Simple friar and man of dialogueRobert Mickens
- 4 November 2006
I always knew that I would return from the Vatican as Archbishop of São Paulo, and not as Pope." That's what Cardinal Cláudio Hummes OFM, the man many tipped as Brazil's most obvious recent candidate for the papacy, said when he arrived home in April 2005 from the last conclave. The 72-year-old archbishop probably never imagined that only a year and a half later he would be heading back to the Vatican, this time to be prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. But Pope Benedict XVI this week asked "Dom Cláudio", as the Franciscan is commonly known, to bring his more than 30 years of pastoral experience as a diocesan bishop to the Church's bureaucratic headquarters.
Some have caricatured the cardinal; others have mythologised him. The appointment on 31 October sparked curiosity among many people as well as generating a flood of news stories. Some conservatives immediately cited Cardinal Hummes' longstanding friendship with Brazil's leftist President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as proof that he is a closet Marxist in prelate's clothing. But on the other side of the church "divide", activist Catholics involved in social justice issues shook their heads in disagreement. They believe the new prefect is a man who has steadily become more conservative in direct relation to his metamorphosis from simple Franciscan friar to cardinal archbishop in the biggest diocese of the world's largest Catholic country.
Both portraits, it seems, are in some ways correct, yet neither adequately captures the essence of Dom Cláudio. And neither gives a clue as to why the 79-year-old Pope Benedict gave him one of the top jobs in the Vatican.
Auri Alfonso Hummes (he took the name Cláudio when he made profession as a Franciscan) was born on 8 August 1934 in the village of Batinga Sul in the Archdiocese of Porto Alegre. A third-generation Brazilian of German ancestry, he was the third of what eventually would be 13 children.
He joined the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor in his teens and, after preliminary studies in Brazil, was ordained a priest in 1958, just a few days before his twenty-fourth birthday. He was sent to Rome to study for a doctorate in philosophy at his order's university, the Antonianum. And when he became a cardinal in 2001, Pope John Paul II designated the parish connected to the institute, St Anthony of Padua, as his titular church.
The young Dom Cláudio spent a year - 1968 - in Geneva, where he studied ecumenism, before returning to Brazil to teach. He quickly rose to leadership in his order, becoming Provincial Superior in 1972. But the experience was short-lived. In 1975 Pope Paul VI appointed him Bishop of Santo André, an industrial city on the outskirts of São Paulo.
It was there that the myth of Cláudio the "labour bishop" was born. As Brazil's military dictatorship and factory workers clashed, the new Bishop Hummes allowed the labour unions to meet in parishes throughout his diocese. It was here that he forged his friendship with the union boss at the time, the man known simply as Lula.
But as the young bishop matured he began distancing himself from the radical - and certainly Marxist - elements in Lula's leftist labour movement. Still, Bishop Hummes remained outspoken in defence of the poor and especially the landless. However, he strenuously opposed the forceful taking of land, even though he continued to demand justice for those who had no homes.
In 1996, after 21 years in Santo André, the now 61-year-old bishop was sent to the Archdiocese of Fortaleza to take over from the hugely popular Cardinal Aloísio Lorscheider OFM. His Franciscan confrère had been archbishop there for 20 years and the move was unpopular. But Dom Cláudio was able to make the transition without great controversy and - despite some early opposition by a group of priests - he distinguished himself as a man willing to engage in dialogue with all groups and people. Yet, like his time as Provincial Superior of the Franciscans, his tenure in Fortaleza was to be brief. Only two years later he was transferred to São Paolo to take over from yet another immensely revered and loved Franciscan, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns OFM.
Vatican officials who are familiar with Cardinal Hummes note that he has remained a "simple friar" at heart. He is considered "loyal" to the Vatican line on all major moral and ethical questions, yet he has been characteristically "non-doctrinaire", as one official said. "He is extremely discreet, soft-spoken, and someone who shuns the spotlight," said one Brazilian priest who lives in Rome. Even though the cardinal is considered a "youngish" 72-year-old, he said, his age shows that "the Pope is forming a transitional government". In fact, Pope Benedict has chosen men who are all over 70 (Cardinals Levada, Dias, and Bertone) for the few top Roman Curia jobs he has handed out up to now.
One veteran official in the Curia added that the Pope had chosen Cardinal Hummes just as he has chosen others: "to repay those who supported him in the conclave". The claim is impossible to substantiate, but it is not implausible. Pope Benedict XVI would not have been elected without support from the Latin American cardinals and, as one of the leading candidates from the region, Cardinal Hummes would have had a "packet of votes" that he could have directed towards the man who was chosen.
As prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy the cardinal will be spared the burden of dealing with clerical sexual abuse cases, since those are now handled exclusively in Rome at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But his office does handle requests for dispensation from active priestly ministry, as well as the legislation governing presbyteral councils and other organisations of priests around the world.
Cardinal Hummes arrives as vocations to the priesthood continue to plummet in the Western world. At last year's bishops' synod on the Eucharist he said this was a problem even in Brazil. "For every Catholic priest," he mused, "we have two Protestant ministers, mostly evangelicals."
While Brazilian churchmen such as Cardinals Lorscheider and Arns have spoken about the need to at least discuss the possibility of ordaining married men as priests, Cardinal Hummes has been reticent on the point. But he is not opposed to dialogue. Quite the contrary.
"The cardinal is very open to everyone," said a Brazilian priest who teaches in Rome. "He truly believes in dialogue, a so-called ‘servant Church of the poor', and one that is not overbearing," he said. He noted that, even though it is not Cardinal Hummes' "cup of tea", as it were, he initiated the usage of the Tridentine Mass in São Paulo, solely because a group of people in the archdiocese asked for it.
"My father, who died at the age of 94, always knew Cláudio would go far," one of the cardinal's younger brothers, Arthemio, told a Brazilian newspaper when Hummes was being talked about as a candidate for pope at the last Conclave. "He used to say that Cláudio would reach the last rung of the Church's ladder and serve as an example to the rest of the world."
Some people are wondering whether Cardinal Hummes' appointment to head a major office in the Roman Curia will be only a temporary stop on the penultimate rung of that ladder. The experience would round out his credentials. If so, Pope Benedict XVI will have had a hand - wittingly or not - in fulfilling a Brazilian father's prophecy.