God knows very well how to use a poor man to contribute to the coming of His Kingdom.
“I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a foreigner, and you welcomed me.” These words of Jesus are the program that Pope Francis has entrusted to one of the new cardinals created on October 5: Jesuit priest Michael Czerny.
This quote from the Gospel According to Matthew (25:35) is precisely the reason for the existence of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees office, of which Father Czerny has until now been the Under-Secretary. This Vatican section was created and is directed by the pope himself, an exceptional case in today’s Church government.
Michael Czerny was born on July 18, 1946, in Brno, Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic). When he was only two years old, his parents emigrated to Canada with him and his younger brother—a baby just a few months old—in the face of the threat of Communist totalitarianism.
After joining the Company of Jesus, he was ordained a priest on June 9, 1973. He founded the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto, which he directed from 1979 to 1989. Then, after the assassination of Jesuits at the José Simeon Cañas Central American University in El Salvador, he took on the role of vice-rector of the university and directed its human rights institute.
Between 1987 and 1988, he lived for several months in Czechoslovakia and in the Community of L’Arche, in Trosly-Breuil, France, founded by Jean Vanier.
Since 1992, he has been all around the world, first as head of the Secretariat for Social Justice of the Jesuit Curia in Rome, and then as the founding director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network.
He returned to Rome from 2010 to 2016 to be the personal assistant/consultant of Cardinal Peter Turkson, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Currently, he’s also one of the two special secretaries of the special Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, which is taking place now at the Vatican.
Aleteia: How did you receive your faith in Jesus? When did Christ become the meaning of your life?
Cardinal Czerny: I received my faith from my family, from my Catholic school, and from the communities where I grew up. Rather than specifying the moment in which Christ became the center of my life, I think that instead, rooted in a good Catholic formation, I gradually discovered throughout the years that Christ is the center of my life, and I discovered it through experiences, witnesses to the faith, choices, and in my own prayer life.
When and how did you understand that God was calling you to leave everything and to follow him on the path of religious life, specifically as a Jesuit?
Cardinal Czerny: The call arrived early in my life, when I was still a student at Loyola High School in Montreal, and just after graduation, I entered the Jesuits in what was then called the Province of Upper Canada.
I felt a strong desire to serve God and my neighbor in the community, to use the talents God had given me, and to live in freedom. That was what I was hoping to be able to do when I entered the Jesuits.
Have you ever had doubts about your faith? Have you doubted at any time your religious vocation?
Cardinal Czerny: Of course, you have doubts, but they don’t contradict your faith. The true danger (regarding the faith) is fear: you really need God’s grace not to let yourself be dominated or ruled by fear, but to go beyond your fears towards a greater faith in God; towards the church… And this growth, fortunately, also means growing in hope.
What can you tell us about your university studies and your intellectual formation?
Cardinal Czerny: I did my postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago. I signed up for an interdisciplinary and innovative program called “Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and Study of Methods.”
Its founder was Professor Richard McKeon, a renowned Aristotelian academic who, in the end, directed my doctoral thesis. The courses he gave were, above all, on philosophy, theology, and contemporary social theory.
Pope Saint Paul VI was an important inspiration for me at that time, when he called the Jesuits to study what he called “the fearful danger of atheism threatening human society” that “advances and spreads under many forms.”
For this reason, my investigative work was oriented towards studying the causes of atheism present in communism, in authors such as Marx and Feuerbach. This request from the pope and what I studied during those years were of special interest to me, since my own family, due to atheist Communism, had to emigrate from Czechoslovakia to Canada when my brother and I were very young.
When you began your priestly ministry, you founded the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto in 1979. Right after the assassination of the Jesuits at the Central American University of El Salvador in 1989, you arrived as the vice-president of that Jesuit university and as the director of its Human Rights Institute. What did you learn from such a traumatic experience?