Dom Tavora, a Brazilian ‘bishop of the workers’

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the premature death of another remarkable Cardijn bishop, José Vicente Tavora, who liked to consider himself as and in fact became known as a “bishop of the workers.”

Born in 1910 in the poor north-eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Nazaré da Mata in 1934. From the beginning, he showed a special concern for workers and worker issues, helping to prepare the First Congress of Pernambuco Workers, which took place in Goiana, Pernambuco, on 30 December, 1938.


He became known for this work and in 1947 he was chosen to attend the first post-war international congress of the JOC in Montreal, Canada. Two years later, he published the book “Para compreender a JOC” – “Understanding the YCW.”

According to Fr Isaias Nascimento, Tavora regarded the task of the JOC as “sowing of leaders for the future” within the workers’ movement and he had clearly absorbed much of Cardijn’s vision.

“The working class needs to conduct itself with autonomy, independence and greatness, but this cannot happen if it does not have well-trained militants of its own environment, capable of consciously taking a position on all the problems that matter for the good of the people, especially when it comes to the economic, social, moral and spiritual liberation of the world of work,” Nascimento cites Fr Tavora as saying. “The JOC fights for a different era than the present one which is full of appalling injustices, unacceptable privileges and mistakes that revolt, every moment.

“Where there is a worker problem, we can envision here the beginning of a revolution in the pastoral practice of the Church, which started there in Europe, as the sowing of a Church committed to the poor begins,” Fr Tavora said.

As a result of this commitment, in 1950 he was transferred to Rio de Janeiro to become the founding national chaplain of the emerging Brazilian JOC. One of his first actions with the JOC there was to organise an enquiry in the Rio favelas, which led to the foundation of a Leo XIII Foundation as well as the launch of Archdiocesan Social Action. In Rio, he quickly became friends with Fr Helder Camara, another priest from the poor north-east and who had been appointed to take responsibility for the development of Catholic Action in Brazil, meaning Specialised Catholic Action in particular.

Two years later in 1954, Tavora was appointed auxiliary bishop of Rio and in this capacity he continued to work with Camara, who had become an auxiliary bishop in Rio in 1952, to host the 1955 International Eucharistic Congress. This congress included an afternoon devoted to a worker festival as well as a long-remembered rally at the Maracana Stadium, featuring a jocist mass with workers presenting their tools.

During this period, Tavora also proposed to Cardinal Jaime Camara, that the huge archdiocese of Rio be divided into regions, with one auxiliary bishop responsible for each region. However, the cardinal reacted negatively to the proposal, leading to Tavora being transferred and made bishop of Aracaju in the north-eastern state of Sergipe in November 1957.

This proved to be a providential opportunity for the new bishop, who invested all his energy in building up the local church, leading to its elevation to the rank of archdiocese in April 1960.

The Movement for Basic Education

One of his major initiatives during this period came in 1959 with the founding of Brazil’s “Movimento Educacional de Base” (Basic Education Movement) (MEB) of which he became the first president. Via its “Radio Schools,” this movement taught basic literacy, maths and even law to thousands of people in poor rural areas, combining this with working to develop people’s awareness and action, just as Paulo Freire was to do several years later.

“MEB involved thousands of people, including young university students eager for change, in particularly creative activities, contributing decisively to the process of social mobilization,” the historian Professor Ibarê Dantas observed in his book, “Os partidos políticos em Sergipe (1889-1964)” (The Political Parties of Sergipe).

With Cardijn at Vatican II

Five years later, when the First Session of the Second Vatican Council began in October 1962, Tavora was one of the first bishops – along with Helder Camara and Bishop Manuel Larrain from Chile – whom Cardijn consulted during his visit to Rome in November.

Tavora continued to collaborate closely with Cardijn during the Second Session in 1963 when delivered an intervention on the laity in the Church and the world that appears to have been drafted by Cardijn himself, who included it in his archives as one of his own conciliar papers (Note 19 of his conciliar papers).

“The question about the condition and mission of the laity in the Church and in the world is neither accessory nor transitory, but of the greatest importance and an essential mission of the whole Church and for the salvation of the whole of the human race,” Tavora stated, echoing Cardijn.

“This question does not arise from an insufficient number of priests and religious, but from the divine and human vocation proper to lay people, given to them from the beginning of the world,” he continued.

During the Fourth (final) Session of the Council in 1965, Tavora worked with Camara on a plan for two special masses for workers and for the poor. Camara, it seems, took primary responsibility for the latter and Tavora for the former.

The mass for the poor was eventually held in the Domitilla Catacombs, giving rise to the now famous Pact of the Catacombs, inspired by Cardijn’s own personal consecration of his life to the working class, in which the participating bishops made their own commitment to the poor.

The second mass for the workers – now largely forgotten – took place in Cardijn’s own cardinal’s parish of St Michael Archangel in Rome’s working class Pietralata district.

The outcome of this mass was the Pietralata Message, coordinated by Tavora, which called on the Church to expand its commitment to the development of an apostolic laity.

As soon as the Council ended, Tavora again took the initiative proposing what became First Pastoral Plan for the Brazilian Church in 1966-67, seeking to implement the teachings of Vatican II.

It is clear that Tavora viewed this task as continuing to promote the development of the Specialised Catholic Action movements, particularly among workers and students.

Resisting the dictatorship

Tragically, however, Brazil had by now fallen under the control of a military dictatorship following the coup d’état on 30 March – 1 April 1964.

Already, Tavora had publicly condemned an earlier attempted coup in August 1961, calling for the Constitution to be respected. Now he continued to express his opposition to the government. All this resulted in increasing surveillance of his work, including his phone being tapped.

Several employees of the MEB were detained and the Radio Schools project closed down on 1 April 1964.

Meanwhile, Tavora’s own auxiliary bishop, Dom Luciano Cabral Duarte, launched a new “Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização” (Brazilian Movement for Literacy), which developed close  relations with the military government.

“(Tavora’s) auxiliary bishop, an ally of the conservatives of the civil-military coup, the generals of 1964 and those intolerant of agrarian reform and social rights, sought to develop pastoral work in line with the dictates of the coup,” lamented the journalist, Henrique Maynart.

The stress of all these events impacted seriously on Dom Tavora’s health. After suffering a series of heart attacks, he finally succumbed on 3 April 1970.


Both the English and Portuguese versions of Wikipedia now list Dom Tavora as a “Servant of God” and candidate for sainthood although I have not been able to verify this.

His educational work has also gained recognition with the establishment of the Dom Távora Project, which focuses on fostering local talents and supporting local businesses, with the goal of increasing incomes, supporting producer’s associations and creating a better life for people in the state of Sergipe.

Stefan Gigacz


Dom José Tavora (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Stefan Gigacz, Pietralata: The forgotten Mass and message (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, The jocist bishops who signed the Pact of the Catacombs (Cardijn Research)

Stefan Gigacz, Cardijn, Camara and the Pact of the Catacombs (Cardijn Research)


Jan Hoffman French, Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil’s Northeast

Thomas C. Bruneau, Thomas Charles Bruneau, The Political Transformation of the Brazilian Catholic Church

Ricardo Pina Santana, Dom Távora, o MEB e a radiodifusão católica:igreja e projeto educacional em Aracaju (1958-1964)