"A bit nervous and also very happy": interview with cardinal Michael Czerny

October 10, 2019 — On October 5, Michael Czerny, SJ, was created cardinal by Pope Francis, along with 12 others. We joined him last Tuesday in Rome via teleconference and asked him some questions – all of which came directly from his Canadian colleagues. The interview taught us that even though his title has changed, Father Czerny remains the same man, deeply faithful to his mission of service to others.

"This latest group (of cardinals) continues to contribute to the variety and universality of the college of cardinals. So, it is more and more reflective of the Church throughout the world and of other realities. And maybe more people will be able to say: 'Yes, among them there is my cardinal, there is a cardinal who somehow represents where I come from, how I live or what I face'."

How do you feel?

It's a feeling that takes a while to settle in. At first you have no idea what it means and then, day by day, you learn a bit more and more and start to slowly accept that this title which you may use for other people actually applies to you.

Pope Francis gives Czerny his biretta during last Saturday's consistory. Credit: Paul Haring

Do you believe that your new position as cardinal will help you in your mission as a Jesuit?

Becoming a cardinal doesn't change my mission. It's not a job. It's more like an intensification of my vocation, of the mission I've had ever since I began my life as a Jesuit. I am going to do what I was going to do anyway, which is to work as Special Secretary at the Synod on the Amazon, and then go back to the Migrants and Refugees Section (of the Vatican's Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development). However, with this nomination, I am more concerned about the whole mission of the Church and that of the Holy See, which is at the service of the Church.  

Will your role change in any other way with this nomination as a cardinal?

My role won't change. I will join the college of cardinals. The other cardinals here in Rome will become my confreres. We will be together in ways in which we wouldn't have been before and I will also be available or involved with the Church in other places. When I visit Montreal, it will be different from when I visited last time. And I don't know exactly what the differences will mean, but I anticipate that there is a kind of public dimension, a dimension of responsibility and maybe an awareness that this is preaching and bringing the Gospel to whenever you go. So there is a kind of an ongoing mission regardless of the occasion or what the task might be. 

"The Holy Father's vision is really inclusive. He really wants the Church in each place to flourish as the Church of those people in that place, that the people of that place feel that this is their Church."

Are you happy to have this more public platform?

I think it will be a little bit abnormal not to be both, a little bit more nervous and also very happy. I accept both. Yes, it's very different and you wonder how you are going to do this or how you will manage that or how something else will be. But you also feel really happy. Through the Holy Father, God has called you to serve some more or to serve more deeply. That is a great peace, a great gift. And I am really happy about that. 

Do you still have time to rest?

Maybe I have to rest more quickly, there is a little less time! But I am fine! When I have time to rest, I fall asleep.

Many say that the latest group of cardinals will help further realize the vision that Pope Francis has for the Church. How do you understand Pope Francis' vision?

The Holy Father's vision is really inclusive. He really wants the Church in each place to flourish as the Church of those people in that place, that the people of that place feel that this is their Church. The Church is accompanying them in the challenges and in the difficulties but also in the joys they have day by day and the bitter ones as well. And that sense is coming from different places and having different experiences and coming also from different races and ethnic backgrounds. Yes, this latest group continues to contribute to the variety and universality of the college of cardinals. So, it is more and more reflective of the Church throughout the world and of other realities. And maybe more people will be able to say: "Yes, among them there is my cardinal, there is a cardinal who somehow represents where I come from, how I live or what I face." Finally, this is our hope, that people will experience the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their time and place and that they don't have to abandon who they are, but on the contrary that Christ brings them a fuller experience, a fuller meaning of their lives.

Czerny during his time of ministry in Africa.

Much of your work has been with marginalized groups, for example, with HIV victims in Africa. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

The work in Africa was to accompany people who are infected with HIV or who already developed AIDS as well as their families and communities. So, the big difficulty is that as soon as somebody contracts HIV they are subject to marginalization and discrimination and exclusion to such an extent that, in addition to their illness or the infection, they also suffer socially, communally and spiritually. So our mission in the African Jesuit AIDS network is to help Jesuits throughout Africa reach out to accompany people who are affected or infected by HIV/AIDS. And our commitment is really simple, it is to be with them, to accompany them and to face the challenges with them until AIDS is no more. 

"In working with migrants and refugees, we are learning how Indigenous Peoples in many ways are like displaced persons. They don't necessarily leave the country or the state in which they are, but in many other senses they are displaced not only physically but especially culturally and even spiritually. They are vulnerable people on the move. And we try to respond." 

Do you think this type of work is partly why the Pope chose you as a cardinal?

I don't think anyone can ever answer the question of why Pope Francis chose you rather than someone else. And one of the things the Pope has done is to separate the act of becoming a cardinal from certain roles or from certain geographical reasons. The decision has nothing to do with politics or work. It has to do with representing some aspect of the life of the Church that helps complete or enrich the picture or the reality of the Church that the college of cardinals represents, so that the whole Church participates in its great variety in a wide range of challenging issues that we are called to face throughout the world. 

How do you see the Universal Apostolic Preferences playing in your role as a cardinal?

I will only be able to answer that in a while. I can't predict how they will play out. But I am sure that the commitment to young people is something that will certainly characterize the mission and ministry of all of us who have been called because the Church's evangelization of young people and the involvement of young people in the evangelizing mission of the Church is absolutely essential. That was God's revelation to us last year in the Synod on youth. So that is certainly essential. Another way is that the spirituality of saint Ignatius has oriented and supported my life all along and that can only intensify because I will certainly need more spiritual life than before.

In Canada, Jesuits have worked with Indigenous Peoples toward reconciliation. How will your work help in our path towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples at the Synod of the Amazon?

This remains to be seen. On the one hand, the mission of the Church is to reconcile all people among themselves and with God. That is true everywhere and always, especially when it has to do with peoples who have suffered a great deal, who had felt neglected or even hurt by the Church. The mission and ministry of reconciliation is central and essential. And we learned even more about that a couple of years ago when Pope Francis declared the Year of Mercy, the Jubilee of Mercy. Whether my work will lead me to become more involved with Indigenous Peoples in North America or elsewhere remains to be seen.

Czerny used wood from a migrant boat for his cross.

For the time being, in working with migrants and refugees, we are learning how Indigenous Peoples in many ways are like displaced persons. They don't necessarily leave the country or the state in which they are, but in many other senses they are displaced not only physically but especially culturally and even spiritually. They are vulnerable people on the move. And we try to respond.  

What is your hope for the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region?

My hope for the next Synod is expressed very clearly in the title Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology. It begins with the word "Amazon.” So it's about a really specific place, a very important place for the whole world, a part of our common home. And then the title asks for new ways, new approaches, new "caminos" for the Church, for our pastoral ministry and for integral ecology. Without this we will destroy the very home we all live in. That is my hope, that we will realize the potential and the challenges of the title. 





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