Fr. João Batista Libânio – Dom Helder: Messenger of Hope (1999)

Fr. João Batista Libânio
Dom Helder Camara (1981)

[Fr. João Batista Libânio (1932-2014) was a Brazilian priest and (liberation) theologian. This sermon was originally published in LIBÂNIO, João Batista. Um Outro Olhar: Coletânea de Homilias de J. B. Libanio, S. J. under DOM HELDER: O MENSAGEIRO DA ESPERANÇA. This sermon was given on 28.08.99.]

Yesterday one of the brightest lights in our Brazilian Church went out. Dom Helder Câmara passed away in Recife. I am going to ask Jesus for permission to talk about it instead of commenting the Gospel, because many of you are young and do not remember.

DoM Helder was one of the most lucid minds in this country, and also one of the bravest during the darkest moments of repression. Just to give you an insight: he was a slender, frail, thin, northeasterner, underdeveloped man from Ceará. And the military government, with troops, cannons, tanks, awards, feared this man. So much so that, secretly, there was a decree, which later became public, that his name could not be cited in any newspaper in the country, on any television channel. They decreed, in what they called at that time, his Civil death, so great was their fear of this flimsy man. Small, but with the courage to cross oceans. He was perhaps the most famous Brazilian abroad. When he would go to Paris, to the United States, the auditoriums would fill up to hear that little person. He had courage, he had clarity of vision, and he loved the country, the Brazilian people. He loved the world, he loved humanity.

He showed us hope, awakened the conscience of this people, so that he could open their eyes to greater horizons. He never lost hope, never lost optimism, not even in the most difficult moments. His secretary was violently assassinated by the military forces. Investigators arrived, telling him they would investigate who the murderer was. He replied, “You don’t need to investigate. Look amongst yourselves!” He wasn’t afraid of anyone, he confronted everyone. They set many traps for him. A girl once came to talk to him. She was a spy from the military government. He looks at her and says, “My child, how sad! You, fulfilling this role. You, such a beautiful person, so young, wanting to betray your friends.” He was a man of clarity, of total transparency, with enormous courage.

He was a candidate for the Nobel Prize and did not receive it because our government pressured the jury in Sweden not to vote for him. Nobel Prizes involve politics too. Thousands and thousands of letters came to Sweden asking them to award him the Nobel Peace Prize. But in order not to face the Brazilian military government, they created a special prize for him. He received all the money, which was a lot, did a small reform in the parish house, bought a big farm and divided it among the squatters. He didn’t get a single penny.

When he was Archbishop of Recife, he left the Episcopal Palace and went to live in the sacristy of a church. He had no house to live in. I knew his little room, next to a church. And he was the Archbishop of Recife! He had no driver, no car, no security. He took to the streets by bus. He was a man who became known all over the world, for his charity, for his greatness. It’s good that we keep this memory, because we had a great man in this country.

Every time we look at our politicians, who are so corrupt, lost in so much shamelessness, it is good to know that Brazil—Ceará, of the suffering Northeast—had the glory of generating the courage, the greatness of this man. Ninety years old. He died in his old age, but in his splendour.

BRAZIL – JULY 07: John-Paul II with Helder Camara in Recife, Brazil on July 7, 1980. (Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

When John Paul II first came to Brazil in 1980—at that time he was very lucid and strong—he stood up, hugged him and said: “My friend Helder!” He was a man who really lived the world, in the midst of the people. He wanted to identify himself with Jesus, leaving all the glories, all the pageantry. He did not wear any insignia.

I had the immense joy of preaching a retirement for him. Once he invited me to Recife. I was sleeping in the room next to his and I realized something. During the night, his alarm went off five or six times. Then I learned that he would get up several times during the night to pray. He was a mystic. He prayed at night because his day was taken up by other activities. He spent most of the nights in prayer. He had little sleep because he lived more from the Spirit.

And now, at the age of ninety, a little before he died, a group of friends wrote a book about him which has just come out. I myself had the joy of being part of it. It still gave him time to see friends from all over the world paying him this homage. To show that the world was grateful to this great person, with whom we had the happiness of living together.

Let us thank God for the existence of this man, for living, especially in those difficult times. When Recife was all surrounded by the Army, he faced and defended the political prisoners, he would go to the police stations to pull out the people who were being tortured. He was not afraid of anything. Neither machine-gun, nor cannon! But nobody had the courage to touch him either, because they knew they were touching a saint. And people—as bad as they are, as criminal as they are—tremble when they find a saint.

A saint is such a rare thing that when you get close to him, you feel something different. A lot of people came from outside, from other countries, just to see him, nothing more. They came, looked and said: “I have found a saint, I have found someone who is great. I saw the look of someone who crosses horizons!” He thought a thousand years ahead. He couldn’t fit in with pettiness. Using the image of Leonardo Boff, he was an eagle. And how often are we just little hens, scratching on our yards?! He was an eagle and his wings stretched open to brigadier skies.

To know that the Church of Brazil, to know that Brazil generated and housed this man, is a joy. Let us pray to him rather than for him. Amen.

[Translated by V. S. Conttren.]