Claudio Hummes, the Roman Catholic cardinal who supported the strikers in their fight against Brazil’s military dictatorship and who some say could have become the first Hispanic pope before Francis earned that title, has died. He was 87.
One of Brazil’s most important religious leaders, Hummes died on Monday “after a long illness, which he endured with patience and faith in God,” Cardinal Odilo Scherer, archbishop of Sao Paulo, said in a statement.
Hammes was a close associate of Francis, an Argentine with whom he shared South American roots and a special concern for the poor. for the Amazon rainforest and for indigenous peoples. The Brazilian is said to have whispered words of encouragement when it became clear that then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was about to be elected to the throne of St. Peter’s at the 2013 conclave of cardinals and inspire him to choose “Francis” as his papal name, after St. Francis of Assisi.
“Great friend, great friend,” Francis said of Hammes at his first press conference since he was chosen to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. “When things got a little dangerous, he cheered me up. And when the vote reached two-thirds, the usual applause began, how the pope was chosen.
“He hugged me, kissed me and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor.’ These words were carved into my head.”
A lifelong clergyman, Hammes rose to national prominence in the 1970s as a staunch defender of human rights and social justice under Brazil’s oppressive right-wing military regime. He publicly supported and defended the striking metal workers, one of whom, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, later became the country’s first left-wing president a quarter of a century later.
“His unconditional love for his fellow man made him always take the side of the poor, even in the most adverse situations.” — Lula, who is running for president again in October — tweeted on Monday.
International attention focused on Hammes in 2005 after the death of the man who appointed him as a cardinal, Pope John Paul II. Veteran of the Vatican, Hammes, who was then 70 years old, quickly became one of the most discussed candidates accept the papacy with the support of those who saw him as a leader who could heal some of the internal divisions of the church and strengthen the faithful in distressed Latin America, where half of the world’s Catholics live.
“He is a man of dialogue who has a clear inclination towards the poor,” Frei Betto, a Dominican friar and public figure, said at the time.
“He respects both liberation theology and Opus Dei,” Betto said, referring to the liberal and conservative currents in the Catholic Church. He described Hammes as “a moderate man with a social sensibility”.
After all, fellow cardinals of Hammes German-born Josef Ratzinger electedone of John Paul’s closest aides as the new pope, disappointing those who hoped for a pontiff from the developing world.
Hammes worked for the new Pope Benedict from 2006 to 2011 as prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, the Vatican office responsible for the education and training of priests. He quit his job due to age restrictions.
In São Paulo, the largest city in South America and the industrial center of Brazil, Hammes’ long service as a bishop and cardinal earned him a reputation as an energetic, fair, approachable leader who cared deeply for his flock and knew the priests of the diocese by name.
But at the same time he was a reserved figure, intellectual and reasonable, he liked his books as much as people. He lived the simple life expected of a member of the Franciscan order and spoke at least four languages—Portuguese, French, German, and Italian—in addition to mastering Latin.
A prolific writer, Hammes has often expounded on the need for the church to remain socially relevant by interacting with science and modern technology, such as in the debate about stem cell research.
He also spoke of the need to be more aggressive in addressing Catholics whose only contact with the church was at birth, marriage, and death, or who had left Catholicism. in favor of evangelical Protestant sects which are becoming increasingly popular in Latin America.
“They were baptized in our churches – these are our children and we must take care of them,” Msgr. Dario Bevilacqua, one of Hammes’ assistants, once quoted his boss as saying. Hamms, he said, lamented “how we Catholics have grown unaccustomed to evangelism.”
Hamms’ own religious training began when he was a young boy. Born Aug. On August 8, 1934, in a family of German immigrants in southern Brazil, Auri Afonso, Frank Hammes was enrolled in a seminary at the age of 9.
He continued his religious studies, adopted Claudio as his religious name, and was ordained a priest five days before his 24th birthday. Hamms received his Ph.D. in Rome, then worked in various ecclesiastical positions in his home state of Rio Grande do Sul until 1975, when he was given an assignment that brought him national attention.
On the outskirts of São Paulo, the rugged suburb of Santo André was already a major manufacturing center by the time Hammes first drove into town, a new bishop in a rundown old car.
“It was a used Volkswagen Bug,” said Father Antonio Moura, Hammes’ closest assistant for the next 21 years. “It was kind of embarrassing. He said, ‘I can go anywhere in this car – I don’t need anything more sophisticated.’ And he always drove himself.”
Humes soon began visiting metal workers who, in defiance of the military regime, were going on strike for higher wages and more freedom. Despite his naturally unassuming nature, Hammes delivered the following message in August 1976: “It’s time to get into politics.”
Throughout 1978 and 1979 he actively supported the workers, once refusing to act as a mediator in a conflict. “The church cannot play the role of a mediator because it stands firmly on one side—the side of the workers,” he said.
In 1980, the government cracked down, arresting more than a dozen union leaders. In response, Hammes opened the churches of Santo André, including its ornate cathedral, as safe havens, providing the movement with a place to meet and, more than once, to hide from riot police.
In sermon after sermon, Humes preached the workers’ right to dignity and even allowed their most ardent spokesman, Lula, the future President of Brazil, to deliver political speeches during Mass. An eternal spiritual shepherd, Hammes once led a football stadium full of persecuted workers in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
“It was the church that allowed us to stay organized,” former union leader Jair Meneguelli once recalled in an interview with The Times. “I am looking at [Hummes] like heroic. In such a difficult moment, as under a military dictatorship, he was not afraid to open the umbrella of church protection for those who, as he understood, were most in need.
Workers’ strikes helped overthrow military rule in 1985. In 1996, Hammes was appointed archbishop of the northern capital of Fortaleza. After more than two decades in Santo André, he only took two suitcases of clothes with him.
In 1998 he returned to São Paulo as archbishop.
Although he failed to regain the national prominence he enjoyed in the 1970s and 80s, Hammes remained devoted to the workers of Brazil, helping to establish a job center to help the growing ranks of the unemployed in São Paulo.
His advocacy on behalf of the oppressed seems to have placed him on a par with left-wing clerics who espoused liberation theology, a Marxist current within the church that Pope John Paul II rejected and tried to eradicate. But Humes spoke out against the theology, stating that the church should not be tied to any particular political ideology.
In 2001, he was elevated to cardinal.
When the throne of St. Peter became vacant in 2005, many religious commentators felt that choosing Hammes to fill it would give the church a more conciliatory leader, willing to listen to dissenting opinions and accept a more collegial, decentralized power structure in the Vatican than existed under John Paul II.
But after Ratzinger was elected by the College of Cardinals, Humes joined his colleagues in declaring his support for the new pontiff.
When Benedict announced his retirement in 2013, Hammes was no longer among those considered favorites for the pope. But in the person of Francis, he had a new like-minded leader.
Hammes is to be buried in the Sao Paulo Cathedral.