Recife, capital of Brazil's parched and impoverished Northeast, is a sizzling time fuse of a city. Its population of 900,000 has doubled in the past 15 years; more than 500,000 of its inhabitants live and starve in slums on stilts called mucambos. Who speaks for Catholicism in Recife is vitally important to the church in Brazil. Now, to be Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Pope Paul VI has picked a spunky little churchman who has never had a diocese or even a parish of his own. Overjoyed at being handed one of the toughest, most critical jobs in Catholicism is Helder Pessôa Câmara, 55, Auxiliary Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro since 1954.
Câmara is known from Rome to Rio as the most outspoken figure in the Brazilian church. At a recent Vatican Council session, he seriously suggested that his fellow bishops toss their jeweled episcopal rings, mitres and other symbols of office away. Just before returning to Brazil, Câmara candidly told Pope Paul that he should get rid of the sedia gestatoria (portable papal throne) and the flabella, the white ostrich feather fans carried beside it. Camara identifies with new-wave Catholic leaders, says: "The church must join the battle for development and social justice so that later people will not say the church deserted them in their hour of need because it was compromised by big business. If that happens, the church will suffer the consequences."
The 5-ft. 4-in., 120-lb. Câmara goes about his business as if transistorized. Eyes, arms, legs and mind are always in a flurry of motion. While Auxiliary Archbishop of Rio, he consistently upstaged the doughty Archbishop, Cardinal Jaime de Barros Câmara (no kin). Helder Câmara's charity bazaars have been social occasions for Brazil's jet set, and always immensely profitable. In public relations he was a pro: "What is not used in the house of the wealthy is wealth in the house of the poor." When Pope Paul (then Giovanni Battista Montini) visited Brazil in 1960, it was Helder Câmara who took him to visit the poor. When the cardinal took to television to denounce the Communist threat in Brazil, Helder Câmara came on the screen the next week to say that he believed the nation's biggest problem was misery, "which is the ideal garden for Communism to grow in."
Of his new job Helder Câmara says:
"Recife is the key post. The Northeast is in a state of prerevolution." Brazil's leading liberal Catholic intellectual, Alceu Amoroso Lima finds Helder Câmara to be "the right man for the right place. He is earmarked to become a cardinal. He can no longer be considered a purely Brazilian church personality."