The Makings of a Canadian Jesuit Cardinal – Part Three

Pontifex Minimus Blog: Presidential Reflections on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

Part Three in a three-part series (Part One,  Part Two)


After UCA, Czerny was appointed to Rome to work at the Jesuit Social Justice Secretariat—1992-2002—followed quickly by his establishing the African Jesuit AIDS Network and directing it till 2010.  He was immersed in the kind of work that appealed to his gift for organization and to his intellectual proclivities.  Not surprisingly, given his African connections, shared social justice priorities, and his residence in Rome, Czerny and Peter Turkson would form an alliance of heart and ministry. Czerny’s familiarity with the structures of power within the Vatican was broadening and deepening.  But what is absent in Czerny is the corrosive cynicism endemic to the platoon of clerical careerists that inhabit the Vatican world.  I asked Czerny what he thought of the observation of Msgr. Ronald Knox, the Oxford chaplain, biblical translator and polished essayist, who wryly remarked that “he who travels in the barque of Peter had better not look too close into the engine room,” if for no other reason than to preserve your spiritual equilibrium:

What a great question! I’m very happy to be serving in the Roman curia because Pope Francis’s reform is vigorously counteracting the misconception of a rigid institution with a single centralized source of power: “No! No! No!,” Francis says, as the church is actually an inverted pyramid with “the top located beneath the base.”  The energy doesn’t flow from a single central source but is rather the dispersed and converging energy of service. Spiritual equilibrium comes from the Holy Spirit, not from any human institution or construct, it comes from Jesus who promised “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt: 28:21)  Helping the Holy Father with his mission and cooperating with church leaders everywhere is what I try to do.  And so here, the accent is on courage, isn’t it, because Caritas Christi urget nos. . . Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.


This is a classical Jesuit articulation: thinking in and through the church, a missionary impulse that seeks to actualize the gospel imperative and all for the greater glory of God, not a private enterprise, unassailable institution overconfident in its own purpose, a structure preoccupied by its perpetuation.

And surely Czerny is not unaware that there are many of his fellow Jesuits who have tasted directly the rod of Rome’s discipline—Thomas Reese (journalist and historian), Roger Haight (theologian), Jacques Dupuis (interfaith scholar), etc.—and he would not pass judgement on their sincerity and commitment, but his own training and temperament school him for a different approach.  Cautious, subtle in his phrasing, irenic and comfortable in his skin, I find that Czerny doesn’t overthink before he speaks, he is not scripted prior to an interview, but rather he thinks while he speaks, probes, unearths and surprises even himself.

I discovered this about him when producer Kevin Burns and I were in Rome in 2002 researching for the multi-hour CBC documentary series Stalking the Holy: the Politics of Saint-Making.  Whether the topic was Romero’s sanctity and the debates circulating around resistance to his canonization, or the appropriateness of pursuing the cause of the UCA martyrs, Czerny opted for an egalitarian reading of their worthiness, and the importance of a prudential assessment built on the dynamic of popular devotion. “The church is not going to canonize people who haven’t caught the religious imagination of the people.”

And in this, as in so many other ways, he is in perfect alignment with Francis, taking the measure of popular devotion as a key component of the church’s vitality and credibility.  Neither intellectual elitism nor spiritual gnosticism course through their veins.

In fact, there is a rich imagination at work in Czerny’s understanding of the timeless relevance and creative reconfiguring of a saint’s witness:

If a person functions as a window that opens out from this flat world of suffering and hopelessness, of materialism, self-indulgence and self-centredness, if this person, fifty years, five hundred years, or a thousand years ago opened a window for people so that they could and can perceive the other world and at the same time live differently here and now with God and others, then that to me is a valid saint, a valid icon.  An example for me is St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who until recently was pictured as a nearly unattainable model of purity and religious dedication but who is today the patron saint for those who have [HIV] AIDS and for those who care for them.


Francis would agree with Czerny—and you can see it in many of those he has “raised to the altars”—that the saints are those who “help keep us on the highway to God.”  The piety of the people reminds us of precisely that and to ignore the sense of the faithful in matters of popular religious expression is a form of pastoral dereliction.

Czerny’s natural predilection to move firmly but incrementally in the right pastoral and theological directions can be seen in his commentary for Beloved Amazonia: the Apostolic Exhortation and Other Documents from the Pan-Amazon Synod when he says:

Contrary to what has been reported in the press, the pope does not reject the synod’s proposal to ordain married men; he simply does not mention it.  He clearly does not feel the moment is right for reaching a conclusion; the issue needs more reflection and discernment.


Moving gradually, methodically and intentionally on a strategy of reform is the Bergoglio style.  Mostly.  Whether introducing critical changes into the fiscal operations of the Vatican, restructuring the Roman Curia, waiving special perks for senior prelates, tackling the “curse of clericalism”, and shoring up support for global Christian communities experiencing diminishment or facing a disappearing act, we know where Francis stands.  On the question of women deacons, the potentially radical nature of the German Synod, and bringing to heel members of the American episcopate at odds with his pontificate, Francis exudes a debilitating timidity.  Arguably, his concern is for unity—he is Peter, after all—and the centre must hold, especially given the attention he has boldly attached to the “peripheries, ”but he may find himself hostage to time.  How long is a Kairos or hour of the Lord anyway?

Irrespective of the time remaining for this pontificate, Francis can count on Cardinal Czerny to be at his side –one well-placed observer of the Jesuit scene opines that Czerny has already replaced Turkson in the hierarchy of influence--and that, Companions of Jesus both, Francis and his cardinal will work together generating a “converging energy of service.”


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