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July 9 Brazil, a Papal stampede and Dom Helder Camara

Today in 1980 some people died in a stampede trying to get in to see Pope John Paul II in a soccer stadium in Fortaleza, Brazil. The stadium had been scheduled to open at 8 a.m., about three hours before John Paul's arrival, however tens of thousands of people tried to force their way in about 4 a.m. and several of the stadium's gates were forced open to the crowd, many without tickets. Later in the day, police reports raised the number of deaths to seven while local hospital's reported that more than 100 persons had been admitted with injuries suffered during the incident.


Earlier that year at the beginning of May, the pope had celebrated mass in a stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire in which nine people had been trampled when crowds rushed a gate to see the pontiff. John Paul II, was the first pope to travel extensively and so there was considerable interest in just catching a sight of him. He became one of the most travelled world leaders in history, visiting 129 countries during his pontificate. He was the first pope to visit Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic nation and had been invited to open the National Eucharistic Conference, which was celebrated every five years by Brazil's 335 bishops. It was a 10-day visit and vast crowds turned out each day in cities throughout the vast country to catch a glimpse of him. Despite generally chaotic conditions and poor planning on the part Brazilian authorities, there had not been a single reported injury until his visit to Fortaleza towards the end of the trip. It had been the 11th city the pope had visited and was in the country's impoverished northeast.

Once it had been Brazil's most prosperous sugar and cotton growing area, but had become plagued by droughts and floods and so many people were leaving to find work in the megacities in the South. This migration, would be the main theme of the conference as the Bishops examined the plight of the millions of Brazilians who have moved within the country or emigrated to seek better economic opportunities

The northeast of Brasil, was also home of the iconic Bishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife who was known as a consistently powerful voice for the poor. A self-identified socialist, although he was careful to declare constantly that he was not a Marxist, he was the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, and a famous advocate of liberation theology. He is remembered for having said, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist. He had played an important part in the Second Vatican Council and a few days before the council ended, 40 bishops led by Câmara met at night in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside Rome. They celebrated the Eucharist and signed a document under the title of the Pact of the Catacombs. In 13 points, they challenged their brother bishops to live lives of evangelical poverty: without honorific titles, privileges, and worldly ostentation. They taught that "the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery". They called for openness "to all, no matter what their beliefs". This would have a big influence on the young Argentinian Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio who would become Pope Francis

Under the guidance of Câmara, the Catholic Church in Brazil became an outspoken critic of the military dictatorship that lasted 21 years in Brazil till 1985. Because of Camar the church became a powerful movement for social change, also creating many enemies. Traditionalist Catholics urged the military government to arrest Câmara for his support of land reform and his colleague, Father Antônio Henrique Pereira Neto, was murdered. In 1973, Câmara was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but his candidacy was blocked by two members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who where cooperating with the Brazilian ambassador in Oslo. He was a thorn in the side to the military dictatorship in Brazil and they were vehemently against him receiving the Nobel peace prize. In 1985, on reaching the age of 75, he handed in his resignation as is required by the Vatican, and tellingly John Paul II quickly replaced him with a very “conservative” bishop, Dom José Cardoso Sobrinho, who set about undoing his predecessor’s work.

Despite the stampede in Fortaleza, the pope attended the folk music show as scheduled, celebrated a customary open-air mass and then proceeded to open the conference as planned. John Paul II was known as The Pilgrim Pope and made more foreign trips than all previous popes combined. In total he logged more than 725,000 miles visiting many countries that no pope had ever previously visited. He had four visits to Brazil.


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