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Brazilian Dialogue

Helder Camara

Ivan Illich granted David Cayley a book-length interview in 1987, now published as Ivan Illich in Conversation. Cayley had just completed a three-hour series on Illich for CBC's Ideas.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere in the course of this marathon interview, the subject of Helder Camara surfaced. Cayley had just asked, "Is your counsel really to live in the dark?" Illich replied, "No. Carry a candle in the dark, be a candle in the dark, know that you're a flame in the dark. I always think of Helder Camara." Illich then described Helder: " . . . a defeathered bird, a tiny little guy, almost completely bald, without flesh, skin and bones, with a deeply lined face, radiating goodness, a childlike wizard -- now, how did I get to Helder Camara?" "A candle in the dark," Cayley reminded him.

Illich then described a meeting in Rome that Dom Helder had with a general of the Brazilian junta. Dom Helder had asked Illich to sit in on the meeting. This general was a founding member of the right-wing Pro Familia in Brazil, and later became one of the cruelest of torturers. After the meeting Dom Helder flopped down in a chair, beside Illich. Complete silence. Then he said, "You must never give up. As long as a person is alive, somewhere beneath the ashes there is a little bit of remaining fire and all our task is . . . to blow very carefully, to blow and blow. It may light up." Years later, Illich visited Dom Helder in Recife. Helder had given up his palacio to live in a humble home in a poor district and Illich was surprised at the many beggars who knocked on his door knowing the archbishop would give them whatever coins he had. One of his priests, a close collaborator, had already been delivered dead on his doorstep, with signs of terrible torture. "What's with all these horribly deformed cripples?" Illich asked his host. Dom Helder's response: "They're prisoners they let go from various prisons, all dumped here at my door. Two have already told me, 'Sooner or later I will not be satisfied with what you give me, and I'll kill you.' "But," he concluded, "God is great."

In a Brazilian Dialogue of some months ago, I related an episode in which one of these beggars confessed to Dom Helder that he had come to kill and rob him, but in the end couldn't do it. Illich returned to the question about living in darkness. "It's difficult to tell modern people, young people, that they shouldn't be afraid of being a little candle. People are used to electric bulbs and switches. The metaphor of light doesn't work without darkness." Dom Helder! Wherever one turns in one's reading, his name comes up, a name blotted out by Brazil's media during most of the military dictatorship 1964-1985, and now "a name to conjure with."

Al Gerwing