl Marx :

               “ I think we might profit by the Marxist analytical method which

is still viable today…Why not demand , for the Christian , the

free use of the word socialism? ….Socialism can designate a

regime that is at the service of the community and the individual” (7 ) .

Given the vicious nature of the right-wing military regimes which , under sponsorship of the United States , plagued Latin America between the 1960s and 1980s , Camara also felt compelled to state his views regarding the right of the oppressed, including Christians , to wage armed struggle in their quest for national liberation:

                    “I respect a lot of priests with rifles on their shoulders. I never said

                     that to use weapons against an oppressor is immoral or anti-Christian.

                    But that is not my choice, not my road , not my way to apply the

                     Gospels. “ (8 ) .

Camara’s left-wing views and his opposition to the brutal rule of the Brazilian generals would inevitably place him in the cross-hairs of right-wing death squads. One of his closest friends, Fr Antonio Henrique Pereira, a Catholic priest was assassinated by gunmen suspected of having been recruited by the military junta (9 ). As concerns for his safety grew, Camara is said to have once claimed that he did not fear the death squads because he was protected by three people namely “..the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit “. John Dear writing in the National Catholic Reporter illustrates the calm demeanour of Camara even in the face of death: he once apparently opened his front-door to find an assassin pointing a firearm at him. “I have come to assassinate you Dom Helder!”, shouted the assassin, upon which his intended victim calmly responded, “Then you will send me straight to the Lord”. The assassin, apparently confused and derailed by that response lowered his gun, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, retreated and conceded; “I cant kill you! You belong to God!” (10) .

Apart from his tireless work in the cause of human rights and internationalism, Camara was a tireless writer. He authored over twenty four books, the most famous of which was ‘The Spiral of Violence”. I am of the view that our bishops, priests, and the faithful people of God would derive a lot of intellectual and spiritual benefit if they were to take time to acquire and peruse the writings of Helder Camara at length.

The situation in our own country, wherein we have, 25 years after the advent of formal democracy, one of the most unequal societies in the world, cries out for the intervention of our Helder Camaras. Regrettably, a glance of our cathedrals seems to indicate that the latter are conspicuous through their absence. Their close relationship with big business is a sad reflection of their political conservatism. Even the appointment of a radical pontiff in the Vatican, our beloved Pope Francis, a pope who was nurtured in the mould of Helder Camara, has not had the effect of swaying them to the left. Quite clearly, their graces know on which side their bread is buttered, and they love that. Consequently, in South Africa we bear witness to an anomaly wherein the shepherds, our bishops, instead of drawing capitalists into the cathedrals, it is the capitalists who draw the shepherds into the boardrooms.

Helder Camara handed in his resignation letter to Pope John II in 1985 as laid out in Canon Law as he had reached the stipulated age of 75. His successor, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, who was known to be politically conservative immediately set out to undo all of Helder Camara’s work. It is further said that Camara watched in silence as decades of his work was undone but he felt that he could not intervene.

Helder Camara died on 27 August 1999 at the age of 90. In 2015 the Congregation for Causes (which is the Vatican body which is charged with carrying out investigations for those who have been put forward as saints) granted the nihil obstat (ie clearance) for investigation on proclaiming him a saint to commence. Although this has drawn the ire of conservative clerics especially in the west, for the peoples of the South, this is a long overdue process.


  • Elias Masilela ‘Simply Larry ‘ ( NLSA ) 18 September 2018 . ISBN-10:0796101345 / ISBN-13: 978-079610134
  • Background on Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, NACLA, 25 September 2007.
  • The Pact of The Catacombs, Domitilla ,1965
  • Poggioli, Sylvia , ‘ Pope Francis’ Emphasis on Poverty Revives The Pact of The Catacombs ‘, NPR , 26 November 2015.
  • Brazils ‘red bishop’ , Helder Camara, Champion of The Poor Dies Aged 90, irishtimes.com . August 30 , 1990.
  • Keith Michael Estrada ‘ Dom Helder Camara on Capitalism ‘, Catholic Worker Inspirations. 6 January 2016.
  • Keith Michael Estrada , Ibid
  • Retrieved from socialistamorena.com.br which is written in Portuguese.

(a) ‘Priest and Civilian Murdered in Brazil’, nytimes.com 29May 1969

( b ) ‘Church Liberals Targets of Rightists in Argentina ‘, www.nytimes.com 29 May 1969.

  •        (10 ) John Dear ‘Dom Helder Camara, Presente!’, www.ncronline.org 28 April   2009.

Suggestions for further reading:

1). ’Helder Camara : From Poverty to Prophecy’ Sofia Article, (www.sofn.org.uk / printme /sofia/68helder_camara )

2.) Dom Helder Camara ‘The Spiral of Violence’( Continuum ) Ist January 1971. ISBN-0722075073 / ISBN 13: 9780722075074

3.) J.de Broucker ‘Dom Helder Camara :The Violence of A Peacemaker’,( Orbis Books ) 1970 . ASIN: B001QWZ048

4.) Helder Camara ‘The Church and Colonialism: the betrayal of the third world ‘       ( Dimension Books ) 2009 . ISBN-10:0871931850 / ISBN-13:978-0871931856

  1. Francis McDonagh ‘Dom Helder Camara: Essential Writings ‘ ( Orbis Books ) 2009 . ISBN 978-1570758232


As I was about to complete writing of this article , I acquired through Divine providence a digitized version of ‘The Spiral of Violence’. What a beautiful gift!

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