By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Part Two in a three-part series (Part One)
Rattling through the infosphere at the time Francis announced his new cohort of cardinals was the buzz around this Canadian Jesuit who was making impressive inroads into the Vatican machinery and whose star was on the ascendant. The only other Canadian cardinals currently are Thomas Collins of Toronto, Gérald Lacroix of Montreal and the previously mentioned Marc Ouellet. Undersecretary of Migrants and Refugees for the Francis-created Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, one-time personal assistant and confidant for Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian social justice prelate and oft-mooted but never serious contender as papabile, papal appointee as a voting member to the 2018 Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, and one of the two Special Secretaries for the 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Pan Amazon.
Michael Czerny had become a major player in the Francis pontificate.
And just before the Amazon Synod commenced its controversial business, Czerny was consecrated Titular Archbishop of Beneventum—one day before being given his red hat on October 5, 2019. Although there have been cardinals throughout history who were not priests, in 1917 during the papacy of Benedict XV all cardinals had to be priests and then in 1962 John XXIII required that all cardinals be ordained bishops prior to their creation as cardinals. John Paul II actually parted company with the Roncalli instruction and often waived the requirement that priests be made bishops before being created cardinals.
But in the case of Czerny, there would be no such exemption. Irrespective of Francis’s decision to follow the twentieth-century protocol around the creation of cardinals, it strikes me as counterproductive. Paul VI often mused about creating Jacques Maritain and Jean Guitton, French intellectuals with whom he had a special affinity, as cardinals, and Arthur Gibson, the provocative, brilliant and quirky Ingmar Bergman authority, St. Michael’s College Faculty of Theology professor and peritus on atheism and the church, was an enthusiastic advocate for the making of Corinne McLuhan, Marshall’s spouse, the first woman cardinal. None of this happened.
A pity. Mixing lay women and lay men among presbyters and bishops in a truly representative College of Cardinals, though disruptive of tradition, would highlight lay charisms without navigating the turbulent theological and political seas of ordination. Not a big item on the Bergoglio agenda.
And on that agenda—a pastoral ministry of mercy, justice, hospitality, and generosity of heart—Czerny is emerging as a central player the pope can trust, a figure who simply gets things done. Everyone I have spoken with agrees on that: Czerny is the one you go to for things to happen.
But what shaped him that way? His brother, Robert, an editor, translator, and Director of the Ethics Practitioners’ Association of Canada, sees something in the family’s history and chemistry: “Both our parents were always ready to help anyone in difficulty; Dad was an inveterate, practical and effective problem-solver. Mom often had extra mouths to cook for. She stuck up for the underdog.”
Immigrants to Canada in 1948—the future cardinal was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia on July 18, 1946—the Czernys had a direct taste of the carnage and horror of the Second World War, the mother being the only member of her immediate family of five to actually survive. They knew firsthand the consequences of radical displacement; they understood in their bones what it means to be migrants in a time of disorder.
I asked Cardinal Czerny—whose background is richly cosmopolitan, given his many Jesuit postings and natal origin—what he sees as quintessentially Canadian in his makeup:
I was shaped in Canada: geographically immense, demographically diverse, and modest in geopolitical terms. . . .So wherever I have lived, in cultures longer-lasting than the Canadian one, while admiring the treasures of their past, I finally found myself longing for the openness, generosity and tolerance of the Canadian way of life where you don’t hear or feel: “No, you can’t, we’ve never done it like that before.”
Genetically programmed to do things and to feel comfortable networking rather than functioning as a solo agent, Czerny conforms nicely to the model of pastoral leadership envisioned by Francis, and is, like the pope, a member of the Society of Jesus. He is also keen on the decentralization of power and authority and the spirit of synodality abides in his DNA.
After graduating from Loyola High School in Montreal, Czerny joined the Upper Canadian Jesuit Province, as it was then known, in 1964 and was ordained in 1973. The decade of the ‘70s was a fecund time in Canadian Jesuit history. Bill Ryan, a former General Secretary for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, an economist with a doctorate from Harvard, and an avid supporter of Pedro Arrupe’s pro-justice agenda for the Jesuits, became provincial and established the Social Faith and Justice Centre in Toronto. Czerny would be its founding director—the co-founders including an impressive tranche of rising Jesuit thinkers and activists like Gordon George, Michael Stogre and Jim Webb—but before assuming the directorship the future cardinal secured his doctorate in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Chicago in 1978. It was while in Chicago that a conversion moment occurred—and thanks to fellow Canadian Bernard Lonergan’s multivalent understanding of conversion what occurred would have several layers of meaning and direction:
I had something of a conversion during graduate studies at University of Chicago, where I arrived in 1969. What triggered the change was a twofold violence: far away the pitiless death and destruction of the Vietnam War, and right around me living in the privileged university “ghetto” surrounded by the equally senseless racial and poverty-driven violence. The “grace,” as I have learned more recently, was Pope Francis’s “everything is connected” of Laudato si’ and “everyone is connected” of Fratelli tutti. I couldn’t hide behind my visa as a student or as a Canadian to claim that the wars in Vietnam and in our surrounding neighbourhoods had nothing to do with me.
And he hasn’t hidden behind his visa or citizenship ever since. His Chicago and Toronto experiences would prepare him well for what was to come at the end of the 1980s, a shattering event that galvanized many in the Jesuit world, shook Catholic justice advocates to the core, and opened a more grisly chapter in the bloodied land of the Saviour.
On November 18, 1989 six Jesuits were assassinated at the Universidad Centroamericana José Cañas (UCA) in San Salvador. In addition, two women, a mother and her daughter, Elba and Celina Ramos who were found on the premises at the time of the military incursion, were slaughtered. Pitiless collateral.
Long feared for their work in social and political analysis, their careful chronicling of human rights atrocities, their systematic commitment to educating for justice, their advocacy for non-violence, inspired in part by the witness of Oscar Romero and his close Jesuit ally Rutilio Grande, and for their sympathy for the cause of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación or FMLN, although they remained hardly neutral on the matter of guerrilla crimes, the Jesuit university in the country was poised for government retaliation. But no one expected anything of the scale and ferocity visited upon the Jesuit residence.
The six Jesuits who perished at the hands of their assassins—lying on the grass and having their brains splattered—were Ignacio Ellacuría, theologian and rector of UCA; Ignacio Martin-Baró, psychologist and vice-rector; Juan Ramón Moreno, preacher and assistant director of the Oscar Romero Centre; Armando López, theologian and a former rector of the Managua, Nicaragua campus of UCA; Segundo Montes, sociologist and superior of the community; and Joaquin López y López, catechist and director of the Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy) Movement. It was a bloodbath but the Jesuits, if originally dispirited, quickly galvanized in an effort to replace the new martyrs, to the degree that they could, with fellow Jesuits. It was a way of honouring their memory, solidifying their witness, and remaining close to the people who continued to suffer greatly in a country collapsing into endless war.
Czerny saw his own work there as a continuation of the human rights project of the university as well as an extension of his ministry in social justice—academically and personally nurtured by his prior experience
Part Three of this three-part series will be released on Friday, October 1, 2021.