Interview with Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ

For this exclusive interview he granted to INI magazine, Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ spoke to Fr. Pavulraj Michael, SJ, Professor, Gregorian University, Rome and a member of INI’s Editorial Board. Cardinal Czerny, 75, has already made a spectacular and inspiring contribution for migrants, refugees and HIV/AIDS victims. He talks of his birth in Czechoslovakia and childhood in Canada, his life as a Jesuit, the creative initiatives he started in Canada and Africa, his work at the Jesuit General Curia in Rome and now in Vatican as Prefectad interim’ of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. He shares also what he thinks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the massive exodus of refugees it has caused.

Good morning Cardinal! Thank you for the interview. Can your remarkable work for migrants and refugees be traced back to your family history? Your family left Czechoslovakia, where you were born, to settle down in Canada. 

Sometimes life takes strange turns. Human maps start in one place, embrace the planet and return home. Veľké  Slemence, the border that connects Ukraine to Slovakia, is about 500 kilometres from Brno, in the Czech Republic. Both cities belonged to a state that no longer exists today, Czechoslovakia. It was there, 75 years ago, that I was born. When I look back, it seems like fiction. I left Brno in 1948, at the age of two. My mother, Winifred Hayek Czerny, had been interned in the Terezin camp during World War II. Her parents were Catholics, but her grandparents were born Jewish and so she was classified as Jewish by the Nazis. My father, Egon Czerny, was also a Roman Catholic, but he was interned in the Postoloprty forced labour camp because he refused to divorce my mother. After the war, as soon as they were able, the Czernys looked for a chance to live elsewhere and went to Canada. That is my story and I am happy about it. 

Could you tell us about your vocation to the Society of Jesus? How did it happen?

Sure. Ten years after we arrived, I was lucky enough to enter the best secondary school in Montreal. Loyola High School was run by the Jesuits. There began a new journey. I had a great admiration for the Jesuits. I appreciated their life in community, their studies, their intellectual capacity, their commitment to the poor and their missionary service. All this combined with God’s call and, after graduating from high school, I entered the Society of Jesus in the novitiate in Guelph, Ontario.

You founded a Centre in Canada that dealt with social justice issues.

Inspired by what St Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises, I have a great desire to follow and serve Christ in the poor and excluded and oppressed. I was interested in literature, philosophy, social sciences, but I wanted to spend my life in a context that was not the university, but social. The option to live for ten years in a poor neighbourhood of Toronto gave me a helpful perspective, where I co-founded the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, which helped with various social issues in Toronto, across Canada and in Central America.

My mother’s parents were Catholics, but her grandparents were born Jewish and so she was classified as Jewish by the Nazis.

What took you to El Salvador at a very difficult, challenging time for that country?

I went to El Salvador, in the years 1990-1991, to continue the work of the six Jesuits who were killed by the military, precisely for their commitment to the poor who had to resist terrible exploitation and repression. My work at the University of Central America was as director of its Human Rights Institute and as Vice-Rector for Social Outreach. In 1992, Father General called me to Rome and for 11 years I served as secretary of the Social Justice Secretariat at the Jesuit Curia.

I went to El Salvador, in the years 1990-1991, to continue the work of the six Jesuits who were killed by the military.

You founded the African Jesuits AIDS Network and directed it for some time. What inspired you?

It was after my work at the Jesuit Curia that I went to Africa. I founded and directed the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), in support of African Jesuits and their colleagues engaged in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. I did this for 8 years, Then in 2010 I came back to Rome as councillor to Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

At this moment – the first week of March, 2022 – the whole world is watching thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their country because of the Russian invasion that began on 24 February and taking refuge in neighbouring countries. What do you think of this immense tragedy? 

In the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, we are echoing the words of Pope Francis, pronounced during the Angelus on Sunday, 27 February 2022. The Holy Father said, “Time and again we have prayed that this road [the war] would not be taken. And let us not stop talking; indeed, let us pray to God more intensely.” 

I also want to emphasize what the Pope and the whole Church have expressed several times, namely that “Those who wage war forget humanity. They do not start from the people, they do not look at the real life of people, but place partisan interests and power before all else. They trust in the diabolical and perverse logic of weapons, which is the furthest from the logic of God. And they distance themselves from ordinary people, who want peace. Ordinary people are the real victims in every conflict, who pay for the follies of war with their own skin.”

In the face of so much destruction and suffering, what can be our response as Christians and as citizens?

The Holy Father invited everyone “to make 2 March ‘22, Ash Wednesday, a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine. A day to be close to the sufferings of the Ukrainian people, to feel that we are all brothers and sisters, and to implore God for an end to the war.” I think we should do this throughout Lent: we must not cease to fast and pray, day after day, until the weapons fall silent and a reasonably just resolution has been found. We must join the Holy Father to care for the weakest, the most vulnerable, the elderly, those who seek refuge in these times, mothers fleeing with their children.” The Pope has pointed out that “those who come seeking refuge are our brothers and sisters. It is urgent that we open humanitarian corridors for them. We must welcome them.”

So everyone has to contribute to reconciliation, justice and peace.

Each and every one should take up what the Pope asked us to – pray and fast so that this war comes to an end quickly. We should welcome the refugees. We should keep telling those who are fighting what the Pope said so forcefully at St Peter’s Square: “With a heart broken by what is happening in Ukraine, I say,  “Put down your weapons! God is with the peacemakers, not with those who use violence.” Let us not forget the wars in other parts of the world, such as Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia…”

You have worked at the Jesuit General Curia in Rome for a long time. Now you are working in the Vatican Curia.  

I take the same perspective as Pope Francis: the power centre is not Rome. The Roman Curia is a magnificent hub of services to the local Churches. This understanding frees us from certain aspects of government that are too centralized and allows us to see beyond Rome to the periphery. Though the Roman Curia’s structures and traditions sometimes isolate us from each other, my overall experience is positive.

In the last five years I have been one of the two under-secretaries of the Migrants and Refugee Section, which works under the direct guidance of the Holy Father. Pope Francis is very much interested and personally follows the work: he listens, he encourages, he advises and often accepts our suggestions. Our challenge, in the Migrants & Refugees Section, is to be attentive to the many needs of people on the move throughout the world, and to support the Church accompanying them pastorally in their urgent needs. It is the local community which hears their calls and responds with generosity and sensitivity. So it is a joy to work with Pope Francis in the Roman Curia in support of the local Church all over the world.

Pope Francis made you a Cardinal in 2019. Does being a Cardinal make any difference?

Whether as a Jesuit priest until recently or now as a Cardinal, my work is the same – aimed at helping in all possible ways migrants and refugees. My journey continues. Now as Prefect ad interim of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development I have wider responsibilities.

Pope Francis has called the whole Church to prepare for the Synod of Bishops on Synodality. How do you understand the Church as synodal? What will be the effect of synodality on the Church as we know it?

It is immensely meaningful. It is an extraordinary step to put this ancient Church in motion. Synodality is the deep idea of the Second Vatican Council. After fading from view for a few years, we now have a Church that wants to accompany the world that needs us tremendously, because if we do not rediscover faith and hope we cannot continue to live on this planet; we will not have the moral strength to take care of our common home. The magisterium of Pope Francis repeatedly invites us to use the method of Vatican II. What do I mean by this? It is to rediscover the spiritual joy of being the people of God and the need to enter into dialogue with today’s world, serenely, without being defensive, to meet the other, the different. And synodality has to do with rediscovering ourselves as the sinful but forgiven people of God, with the real desire to dialogue and walk together, with those of other beliefs and with the whole of humanity.

This means having an inclusive mentality, reaching out to the whole of humanity. For example, the charitable and social services of the Church reach out to everyone in need, not just Catholics, going beyond caste, creed, religion and ethnicity. With Vatican II we rediscover ourselves as children of God, with Laudato si’ we learn to care for our common home, and with Fratelli tutti we learn to treat each other, not as strangers but as siblings.

Thank you, dear Cardinal.

Thank you.

Pavulraj Michael, SJ (MDU) did his Licentiate in Spiritual Theology from La Universidad de Comillas, Madrid and his Doctorate in Theology from La Universita’ PontificiaGregoriana, Rome. He was the Director of Novices for Madurai Province. At present, he is the Dean and Professor of the Institute of Spirituality, La Universita’ Pontificia Gregoriana, Rome.