Brazil: the Cardinal who stood up to the military

A moving tribute to Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns on his 95th birthday
by: 
Jan Rocha

TUCA (the theatre of PUC, the Catholic university in São Paulo) was packed. White and grey heads dominated, there was a scattering of walking sticks, hands cupped round ears to hear better. You could be forgiven for thinking it was a gathering of old age pensioners. But these were no ordinary pensioners, these were men and women who had resisted the dictatorship, many of them ex-political prisoners who had been savagely tortured.
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Others were lawyers who had defended them. Then there were the activists, members of committees and commissions who had denounced the regime, members of the progressive church who had organised the people. And there were younger people too, members of the MST, the Landless Peasants Movement, and members of the street peoples’ movement, o Povo da Rua.  They were there to pay homage to a remarkable man, the cardinal who had stood up to the generals, and been a constant thorn in their flesh throughout the 21 long years of military rule.

Dom Paulo, now 95 (his birthday was September 14), partially blind, very deaf, nevertheless came, walking with support,  climbing slowly down TUCA’s many steps, and then up to the stage. He smiled and waved and accepted the caps and T shirts that were offered to him by the MST, the Povo da Rua and the Corinthian football club movement known as Democracia Corintiana.


Football in fact, was one of the main themes of the evening, as speakers remembered the Cardinal’s enthusiastic support for the club which is the favourite team of São Paulo’s working class masses.Ex-player Vladimir even claimed that after years in the wilderness, not winning the championship for 22 years, the team had gone to the Curia for a meeting with their No.1 fan who so inspired them that they went on to win. Juca Kfouri, a well known sports writer, remembered putting the Cardinal on the cover of the sports magazine Placar, with the very political phrase ““there are no definitive defeats for the people”.

But it was a fellow bishop, Dom Angelo Bernardino who told the best soccer joke. He described having an argument with a fellow bishop who supported Santos football club,  and clinching it with the words,

After all, St Paul wrote 2 letters to the Corinthians.

To which the other bishop replied, But he recommended that they should become saints (Santos)

Ana Dias, the widow of metalworker Santo Dias, shot dead by police during a strike in 1979, remembered how Dom Paulo had always been there for her, cleaving a path through the truculent police at the morgue,  remonstrating with them, as they stood round the bullet ridden body of her husband, saying “Look what you have done”, so that they lowered their heads in shame.


Human rights lawyer Mario Simas remembered that when Dom Paulo was still an auxiliary bishop, he had gone to the Tiradentes prison to visit two lay workers who had been tortured, and then telephoned the São Paulo governor Lauro Sodré, demanding providences. When Sodré replied “it’s all lies”, Dom Paulo ordered notices to be fixed to  every church door in his area denouncing the torture.

Fabio Konder Comparato, a well known  law professor, remembered  when the Cardinal had asked him to become a member of the recently created Justice and Peace commission,  and he had said, “But I am a bad Catholic.”

To which Dom Paulo replied, “that’s not the least bit important.”

Comparato went on to say, “he converted the Brazilian church. In 1964 it had approved the coup. After all it had done nothing during four centuries of slavery, on the contrary, all the bishops and convents had slaves.”

All the speakers agreed that Dom Paulo epitomised what was best in the church, because the core of his religion was not dogma but ethics:  it is not religion, said Comparato, that is going to unite humanity – just look at today’s world - but love of your neighbour. Anderson, speaking for the homeless, o Povo da Rua, said the Cardinal had donated to them all the prize money awarded to him by a Buddhist foundation.

Where are our dead or disappeared family members?

The leader of the MST, João Pedro Stedile, said that Dom Paulo had helped to put an end to the dictatorship, and had saved many militants in the Cone Sul. He read out a message from Uruguay’s former president, José Mujica:   “we Uruguayans are very proud of this  oriental gaucho.” The tribute ended with a message from Pope Francisco, describing Dom Paulo, the last living cardinal to have been nominated by Pope Paulo VI, as a luminous example, who has dedicated his life to the poor and to the victims of violence.   

“When Brazil was plunged into darkness, Dom Paulo was the star that illuminated it”, concluded Fernando Altemeyer, Dom Paulo’s former press secretary, who conducted the ceremony. It was a moving event, but it was also a reminder of the days when things were simpler, because they were more black and white. You were for or against the military dictatorship. Today there are many shades of grey in Brazilian politics, and it is much more difficult, as the PT has found to its cost, to steer a coherent, ethical path through the maze.

This article was written by one of the many experts at The Latin American Bureau. For more great articles visit www.lab.org.uk