13 February 2017, The Tablet

History of Recife’s palace strikes a chord with Catholics in north-eastern corner of Brazil

Francis McDonagh from Recife, Brazil 

Manguinhos Palace is an elegant 19th-century mansion just outside the centre of Recife, in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, that was once the residence of the archbishops of Olinda and Recife.  Once, because when Hélder Câmara became archbishop in 1964, he went to live in a set of rooms behind a small church a few miles away, as a symbol of the austerity he intended for his ministry.  When the Vatican appointed a conservative bishop, José Cardoso Sobrinho, to replace Hélder (as everyone calls him here), the Palace once again became the archbishop’s residence.  

What happens to the Palace is therefore significant to Catholics here, especially those who think Hélder’s legacy is worth preserving.  Recently there have been two “vigils of hope” to reclaim the Palace, organised by the local Forum of Lay Christians, the sort of groups that flourished under Dom Hélder.  The one I attended last week also commemorated what would have been Hélder’s 108th birthday.  Several hundred people gathered in the courtyard of the Palace to recommit themselves to Hélder’s vision of “a poor Church for the poor” and an “outgoing Church”, which were regarded as so subversive by Pope St John Paul II that all mention of them was banned in this diocese.  

The remarkable similarity between Pope Francis’ view of the Church and that of Dom Hélder was one of the points made at the vigil.  Visitors were welcomed by a giant puppet of Dom Hélder, in the style of Olinda’s carnival puppets, but the Dom Hélder puppet, I was firmly told, does not take part in carnival.

There was a roll call of the movements present, which gives an idea of the scope of what Hélder started.  There were movements connected with work, such as the Domestic Workers Union, Women Against Unemployment, the Christian Workers Movement, groups that sought to develop the link between faith and life such as the Church Base Communities, the Dom Hélder Câmara Faith and Politics Group, Vision and Revolution, the Centre for Biblical Studies and the Jesuits’ Humanitas Institute, based at the Catholic University.

And the bishop came. He doesn’t live in the Palace either, which is why he was late after battling through Recife’s rush hour.  Bishop Fernando Saburido, who is from Recife, said how proud he was to have been ordained as a priest by Hélder, and that he prayed to Dom Hélder.   Fernando has started the canonisation process in the diocese – how times have changed!  This is not the message you get in most churches in Recife on a Sunday, but Hélder talked of “Abrahamic minorities”, small groups whose faith can move mountains, and I met one here last week.

The Lay Forum is insistent that it isn’t backward-looking, but wants to promote action on current issues in Brazil. The one they have chosen first is the Government’s pension reform, which they say will make manual workers have to work as long as office workers before they can draw a pension.

Car wash corruption
The “car-wash” corruption scandal, involving mass embezzlement at the state oil company Petrobras, that has done so much damage to the Workers Party of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, is now lapping around the feet of the government that replaced Rousseff’s after her impeachment last year. President Michel Temer (Rousseff’s vice-president) wants to appoint his minister of justice and long-time political ally, Alexandre Moraes, to the Supreme Court.  Moraes was in charge of the prison system during the January massacres, and has been heavily criticised for inefficiency or brutality in previous ministerial posts.  His appointment has to be confirmed by the Senate’s Constitution and Justice Commission, 10 of whose members, including the chair, face corruption allegations in the “car-wash” affair.  “Foxes in charge of the chicken coup” was the verdict of a senior commentator last week on TV Globo, a broadcaster generally regarded as conservative.

But carnival starts in just over a week, and Olinda, Recife’s sister city perched on its hill-top just to the north, is one of Brazil’s main carnival venues.  Giant puppets representing famous or notorious figures are part of the ritual. This year, a giant Michel Temer and Donald Trump will be bobbing up and down the hillsides of Olinda, probably to a less than rapturous reception.

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