SÃO PAULO –Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the former archbishop of São Paulo, died on July 4 from lung cancer at the age of 87.

Once a radical pro-worker and anti-dictatorship leader in the 1970s and 1980s, he gained a reputation as a conservative while serving as archbishop of São Paulo in the 1990s and 2000s and ended his life as a major champion of the Amazonian church. One way or another, Hummes was a central figure of Brazilian Catholicism for almost five decades.

Born in a German-Brazilian family in 1934 in a small city in Rio Grande do Sul State in the southern part of Brazil, Hummes became a Franciscan friar in 1956 and was ordained a priest two years later. He obtained a PhD in Philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Antonianum in Rome in 1962, and worked as a philosophy professor for several years.

In 1975, he was consecrated a bishop and headed the Diocese of Santo André, in the metropolitan area of São Paulo. Along with the neighboring cities of São Bernardo do Campo, São Caetano do Sul, and Diadema, Santo André formed the so-called ABCD, the epicenter of a new wave of industrialization in Brazil that began in the 1960s, when the automotive industry was drawing hundreds of thousands of migrants from other parts of the country every year.

At that time, the South American nation was ruled by a military junta, and labor unions were monitored by the police. The low salaries and long overtime hours that were common in most factories, along with the poor living conditions of most laborers, led the metal workers’ union to organize the first mass strike in several years in 1978.

“Hummes had not had any previous contact with the industry workers’ reality, but he had the sensibility to understand them,” said Fernando Altemeyer Jr., a religious studies professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. Formerly a priest, Altemeyer had been in touch with Hummes since the 1980s and was his spokesperson in the Archdiocese of São Paulo for four years.

During a second strike in 1979, when almost 200,000 workers joined the movement, the military regime took control of the unions. Hummes decided to open the diocese’s parishes to the union leaders’ activities. He also organized relief aid for the workers’ families using parish structures, and attended massive union rallies.

The major union leader of that time – and later president of Brazil –  Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva released a statement lamenting Hummes’ death, recalling that he “challenged the dictatorship by opening the doors of the Diocese of Santo André to the workers, protecting them from repression.”

“Archbishop Cláudio Hummes never distanced himself from Christ’s teachings. His unconditional love for the people has always led him to be near the poor, even in the most adverse circumstances,” Lula da Silva said.

Altemeyer recalled that during a meeting with heads of the ABCD companies – many of them were international organizations like Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen – one told Hummes that he should mediate the discussion between workers and companies.

“[Hummes] answered that he could not be on the fence in a dispute between businessmen and the oppressed,” he told Crux.

In 1996, Hummes was appointed as the Archbishop of Fortaleza, and two years later he replaced Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns – one of the major opponents of the military regime and a famously progressive member of the hierarchy – as Archbishop of São Paulo. There, his work would not resemble his radical years in Santo André.

“The Holy See asked him to ‘correct’ the way Arns directed the Archdiocese, reducing its political perspective. He fulfilled such a task,” Altemeyer said.

Bishop Mauro Morelli, bishop emeritus of Duque de Caxias and formerly an auxiliary bishop of São Paulo, also said that Hummes, at that point, took a different direction.

“We tried to motivate him to take part in a project to transform the Archdiocese of São Paulo in nine autonomous dioceses. But history followed its route and distanced us more and more: I kept looking for the peripheries, and he was going to the center of the ecclesiastical power,” Morelli, who had co-celebrated Hummes’ episcopal ordination, told Crux.

But not everything had changed. When Morelli, a longtime human rights advocate and a progressive bishop who had difficult relations with Rome, suffered a car accident in 2003, Hummes visited him.

“After thinking about resigning, I asked him about the possibility of being his auxiliary bishop. He told me that I would be invited to live in the archdiocese and that I would never need to ask anybody’s permission to conduct a work dedicated to basic human rights,” he recalled.

“The presence of a brother in a moment of great suffering becomes a mark in our memory,” the bishop added.

In 2006, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed Hummes as the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, he gave an interview to a Brazilian newspaper noting that celibacy was not a matter of dogma but a disciplinary norm and that it was possible to discuss the ordination of married men. His statement sparked some controversy in different Catholic circles, and he later had to clarify that the subject was not on the church’s agenda.

He returned to Brazil in 2010 and one year later he became the president of the bishops’ conference’s Amazon’s Episcopal Commission, entering the final phase of his ministry.

“He became the most important defender of the Amazon, a giant – that same giant that we had seen in Santo André,” said Altemeyer.

In his new position, he would travel all over the rainforest. “He visited more than 30 dioceses in the Brazilian Amazon and went to almost all the countries of the Pan-Amazon region,” said Sister Maria Irene Lopes, executive director of the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network, who traveled with him on several occasions.

“Those were not smooth trips. Many times, we would ride old trucks on dirt roads and spend the night at a simple house. He never complained about anything. He was always happy,” Lopes recalled.

Hummes continually emphasized the need to listen to the Amazonian peoples – Indigenous groups, small farmers, and members of quilombola communities (formed by slaves who fled captivity when slavery was legal in Brazil, from 1500-1888).

“He helped us to rethink the Amazonian church from the peripheries. When he visited the Amazon, he was always with the people. He would sit with Indigenous groups and eat with them,” she said.

In May of 2019, Hummes was appointed as the general rapporteur of the Vatican’s Synod for the Pan-Amazon region. During the preparation, he raised several controversial topics, including the need to build a local church “with an Amazonian face and also an Indigenous face” instead of “a European church transplanted in the Amazon.”

Lopes – and many others – saw Hummes as a bridge between the Amazon and the Vatican. Many times, she said, “he would tell the people that ‘Pope Francis told me to say to you this or that’, so we felt that the whole church was paying attention to the region.”

That closeness between the cardinal and the Argentinian pontiff was manifested on different occasions, especially during the 2013 conclave. Once deemed a strong candidate for papacy, Hummes is said to have contributed to Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election.

The pope himself told the press after the conclave that he chose the name Francis after Hummes told him “not to forget the poor.”

In June of 2020, Hummes was chosen to head the recently created Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon. He left his position at the end of March due to his deteriorating health.

“He was a man of God. He always had the right word at the right time,” Lopes said.