Pope Francis will ordain Michael Czerny, S.J., bishop on Oct. 4 and place the cardinal’s red hat on his head the following day, giving him the right to vote in the conclave to elect the pope’s successor. As he prepared for his elevation to the leadership ranks of the Catholic Church, the Canadian Jesuit spoke to America about how he interprets these events, what impresses him most about Pope Francis and what he considers the three main challenges facing the church today.
When Pope Francis surprised everyone in Rome on Sept. 1 by announcing that he was going to make Father Czerny a cardinal—no one had anticipated his nomination—this tall, slim, 73-year-old Jesuit was in Brazil at the Florestan Fernandes National School of the landless workers movement on the outskirts of São Paulo. He was participating in a meeting of popular movements from Latin America in preparation for the upcoming Amazon Synod. Father Czerny was totally surprised by the announcement—he had no inkling it was coming—but he greeted the news in a humble way: “I thank God and I thank Pope Francis for this new mission, this new service, this great honor,” he said.
When Vatican Radio contacted him, he revealed that the participants at the meeting “welcomed the news and in a sense they helped me welcome the news too. They received the news of my nomination and that of Archbishop Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, who is very close to the popular movements and marginalized peoples, and said they felt it was like a hug, a caress on the part of Pope Francis, and a welcome gesture on the part of God to them.” He said that finding himself at the time of the announcement “with the people who are on the peripheries, and who are often not taken account of at all, was a real sign, a very providential sign.”
“Our vocation is to help men and women to live their human lives and to live them to the full,” said Father Czerny. “This is the big mission. This is what it means to preach the Gospel and to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth.”
Speaking almost a month later at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, Father Czerny confided that he has experienced his nomination as cardinal as a calling for “an increased or enhanced or intensified share in the mission of the Holy Father, the mission of the Holy See, in the service that this...center of the church...is called to give. I’m asked to give more broadly, more deeply to this service than before.”
He interprets his nomination not simply as an endorsement of his work for migrants and refugees, but also as an expression of support for “integral human development.” He explained that “the church’s effort for integral human development” is the real story. It “goes back to the prophets, goes back practically to creation,” and, he added, “our vocation is to help men and women to live their human lives and to live them to the full…. This is the big mission. This is what it means to preach the Gospel and to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth.”
Indeed, he said, “the real story is the embodiment or the implementation of the Gospel in human society and human history. That is what we are really about. And if becoming a cardinal puts more weight behind that or more of a focus on that or gives me a chance to communicate that better or more effectively, then that’s what it’s for.”
Since he has worked closely with Pope Francis on three major initiatives—the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” the migrants and refugees issue, and now the synod on the Amazon, I asked what strikes him most about Francis.
Father Czerny responded immediately: “The shortest answer is [the pope’s commitment to] Vatican II.” He explained that he sees the pope as deeply dedicated to “‘the church in the modern world’ and the multifaceted carrying forward of the mission, which is implicit in that Vatican II expression: that the church is in the world, is trying to accompany the world.” The church, he said, “is not here to run the world or to solve the world’s problems, but the world should feel that the church, that Christ, that God is with us, with them, as we face the great difficulties of our lives and of our times.”
He said, “Pope Francis has intensified or accelerated this broad sense of the mission of the church, so people who wouldn’t identify as Catholic, or even as Christian, somehow feel caught up in this desire, this hope for life, for the fullness of life, and for the addressing of the great injustices and the overcoming of despair, the hopelessness, the enslavement, the bewilderment, the disorientation that many people feel as life evolves in an ever-accelerating way. People can feel that the church is with us, that Christ is with us, that God has not abandoned us or given up on us. That’s what Francis is communicating in every moment, in so many different ways.”
The church “is not here to run the world or to solve the world’s problems, but the world should feel that the church, that Christ, that God is with us as we face the great difficulties of our lives and of our times.”
When asked what he admires most about Pope Francis, Father Czerny paused for a moment and then noted the pope’s “restless seeking” of “where the Gospel is most needed.”
“Sometimes he calls that ‘peripheries,’ but there are other words for it too, like challenges or crossroads, or as we’re speaking [in Rome] today, there is this meeting on ‘the Common Good in the Digital Age.’”
He explained that for Francis the seeking means not being limited to one subject such as the role of the papal almoner and his work for the poor, or “Laudato Si’,” or the beginning or end of life issues. On the contrary, “it’s all of them, and it’s this constant re-orchestration or re-harmonizing, so that the church is trying to be present at all these edges where people are really afraid and worried, and with good reason.”
Born on July 18, 1946, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (in what is today the Czech Republic), he became a child refugee at the age of 2, when his family had to flee from their homeland. Thanks to a personal sponsorship, they were able to settle in Canada. Did his refugee past affect his outlook in life? “It’s only since I’ve been working in the migrants and refugee section...that I am slowly discovering the answer to that question,” he said.
“I’ve found that...when I hear the Holy Father say that we should welcome, protect, promote and integrate [migrating people], I translate that back into our experience as a family...and I realize the truth of what he is saying and I realize how those dimensions were realized for good or for less-good in our lives.”
Father Czerny lived in Canada over 30 years, worked in El Salvador for two more (following the assassination of the Jesuits at the University of Central America there). He spent 10 years in Kenya, and almost 20 in Rome.
Asked whether he considers himself: Czech, Canadian, African, Latin American or Italian, Father Czerny says he sees himself as all of these. “Going forward in life, it’s very difficult to interpret what each change means, but looking back, reading the story retrospectively, you could say they were opportunities to serve…. There’s a providential unfolding, a preparation. I’m now 73. I thought this was going to slow down and stop, but it hasn’t.”
He joined the Jesuits, he said, “because I went to a Jesuit High School and I admired the Jesuits who taught us…. I wanted to serve God and others like they did, and I appreciated...the community life. In some ways the high school participated or was an extension of the community life.” Moreover, he said, “I had the feeling that the Jesuits would encourage me to develop my talents and make the best use of what God gave me. I found that. Maybe that’s typical of a refugee!”
When asked what he would identify as the two or three main problems or challenges facing the church today, Father Czerny said: “First, the distance, the non-communication or the gap between the church—the organized church, the institutional church—and the young generation. That is number one.”
Second, “I think an...ongoing challenge is to be both worldwide and really united, really Catholic, and for every part of the church to feel authentically part and not less than the others. I think that unity is important, the solidarity of the body is very important.”
He adds a third “very big” challenge: the church and the new media. “I don’t think we have really begun,” he said, “to understand the change in the whole human environment that electronic and social media represent. It’s bewildering us both in our interpretation of the world and in our ability to preach the Gospel.”
As we concluded our conversation, I asked Father Czerny how he reads or interprets the attacks against Pope Francis by a minority in the church and society today. His answer: It means “he’s on target!”