Michael Czerny in 1994 at the Vatican. Photos courtesy Vatican press office

The Czerny family’s experience held valuable lessons for future cardinal

By 
  • October 9, 2019

About 1.5 million Canadian stories begin at Pier 21 in Halifax. Cardinal Michael Czerny’s is one of them.

Czerny was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, July 18, 1946 and was just two years old when he landed with his parents, Winifred and Egon, at the “Gateway to Canada.” He was a little Czech-speaking boy headed for Montreal with his architect father and his crafty mother.

“They came to Canada as expected, legal migrants,” said Czerny’s younger brother Bob. “In terms of what they were facing, they were in fact fleeing.”

Whatever legal definitions may have applied in post-war Canada, the Czerny family experience ran in close parallel to what many refugees experience today as they arrive in Canada.

“It was clear that communist regimes were not going to be regimes where people could make their own choices and all that sort of stuff. They wanted to leave,” said Bob.

Getting out of Czechoslovakia was legal while the Czech Communist Party was still pretending to be a democratic “national front” before 1951. A bribe or two and a lot of paperwork, a train and a boat and then they were out.

Their arrival in Canada was assured by another Czech family who had settled in Montreal barely two years before them. These friends of friends, mere acquaintances, stood as sponsors, assuring the government the Czernys would not become welfare dependent during their first year in Canada.

The Czerny family — educated, middle class professionals who spoke Czech and German, a little Polish and some Hungarian — cleared customs at Pier 21 on Dec. 21, 1948. Each year thereafter the Czernys would phone their sponsors on Dec. 21, or meet with them for a long dinner and conversation in Czech about life in Canada. Over the years the mere acquaintances who sponsored them became close and part of an ever widening circle.

With the help of Popular Mechanics, the radio, Scrabble, the Book of the Month Club, various parishes and schools and jobs, the Czernys began to learn English and French, moving through a number of Montreal apartments until settling in the English part of Pointe-Claire, 20 kilometres west of downtown. 

Education was important, and Michael and Bob were excellent students who both won scholarships to English Montreal’s elite Jesuit high school, Loyola.

The boys’ father, Egon, was too busy working to find time to re-qualify as an architect in Canada. Instead, he found work in various architectural firms where younger, less experienced men with formal qualifications would sign off on his blueprints and designs. His wife, Winifred, helped Egon with interior design contracts, primarily by sewing the curtains. She also sewed her family’s clothes from cloth purchased from the remainder bins at textile shops.

Meanwhile, the family found a collective vocation welcoming other immigrants.

“Our family’s boundaries were quite elastic,” recalled Bob. “There were people who were either in genuine, practical difficulty or simply lonely. We rarely had Christmas of just the family. There was always several other people who didn’t have wider family. A lot of it had to do with the immigrant community and war-time misfortune.”

Sixty years on, as head of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees Section, Czerny persuaded sculptor Timothy Schmalz to include his parents’ faces and figures in “Angels Unaware,” a huge sculpture of a crowd of refugees on the move with an angel’s wings in their midst. The sculpture sits temporarily in St. Peter’s Square, where it has been blessed by Pope Francis.

At 17, Michael finished off his straight-A years at Loyola and headed to Guelph, Ont., to begin life as a Jesuit in August of 1963. But six months in, Czerny developed health issues and was sent home. 

He left with the understanding that if his health improved he could re-apply. He did.

Nobody thought this young Jesuit was headed for greatness.

“Jesuits don’t necessarily separate in those categories,” said Jesuit Fr. Len Altilia, who was a novice alongside Czerny. “Michael is a very committed Jesuit, very devoted. As he progressed in his life in the Society (of Jesus), he became increasingly committed to social justice. He lived that out. … The rest of us look at this (his work at the Vatican) and say, ‘Michael is doing what we would expect a very good Jesuit to do.’ ”

But he was not entirely unremarkable. His fellow novice Fr. Doug McCarthy used to call him Beaver in recognition of Czerny’s love of hard work.

Altilia knows Czerny as a good friend — a man with an aptitude for loyalty.

“He made friends very quickly and easily,” he said. “And he remains a good friend in all these years.”

He was ordained in 1973, earned a PhD by 1978, and was the natural choice to be founding director of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto from 1979 to 1989. A late-1980s stint in Czechoslovakia and then living at the founding L’Arche community of Trosly-Breuil, France, rooted him more deeply in a life shared with the poor and the vulnerable.

Czerny took a sense of mission with him to El Salvador, where he became vice rector and director of the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America in 1989. Between 1992 and 2002  he was stationed in Rome to work on the Jesuit social apostolate.

“I think some airline pilots may have travelled more than him, but he travelled a hell of a lot,” said his brother Bob.

Having served his term in Rome, Czerny saw that the next vital challenge before the Jesuits and the Church was AIDS, then ravaging Africa. He started the African Jesuit AIDS Network in the Kangemi slum of Nairobi, Kenya, in 2002.

“In the time of AIDS, God really wants to heal,” Czerny wrote in a column for The Register in 2007. “To be healed means to be touched, included, comforted, treated humanly and made to feel alive. We are God’s way of reaching out and touching. God heals through us.” 

Rome came calling again in 2010, where he became an advisor to Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. 

And then the heart attack. He ended up in Newfoundland reading all about recovering from heart attacks and promising to slow down. He travelled less, for a while. 

Under Pope Francis, Czerny became more and more focused on refugees. Since 2017 he has been one of two undersecretaries of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development.

“The mission of the Migrants and Refugee Section is to accompany the Church — the Church in different parts of the world in responding to the needs of vulnerable people on the move,” Czerny said.

For this Jesuit, becoming a cardinal is not an accomplishment, not the capstone on a brilliant career and not a claim on honour or success. It’s just another way to serve the Church he loves. 

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