Then Fr. Michael Czerny in El Salvador, where he thrust himself onto the Central American University campus after the murders of six Jesuits. Photo courtesy The Archive of the Jesuits in Canada, Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice

Courageous past in El Salvador remembered

  • October 11, 2019

It may be 30 years since Cardinal Michael Czerny left the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador, but it’s not a place that has forgotten him.

Canada’s newest cardinal was on the scene in San Salvador shortly after the cold-blooded murder of six Jesuits on Nov. 16, 1989. The massacre of the Jesuits, plus their housekeeper and her teenaged daughter, at their residence at the university came in the heat of El Salvador’s brutal civil war that pitted government forces against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrilla organization over a bloody decade. Despite the lingering dangers, Czerny thrust himself onto the campus and assumed the director’s role of the CUA’s Human Rights Institute, a role that was held by one of the murdered Jesuits, Fr. Segundo Montes.

“He assumed the defence of those rights with courage at the end of the civil war,” said Jesuit Fr. Rodolfo Cardenal in an e-mail, translated from Spanish, to The Catholic Register.

That courage continued to show as Czerny played an important role in the trial of the government soldiers responsible for the murders. 

“Thanks to his contacts in the international community, a distinguished group of personalities attended the trial and then testified to the procedural fraud that had been committed,” said Cardenal, a professor in the CUA’s Department of Theology since 1980 and director of the school’s Archbishop Romero Center.

But just as Czerny has not been forgotten by CUA, he in turn has not forgotten the university. Cardenal said each Nov. 16 Czerny has sent a message to the university, no matter where he has been posted around the world.

“The link has not been broken. For the CUA and for himself, his passage here has left an indelible mark,” said Cardenal.  

It’s a refrain heard from wherever Czerny has laid his hat in a priestly career dedicated to looking out for the marginalized in society, at home in Canada and around the world.

Jesuit Fr. Elphege Leon Quenum describes the time he spent with Czerny at the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) in Nairobi, Kenya, as “two rich years.” It was September 2003 and Quenum had just completed his masters in social sciences and was beginning his regency with Czerny.

“I discovered a companion who was very dedicated to the cause of the poor and the vulnerable people,” said Quenum, who is now director of AJAN.

He saw a man “who did not spare a single energy” to develop answers of the good of the people infected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.

“He used to say, ‘This is the time for the Church. We are called, in this moment, to express the Church’s closeness to the weak and people who are suffering in
society,’ ” said Quenum.

And he was not shy in sharing that vision with others. Queneum said Czerny was relentless in spreading this message in Jesuit houses of formation to discuss with young Jesuits and reflect on the HIV/AIDS situation in their area. He also would visit the various apostolates to get them to include HIV/AIDS responses in their mission. 

“Many centres such as the Loyola Hope Centre in Togo, Let’s Talk About AIDS and Foyer Louis de Gonzague in Democratic Republic of Congo, Upendo and Uzima were created or strengthened under his leadership,” said Quenum. 

Msgr. Robert Vitillo has seen that sense of urgency in Czerny in the more than 20 years he has known and worked with him. But he also sees the humility in the man and doesn’t think being made cardinal will change him.

“I do not think Cardinal Czerny considers it an elevation,” said Vitillo, secretary-general of the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Catholic Migration Commission. “In his message to friends and family he clarifies that this is a call by the Holy Father to greater service and sacrifice for the Church.”

Vitillo believes that Pope Francis’ calling of his fellow Jesuit to the College of Cardinals should be a challenge “to keep in mind the people on the peripheries of the world and to make them as the centre of our lives of service — but to do this in a way that is not simply giving assistance but also is identifying the root causes of forced migration, of structural poverty, of human trafficking, of environmental ruin, of conflict, war and persecution and all aspects of the culture of indifference and transform them into a culture of empowerment and solidarity.”

“I know his life of prayer and strong intellectual resources will give him the strength and energy to fulfill all the expectations of the Holy Father and of the Universal Church for his new service as cardinal,” said Vitillo.

Vitillo thinks Czerny’s call is a statement by Pope Francis on social justice.

“I believe that Cardinal Czerny’s call to greater and more selfless service will indeed bring more attention to the work we do…. I have no doubt that his voice as a cardinal will be heard more acutely and widely, both in the corridors of power and in the hearts of the people forced to leave their homes and local communities and those who serve them,” he said.

Quenum knows he is following his mentor.

“I always remember his heart for the poor that inspires me to exercise my leadership to continue the same mission for the benefit of the people who are suffering from HIV and AIDS. I wish Michael Czerny success in his mission as cardinal,” he said.

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