Basking in applause of leading government politicians and blessed by four bishops, Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, "brother of the poor," stepped down from his post as Archbishop of Recife this week, ending with pomp and dignity one of Brazil's most controversial ministries.

A crowd of nearly a thousand pressed into the square before Recife's cathedral to watch the four-hour ceremony in which Camara passed the bishop's crosier to his successor, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho. Camara, 76, archbishop for 21 years, reached the mandatory retirement age for bishops last year.

A founder of the Brazilian bishops conference, the world's largest, Camara was one of Latin America's leading advocates of the theology of liberation. The diminutive bishop earned the nickname "archbishop of the slums" because of his ministry to poor peasants in the backlands and "favelas" of the northeast, a region plagued by chronic flood and drought.

He wore a rough cut wooden crucifix and drove an old Volkswagen Beetle before he sold it off to aid flood victims. Daily, he attended dozens of hungry and out-of-work parishioners in his home.

His sermons defending human rights did not win him many friends in Brazil's military government. To the dismay of the generals in Brasilia, Camara vowed to visit "palaces, union halls, and barracks" on his assignment here in 1964, and minister to the politically involved, "whether of the regime or the opposition."

When he refused to celebrate a mass for the second anniversary of the coup, in 1966, he was declared officially persona non grata. "Banned" by the military regime, he could not give interviews and it was a crime merely to mention his name in the print or broadcast media for the next 13 years.

Denounced as "the red bishop," his house was splashed with red paint and riddled with machine gun bullets. In 1969, during the most rigid years of the military regime, his closest assistant, Rev. Antonio Pereira da Silva, was tortured and murdered.

"They don't have the courage to assassinate me," Camara used to say. "They know the pope would come to the funeral." In his visit to Brazil in 1980, Pope John Paul II embraced Camara as "the brother of the poor, my brother."

But four years later, in the wake of Vatican criticism of liberation theology, the pontiff disregarded Camara's suggestion for a successor and named Carmelite priest Rev. Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, 52, a personal friend of the pope and considered a church conservative.

In his inauguration speech this week, Recife's new archbishop warned against "permissiveness" on television "that is destroying the values of the evangelist."