Cardinal Michael Czerny has a few words with Pope Francis after receiving his red biretta in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 5. CNS photo/Paul Haring. Section cover photo from CNS/Paolo Galosi

Michael Czerny: The making of a Cardinal

By 
  • October 9, 2019

“It’s a daunting thing, but it’s a wonderful opportunity too,” Cardinal Michael Czerny told The Catholic Register as he prepared for a whirlwind Oct. 4-6 weekend: ordained a bishop on Friday, elevated to the College of Cardinals on Saturday and engaged as a special secretary to the Synod on the Amazon on Sunday.

The Czerny timeline

  • July 18, 1946: Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic).
  • 1948: Family moves to Canada.
  • 1963: Joined the Society of Jesus after graduating from Montreal’s Loyola High School in 1963.
  • June 9, 1973: Ordained a priest.
  • 1978: Received doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies from University of Chicago.
  • 1979: Founding director of Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto.
  • 1990-91: Vice-Rector of the University of Central America and director of its Institute for Human Rights in El Salvador.
  • 1992-2002: Served Social Justice Secretary at Jesuit General Curia in Rome; taught at Hekima University College in Nairobi.
  • 2002-2010: Founding director of African Jesuit AIDS Network.
  • 2010: Appointed advisor to President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
  • Dec. 14, 2016: Appointed by Pope Francis as under-secretary of the migrants and refugees section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
  • May 4, 2019: Named by Pope as one of two special secretaries for the Synod of Bishops for Pan-Amazon region.
  • Sept. 1, 2019: Announced as one of 13 new cardinals.

(Source: Vatican Press Office)

The world is littered with extraordinary priests doing extraordinary things. Most of them are far from famous and exercise very little authority. So it’s perfectly reasonable to ask why Pope Francis believed this Canadian Jesuit at this time should be a cardinal.

“I can only call it an intensification of the mission. The mission doesn’t change, but somehow it’s fuller, it’s deeper, it’s broader, it’s more inclusive,” Czerny said.

The Vaticanista analysis of Czerny’s appointment has been that because Czerny heads up a key dicastery (the Vatican’s equivalent of a government ministry), it was important that Czerny have the same stature as the heads of other dicasteries. By giving the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section a cardinal, Pope Francis has made it clear this is no minor or temporary project, but a full-fledged mission of the universal Church.

But Czerny, 73, doesn’t see it in terms of internal Vatican organization. For him, whatever the Church calls him to do is always about the post-Vatican II struggle to reconstitute the Church in the modern world — a Church connected with people, especially the poor.

“The story of our vulnerabilities and our bewilderments in that sense is the story of our time,” he said. “We need to learn ever more quickly to adapt to an ever more quickly changing world. When you want to be a Church in that kind of changing world, that is indeed a challenge.”

So why Czerny? For Jesuit Fr. William Mbugua, it starts with his work ethic.

“The Pope has noticed Michael’s gift to the Church,” he said. “He has not been given that position out of prestige, but out of hard work. The man is a hard worker.”

As a young Jesuit, Mbugua learned about a life of service from Czerny in a slum on the western edge of Nairobi, Kenya. Mbugua, a Canadian Jesuit who grew up in Kenya, worked alongside Czerny in the Kangemi slum, helping to establish the African Jesuit AIDS Network in the early 2000s, which today supports Jesuit pastoral work with AIDS-affected communities in 30 countries. Mbugua remains in awe of how Czerny was able to be a bridge between some of the most neglected and excluded people on earth and leaders in the Church and secular realm. 

“I think, probably a place like Canada would have been too small for him,” Mbugua said. “These are not the people you put in a place like Canada. These are people you put in a place of crisis. I mean, how many people want to go to the crisis? ... I think there is wisdom in making him a cardinal.”

No one would be less likely to cast himself in such heroic terms than Czerny. 

“The thing that strikes me is how the previous experiences helped to prepare me for what I am now challenged to do,” he said. “For instance, when I started working on AIDS in Africa, I couldn’t imagine trying to get hold of that without what I had already learned beginning in south Riverdale (at the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto), or even earlier. 

“In that sense, you have a feeling of God’s providence in your life. And how the Lord keeps calling you to give more and to do more and to be more. But He also gives you the chances to grow and to get ready — even though you don’t know what you are getting ready for.”

In 1989 Czerny waded into the middle of a crisis. A government-backed death squad in El Salvador had murdered six Jesuits, their cook and her daughter at the Jesuit university in downtown San Salvador. Czerny spoke Spanish and had a PhD from the University of Chicago. The Jesuits needed somebody like him to take up residence in the rooms where masked gunmen had slaughtered priests as a warning to the Church.

“I don’t think any of us were terribly surprised by his decision,” said Jesuit Fr. Len Altilia. “I think we knew Michael well enough to know that would be a choice that would be consistent with his sense of his vocation. We weren’t shocked by that. We were certainly edified by it. 

“People thought this was quite, in a sense, heroic. He was putting himself in harm’s way. … There was a good chance, we thought, that he might end up shot.”

That he wasn’t shot had nothing to do with Czerny keeping his head down and his mouth shut, because he didn’t. He spoke about social justice. He spoke about the needs of ordinary people. But most of all, he brought those ignored and disenfranchised peasants onto the campus of the University of Central America and into the capital city to speak for themselves.

At the Vatican, he’s still doing that — bringing in new voices to challenge and to strengthen the bonds of communion in the Church.

“His office is really different from other offices at the Vatican,” said King’s University social justice and peace studies professor Allyson Larkin. “It’s not filled with elderly priests and nuns. It’s this dynamic space. It’s super multicultural.”

For the past three years Larkin has taken a select group of students to Rome to visit Czerny’s office and learn more about a global migration crisis that had 25 million refugees in 2018. 

“Michael Czerny may really, for better, disrupt their image of what a priest is,” said Larkin. “Because he has been such a committed leader and activist for social justice throughout his whole career. … It’s not easy to convince some of them that there’s a force for good sometimes coming out of the Church.”

Czerny got word of the Pope’s decision to make him a cardinal while he was in the middle of a conversation with landless workers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, doing what he has done since he helped found the Centre for Social Faith and Justice in south Riverdale.

“The Church asks of you a new form of service,” said the Pope’s letter to Czerny. “A summons to greater self-sacrifice and a consistent witness of life.”

The scarlet robes he will now wear represent the shedding of blood — the blood of martyrs.

Czerny asked friends to not fly to Rome for his ordination as bishop and elevation to cardinal. He wanted no fuss, only prayers.

“We’ll be together in spirit and prayer and in the simplicity that Pope Francis both demonstrates and asks us for,” he told his friends. 

“Thank you for being near in my life and ministry until now, and in my new form of service from now on.”

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