No one has comprehended

How earnestly I've wanted

With my own hands

To relieve the weary horse

Of its harness and its saddle

And its blinkers, most especially.

But I know that I have done so, praying for more than half -- much more, much more than half

Of loved and destitute humanity. Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

At 6 o'clock in the morning, the first crimson arc of sun rises from the sea beyond Recife. The men who sell green coconuts have begun to gather under the palm trees, chopping holes in the coconuts to get at the sweet, clear milk. The vendors are pushing toward town with their tangerines and corn cakes, the orange Volkswagen taxis are careening across the low bridges over the estuary, and in a wood Catholic church on a side street near the sewage canal, a small old man is coughing as he prepares to say mass.

"Em nome do Pai, e do Filho e do Espirito Santo." His voice is soft and slow, and in the answering murmur his hand lifts gently into the sign of the cross. It is a tiny hand, ringless, the same milky coffee color as his cassock. His face is crumpled as a baby's, eyes swamped in wrinkles. His ears stick out. When he smiles, it is as tentative and slow as the delicate motions of his hands, and he is smiling now into the silver wine goblet as he lifts it, praying in Portuguese, a radiance flooding his face.

So begins the day -- a ticking wall clock, an unpainted wooden altar, a congregation of 17 persons-- for Dom Helder Camara, the celebrated "Red Archbishop" of Recife. The title "Dom" conveys reverent respect in Brazil, and it has been used, improbably, with almost every attack and accolade buffeting this fragile-looking, 72-year-old man over the last 15 years. Dom Helder the subversive, the agitator, the misguided dupe in the hands of the Reds, the priest stirring his parishioners to rebellion. Dom Helder the courageous, the internationally acclaimed, the bishop Pope John Paul II embraced and called "the brother of the poor and my brother," the Brazilian elder to the Latin American clerics who call themselves liberation theologists.

He was ordained 50 years ago in the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza, and the milestone has been honored in recent weeks by a jubilant series of special masses and an exhibition inside the large Recife parish house where he bases his work. Photograph albums lay out his travels and his colleagues: here is the pope with Dom Helder in Rome, the Dalai Lama with Dom Helder in Houston, Mother Teresa with Dom Helder in Bergamo, Italy. Special rooms display his medallions, his prizes, his honorary doctorates from Florence and Amsterdam and Universitas Harvardiana Cantabrigiae in Republica Massachusettensium.

There is a poignant and just slightly vindictive quality to the glass cabinets and walls full of international awards. For nine years, from 1968 to 1977, Dom Helder Camara was blacklisted in the Brazilian press. His name, with rare exceptions, did not appear. His face and voice were kept from radio and television. Until the military government began easing its grip over political dialogue and ideas in Brazil, there were certain subjects one did not talk or write about publicly, and the Red Bishop was one of them.

Now the policy is "abertura" -- opening. A great array of political ideas is finding their way into print. What was banned is approaching acceptability. And all at once, everybody wants to see Dom Helder. Brazilian television, German television, newspaper people, flocks of schoolgirls, well-dressed matrons all cross the dirt driveway and climb the wide steps to the Episcopal Palace, as the parish house is called. Dom Helder moves lightly among them, smiling, touching arms, kissing hands, gliding into embraces like a small, landing bird. Telegrams of congratulations pile on his long table, he must attend to them, he has work to do, but he cannot seem to keep himself from touching people, gazing at them, reveling in their affection.

"The important thing for me is the church with the people," Dom Helder says in his hesitant English. "Not the" -- he gropes for the word, cannot find it, and makes a terrible face to indicate all that is pomp and stiffness and self-important clerical reserve.

The Latin American church emerged from the 1960s a profoundly different institution from what it had been 10 years earlier. Out of the famous church conferences that are still being cited today -- Puebla, Mexico; Medellin, Colombia -- grew a body of encyclicals and a continent-wide community of priests and nuns all grappling with private interpretations of the same broad message: It is the structure of Latin American society that keeps so many people poor. And the teachings of Christ demand that the church, the only Latin American institution besides the military to reach into every class and every community, work both to end that poverty and to create a society that no longer holds people down.

In practice what that meant was a nun showing a 10-person church group how to press for electricity in their shantytown, a priest giving leftists asylum in his church, a cathedral housing the city's only human-rights lawyers, a just-appointed archbishop calling press conferences to declare that innocent people were in jail and the nation was slowly beating down its poor: "Without agrarian reform, the almost inhuman misery of the rural workers will persist. Without banking reform, little will be done for the development of the country. And without fiscal reform, the rich will continue to grow richer while the poor continue to suffer."

That was Dom Helder Camara at a press conference in 1964. Four months earlier, the Brazilian military had overthrown president Joao Goulart, who was categorized in American newspaperese as "left-leaning"; and in those first few months the military was preparing to set the continental standard for modern authoritarian political repression. Dom Helder Camara had barely settled in Recife -- his arrival as archbishop coincided with the coup -- but already his voice had begun to grate.

He spoke on the radio, exhorted on television, denounced the conditions of the Brazilian poor until the networks, under government pressure, declined to allow him to speak any longer. He refused to celebrate mass for the coup's second anniversary. He publicly decried the low wages of sugar workers, attacked American racial conflict and the Vietnam War as "a living demonstration of the internal contradictions in the capitalist regime," inaugurated a regional seminary by calling for rural unionism and an evangelization that reaches out to more than just the human soul.

"We consider it necessary to give moral support to the elementary defense of human rights, given the blind and heartless abuse of authority by some of those 'overlords,' " Dom Helder said at that seminary inauguration. "And if certain people have the audacity to pin the label of 'communist' even on the bishops of the holy church who devote themselves to the eminently Christian mission of defending abused human beings, what will become of our priests, and especially our laymen, if we abandon them to their fate?"

And in 1967, at a conference in Sa o Paulo: "Why not recognize that there is no such thing as a unique type of socialism? Why not demand, for the Christian, the free use of the word 'socialist'? It is not necessarily linked with materialism. Nor does it have to designate a system that destroys the individual or the community. It can designate a regime that is at the service of the community and the individual."

His tactics were nonviolent protest, for reasons of pragmatism as much as Christian teaching. He believed, and still does, that violent Third World revolutions simply pull in the superpowers to wrestle for control. "I respect and shall always respect those who, with a clear conscience, have chosen or will choose violence," he told his French biographer Jose de Broucker. "I do not respect the drawing-room guerrillas, but the real ones. Yes, I respect them. But since they recognize that there are no real chances for violence in the next 10 or 15 years, I tell them, 'Then give me that time. I am going to make an experiment.' "

His clergy met with community groups, his internationally supported Bank of Providence fund gave money or loans to the needy of Recife, and his voice became one of the most eloquent in the controversial but growing chorus of "liberation" priests and nuns. In a nation that had to spread his message by word of mouth when the networks and newspapers would no longer do so, Dom Helder was using his pulpit the way Martin Luther King had used his.

"I ask you to forgive me," Dom Helder said to de Broucker, "because I perhaps give the impression of being more a politician than a bishop or a priest. But in present world conditions, to be preoccupied with human problems is as though commanded by the gospel."

His cassock billows as he climbs the steps to the airplane that will take him from the Dom Helder celebration in Fortaleza down to the Dom Helder celebration in Recife. He says he is not afraid of airplanes. "Once I was flying," Dom Helder says in English, "and at a moment I had a thought about -- if something is not well with the motor -- there are explosions and we are submerging and the fish are arriving?"

He smiles, settled now against the airplane window and the darkness outside. "For some seconds I was afraid," he says. "But immediately I was thinking, here" -- his hands reach out, indicating the embraceable area around himself -- "we are inside God. If I was inside the ocean, always God would be there. And now it is" -- he clasps his hands together -- "I am not afraid."

Dom Helder Camara looks like a very old man. When he walks, stooped over a little with his black satchel in his hand, people flutter around him, trying to help. Dom Helder brushes them gently away, or allows them to take one handle of his bag while he carries the other.

In the Episcopal Palace he carries a polished wood cane. His only adornments are a wood cross and a tiny white dove he wears pinned to his cassock. He says he was distressed by the episcopal throne when he first arrived in Recife -- "Let us finish with the impression of a prince-bishop inhabiting a palace," he said nearly 20 years ago -- and Dom Helder is rather proud of the fact that on a day when all the seats were taken, he was able to persuade an incredulous visiting peasant to rest his feet by sitting on the throne.

His home is a three-room house by the peeling wood church where he says his earliest morning mass. He wakes once at 2 o'clock in the morning, and for a while in the silence Dom Helder writes poetry and attends to letters or matters of the archdiocese. Then he goes back to sleep, and wakes again at 5:30 to the first singing of the nuns.

"When I was a young priest," Dom Helder says, "my vision was that of a great confrontation between East and West -- capitalism and communism. At that time, it was a given that communism was fundamentally bad, and it was a great moment for the rightist movements."

Dom Helder aligned himself in the 1930s with "integralism," a Brazilian nationalist movement that had strong fascist strains. By World War II he had abandoned the integralists and watched with growing dismay as the great powers, from Dom Helder's point of view, divided up the spoils and made it obvious to him that the profound split was not between East and West. It seemed to him rather that the wealthy countries were nourishing themselves on the raw materials of the poor -- the essence of what became the North-South debates -- and that when priests like himself could see in their own parishes the human suffering within modern Brazil, it was the height of hypocrisy for the church to support that kind of capitalist development.

"Little by little, I saw that today the armies are stronger than the heads of state," Dom Helder says. "The Pentagon of the United States, the Russian Army of the U.S.S.R. But looking farther, I began to understand that there are forces bigger than armies -- and that is multi-national corporations . . . The intelligence services also are very important for the multinationals, not only for knowing the trade situation. The multinationals' problem is to know if the government understands the 'necessity' of the multinational corporations -- if this government is able to collaborate -- or if the government is stupid and intends to create problems. And if they are able" -- he flips his hand over lightly -- "to change governments, or whatever. The multinationals are really the biggest force in our lives."

He says he tears up his hate mail without reading it. The governor of Sa o Paulo state, where Brazilian industrialization grinds the loudest, once called him part of the "Communist Party's propaganda machine." Groups of his own nation's clergymen have demanded that the Brazilian church be purged of its "communist infiltration." A major Brazilian writer suggested in 1967 that instead of a cardinal's hat, the pope give Dom Helder Camara a hat made of straw, with two holes cut in it for donkey's ears.

"And you," read a 1968 pamphlet. "Who are you with?

"Are you with God or the devil?

"It's obvious that you're with God and not the devil.

"But you must not confuse the true god with Monsignor Camara's god."

His 50 years of priesthood are celebrated in the Recife soccer stadium, before television cameras and bleachers so crowded that at every entrance people push up against each other for a glimpse. Dom Helder smiles, speaks softly, leads songs, stands to embrace the Vatican envoy who bears special blessings from the pope.

When it is over, the air still fragrant with incense, Dom Helder gives communion. He holds a golden bowl of wafers. His fingers hover over the bowl before selecting each wafer, as though he were searching for a particularly fine one, as though there were not 5,000 people pressing up to take their turn. One by one they reach Dom Helder, and he lays the wafer into their open mouths, gazing gently into each face. Some of them reach down to clasp his head and touch lips softly to his forehead, or press their cheeks to his arm, or kiss the small brown hand that bears no ring.