The great Brazilian bishop, Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), mystic and prophet of our time, declared himself deeply captivated by Saint Vincent de Paul and found in our founder a brilliant inspiration for his deep love for the poorest. Let is consider some details of his relationship with Saint Vincent.
At around six years of age, Helder Camara became an aspirant of the Vincentian Conference, coming into contact, for the first time, with the spirituality of Saint Vincent de Paul and with stories of the poor, including people who had lost almost everything in the great drought of 1915. His first mission was to visit three needy families in the town of Escalada. In the seminary of Prainha (Fortaleza-CE), he received the careful training offered by the then Vincentian Fathers, who constantly recalled Saint Vincent’s examples and thoughts.
During the time he dedicated himself to the “Saint Sebastian Crusade” in Rio de Janeiro, Dom Helder was called, “Saint Vincent de Paul of the favelas,” because he had organized a great charitable campaign in favor of the poor, offering them the possibility of a decent house, work, school, and space for leisure and prayer. Influential people collaborated with generosity for the welfare works of the “Saint Sebastian Crusade.” Increasingly, Dom Helder perceived that the poverty of Latin America did not originate in natural scarcity, nor in the incapacity of the poor, but in the injustice established and accepted as natural. He then began to say that, if Saint Vincent were alive today, he would be an “apostle of justice” and that the best way to honor him was to do what he would do. In his time, Vincent did what his conscience and his love for the poor dictated, “but, I am convinced that, if he lived today, the apostle of charity would seek to do justice.”
Dom Helder used to converse with the “beloved model and teacher” in his nocturnal prayer vigils. He told him, for example, how difficult it was to help good, Christian people overcome prejudices against the poor: “There is no longer room for the poor in the places planned for them. I dealt a coup d’état: I converted one of the two halls of honor of the episcopal palace intoa waiting room, with throne and all. There was a shudder: ‘The carpet is going to be useless!’ However, between a carpet and a child of God, I do not hesitate. You are watching, Saint Vincent! … It is not that they are not and they wish to be sincerely Christian. It is the formation they received ….”
Dom Helder had to make a great effort to convince his collaborators that having a car to serve the archbishop was a great injustice. He was glad to see his car transformed into an ambulance to serve the poor or to transport the servants of the poor. On that, he commented to his closest friends, “Of course, everything uproots us and uproots ever more our egoism and gentrification. How we are the affluent, without knowing, without feeling, without wanting … It is well that we feel mediocre, small, far from the saints. However, when one is in the Northeast, it seems an imposition of Grace, a demand of the Spirit to reach madness, easy to denounce as demagogy. However, in truth, our brothers without faith have the right to demand Christian witness from us … Do not fear: God protects me and will protect me against bitterness and any shadow of indifference. Nevertheless, I cannot stop Christ weeping over Recife and the whole sugar zone, and all the rural areas of Latin America, and the entire Third World … Saint Vincent, in our days, would struggle for development. This is the broadest and most courageous way to love our neighbor in our century. To love until death … of understanding, of fame, of applause.”
Throughout his life, Dom Helder was inspired by Saint Vincent, seeking to bring up-to-date the spirituality of the Saint of Charity and Mission to the Latin American context, victim of underdevelopment and oppression, resulting from both internal and external colonization. For this reason, he said, “I love the poor and God gave me the grace to see Christ in them. In this sense, I seek to be a faithful servant of Saint Vincent de Paul. I work with all my might to eradicate poverty from the world.” Without ever abandoning aid to the poor, Dom Helder also struggled to overcome the structural causes that generate and maintain two-thirds of humanity in poverty and destitution. As he had done in Rio de Janeiro, he established the Providence Bank also in Recife. It functioned in the palace destined as the archbishop’s residence. He also founded Operation Hope, the Justice and Peace Commission, Meeting of Brothers, and other social promotion works.
Dom Helder claimed to have wanted to belong to the Congregation of the Mission. Although he did not do so officially, his heart and his conduct were always deeply Vincentian. Years later, to express its admiration and esteem to the former student, the Congregation gave him the title of Affiliate, with the right to its spiritual goods. Upon receiving this title from the then Superior General, on 8 April 1987, Dom Helder happily said to one of his closest collaborators: “Now, yes, I am a Vincentian.”
I conclude with a fragment of a radio message from Dom Helder, who took to the airwaves on the Solemnity of Saint Vincent, 27 September 1975: “God granted Saint Vincent de Paul antennas to capture all the great suffering of his century. What suffering existed in his time and in his France without him perceiving it? The Lord gave him the grace to discover for each suffering the adequate providence (…) How many times have I ask myself, ‘What would dear Saint Vincent do if he returned to earth in our day?’ Of course, he would have discovered already that poverty today affects not only individuals and families. He would see the scandal of many countries, of entire continents, more than in a state of poverty, in a state of misery. With his prudent regard, he would discover that, if there are ever richer countries and many countries ever poorer, at the root of this growing divide, are unbelievable injustices. Saint Vincent would denounce the injustices, whatever the consequences (…). May the Divine Spirit inspire all of us in the presence of poverty, so that we may be at least a shadow of the shadow of the great and beloved Saint Vincent.”
Let this text be a fraternal tribute to Father Jan Pubben, CM, a missionary in Recife for a number of years, faithful and close friend of Dom Helder Camara, until the last minute of his life. Nowadays he is back in his Dutch homeland.
Vinícius Augusto Teixeira, CM