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One of Newest Cardinals, Michael Cardinal Czerny, Recounts Africa Experience: Interview

Jesuit Michael Cardinal Czerny, one of the two Under-Secretaries of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development

On October 5, 2019, Pope Francis created 13 new Cardinals. Although only one of them, the Franciscan Capuchin (OFM, Cap) DR Congo’s Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu is African-born, five of these 13 newest Princes of the Church have connections with Africa.

ACI Africa caught up with 73-year-old Jesuit Michael Cardinal Czerny, whose ministry in Africa, Latin America, and Rome has contributed to the promotion of social justice. A Canadian national, Czerny who was ordained Bishop on the eve of his elevation to Cardinal recounts his ministry among the people of God over the years, including his eight-year-missionary work in Africa where he initiated the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN). “I learned about Ubuntu, which comprises many virtues that are entirely consistent with the ideals that Jesus expressed in the Beatitudes and that have become the tradition of works of mercy,” Cardinal Czerny has recalled.

ACI Africa: Who is Michael Cardinal Czerny as a Jesuit religious missionary?

Cardinal Czerny: Following my 1963 graduation from Loyola High School in Montreal, I joined the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). On 9 June 1973, I was ordained to the priesthood. In 1979 I helped to found the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto, and was its first director until 1989.

Following the killing of the Jesuits at University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, I served there as a Vice-Rector and directed its Institute for Human Rights (IDHUCA) in 1990-1991. From 1992 to 2002, I served as the Social Justice Secretary at the Jesuit General Curia in Rome.

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I then founded and directed the African Jesuit AIDS Network from 2002 to 2010, collaborating with the Bishops' Conferences throughout Africa and occasionally teaching at Hekima College in Nairobi (Kenya).

In Rome again, from 2010 to 2016, I served as an advisor to Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Since the beginning of 2017 I have been one of the two Under-Secretaries of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

On 1 September 2019, Pope Francis named me among thirteen new Cardinals. After my episcopal ordination on 4 October 2019, I was created Cardinal on 5 October. I served as a Special Secretary for the October 2019 Special Synod of Bishops on the Amazon Region.

ACI Africa: How did you react to the Holy Father’s September 1 announcement that you were among the 13 to be elevated to Cardinal, especially when were not even a Bishop?

Cardinal Czerny: I did not anticipate any such appointment, whether to the role of a Bishop or Cardinal. I was totally surprised as, I believe were the other 12 whom Pope Francis named that day.

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ACI Africa: Pope Francis named you one of the two Special Secretaries of the Pan-Amazonian Synod a few months prior to the announcement of your elevation to Cardinal. How did you qualify for this position?

Cardinal Czerny: My appointment as a special secretary for the Amazon Synod occurred in May, and I had been working on the plans and documents since mid-June. For many years I was involved in Latin American issues and spoke Spanish, and for two years worked in El Salvador. More recently, at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I served as liaison with REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Church Network established in 2014 to help coordinate the Church’s efforts and facilitate the great process of listening which prepared so well for the Synod.

ACI Africa: You were ordained Bishop on the eve of your elevation to the College of Cardinals. The day after you were made Cardinal, you were engaged as a special secretary to the Amazon Synod. How did you manage the three days, not-so-common practice in the recent past of the Church?

Cardinal Czerny: When the Pope named me to join the College of Cardinals, on 1 September, I was near Sao Paolo, Brazil, attending a meeting of Popular Movements preparing their contribution to the Synod. For the ordination and elevation, I had excellent help, so I was able to participate in the immensely moving events of Friday to Sunday, October 4-6, without mishap!

ACI Africa: Share with us about your position as the Undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

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Cardinal Czerny: When Pope Francis incorporated four former pontifical councils into the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, he included his concern for migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons and survivors of human trafficking and arranged for this work to be carried forward as an important priority. So, our Migrants and Refugees Section, under his personal direction, is headed by two under-secretaries, a Scalabrinian Father and myself.

ACI Africa: You worked in Africa for a number of years. What did you accomplish on the continent?

Cardinal Czerny: The work of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) that I initiated has continued in very capable new hands. They are using the same structures and developing the skills for making the African Church an effective presence in this area of continuing great need. A sense of empowerment and liberation, a spirituality of compassion, allow persons filled with faith to bring healing and joy to each other.

The Church in Africa, like on all continents, is called to follow the teachings of Jesus as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Pope Francis has spelled out the four-fold mission of a Samaritan Church towards all vulnerable people on the move: to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them in our midst.

ACI Africa: What memories do you have about your ministry in Africa?

Cardinal Czerny: During my 8 years in Africa, I learned about Ubuntu, which comprises many virtues that are entirely consistent with the ideals that Jesus expressed in the Beatitudes and that have become the tradition of works of mercy. I also learned about the living links between ourselves, our ancestors and those who are still waiting to be born. I witnessed the power of these and other remarkable traits like sense of humour, a more relaxed attitude to time, the resourcefulness and stamina in the face of suffering, that sustain families and groups in the face of enormous challenges. So, my message is that Africans have abundant capacity to meet their challenges.

ACI Africa: As Cardinal, what is your ministry going forward?

Cardinal Czerny: As my work regarding the Special Synod on the Amazon is drawing to a close, I shall be resuming my role as under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section. In his letter of nomination, Pope Francis expressed his own priority as compassion. He explained, “May this new stage in your life, increase your capacity for compassion and enable you to imitate Jesus more closely (Mt 9:36; 14:14; Lk 7:13). Compassion for all those men and women who, victimized and enslaved by so many evils, look with hope for a gesture of tender love on the part of those who believe in the Lord.”