The 95-year-old retired archbishop of Sao Paulo had been hospitalised since November 28 with pneumonia.
At a celebration for his 95th birthday, leaders of Brazil’s landless movement as well as former government leaders, sportscasters, intellectuals, journalists and artists held a party at Sao Paulo’s Catholic University and spoke about Cardinal Arns’s dedication toward the poor and his fight against human rights violations and political persecution during the 1964-85 military regime.
“All of us who have done something that could be registered in the board of democratic resistance owe this to Dom Paulo, to his courage and prophet-like fearlessness, and his teachings rooted in the Franciscan values of the apostles,” former Justice Minister Jose Gregori said during the event. “You were the leader of the redemocratisation of human rights in the country.”
Announcing Cardinal Arns’ death, Sao Paulo Cardinal Odilo Scherer said his predecessor “gave his life to God after having generously dedicated it to his brothers in this world.”
“Let us praise God for the testimony of Cardinal Arns’ Franciscan life and for his courageous commitment to the defense of human dignity and the inalienable rights of each person,” Cardinal Scherer said.
The cardinal said the funeral would be in the city’s cathedral, but he did not announce the dates.
Brazil’s military dictatorship ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. In one of his most famous actions against police violence in the 1970s, Cardinal Arns faced a military squadron to retrieve the body of Santo Dias da Silva, labour leader and member of the Church’s workers’ pastoral.
“When we arrived, the Medical Institute (IML) was surrounded by police officers,” recalled lawyer Luiz Eduardo Greenhalgh earlier this year. “Cardinal Arns came out of the automobile and waved his hand with the (bishop’s) ring, to the side. The cops backed away (from the entrance) and we passed. We went in and Cardinal Arns looked at the bullet holes on Santo’s body. He pointed his finger at the policemen and said ‘Look what you did’. And all of the officers lowered their heads in shame.”
Among his more than 40 awards, diplomas, titles and honours, Cardinal Arns was named as one of Brazil’s most influential leaders several times. New York’s The Christophers named him “One of 50 personalities who helped make this world better,” and he was recognised by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, for his work in defense of human rights and refugees. The cardinal also was the recipient of Japan’s Niwano Peace Prize and the Letelier-Moffitt International Human Rights Award.
Between 1979 and 1985, he co-ordinated, clandestinely, the project Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again), where episodes of torture under the military dictatorship are documented. In 1983, he was part of a group that started the Voting Rights Now movement, which eventually led to Brazil’s return to democratic rule.
Cardinal Arns was born on September 14, 1921, in Criciuma, Brazil. In 1945, he was ordained a priest and served in Petropolis. He was ordained a bishop in 1966 was named archbishop of Sao Paulo in 1970, during the most violent years of Brazil’s military crackdown. Three years later, in 1973, he was elevated to cardinal by Pope Paul VI. He served in Sao Paulo until 1998, when he retired.
His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 227 members; it did not affect the number of electors, who can only vote until age 80.