On Oct. 2, Canada’s Michael Czerny was a lowly Roman Catholic priest, though one who had caught the eye of Pope Francis. On Oct. 3, Francis made him a bishop. At a ceremony the very next day, Pope Francis placed a scarlet biretta cap on the bishop’s head to create Cardinal Czerny.
A bit of Vatican history was made at that moment. In recent memory, no priest had been made a cardinal-elector — a Cardinal under the age of 80 who is eligible to vote for the next pope -- before spending years as a bishop. Several priests over 80 have been honoured by being elevated to cardinal.
Since he is not yet 80 (only in the Vatican are septuagenarians considered young bucks), he is also an elector in the College of Cardinals, meaning he will vote for the next Pope. He is also, theoretically, a candidate for the top job himself (he is one of four living Canadian cardinals – the others are Marc Ouellet, Gerald Lacroix and Thomas Collins).
He is very much the cardinal of the moment, and very much the Pope’s man; he has clearly made Cardinal Czerny one of his closest lieutenants.
Even before he was made cardinal, Francis gave him key roles in two hot areas – refugees and environment – that are close to the Pope’s heart.
At 74, Cardinal Czerny feels like he has a whole career ahead of him in service to the Church. “I was born into a new life,” he said.
In 2016, Francis appointed him undersecretary for the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery of Integral Human Development (a dicastery is the equivalent of a government ministry).
Unlike many Vatican undersecretaries, he reports directly to Francis and meets with him regularly.
Three years later, Francis made him one of two special secretaries to the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region. The conference evolved into a plea for justice for Amazonia’s 33 million inhabitants, especially for their 2.5 million Indigenous peoples, and for the protection of their environment against the destructive forces of factory farming, mining and other economic forces.
His younger brother, Robert, a communications consultant who lives in Ottawa and who has done writing for Cardinal Czerny, said that even as a young man, Michael “always had a commitment to justice. He was more interested in doing good for people’s lives than in theology per se.”
Cardinal Czerny is now a highly public figure in the Church, but one who doesn’t much like talking about himself; he’s more doer than talker. This is a story he has kept to himself and his family for a decade – he’s lucky to be alive, which made his ascent to cardinal all the more precious to him.
On May 22, 2010, on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Toronto, he had a severe myocardial infarction over the western Atlantic and might have died over the clouds were it not for an incredible piece of luck. Onboard was a group of cardiologists and medical workers from Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, returning from a conference in Europe. When a flight attendant put out the call for help, two cardiologists and an emergency-room nurse, who was carrying some medical equipment with her, swung into action and stabilized Father Czerny, as he was then known.
They were three hours from touchdown in Toronto, and the cardiologists feared the Canadian Jesuit priest would take a turn for the worse. They persuaded the pilot to land at the CFB Goose Bay airport in Labrador, where he was rushed to the local hospital and transferred the next day to a cardiac unit in St. John’s. His life was saved, but he was weak, faced a long convalescence and suspected his career might be over at age 64. “I did not know what kind of life I would have again,” he said. “But I learned you have to live your life. I have enjoyed bonus time.”
So he kept going, working on his health, determined to return to the Church even though he could have slipped into gentle retirement after a long career helping the poor, the dispossessed and the ill in Latin America and Africa. His tenacity paid off, big time.
On Sept. 1, 2019, Pope Francis addressed the faithful from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican (as he does every Sunday for his Angelus blessing), pulled out a piece of paper and read the names of the 13 new cardinals he had just appointed. The last name stood out – Michael Czerny.
The priest was in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was 6 a.m., and he was in the shower when his phone rang. The call came from an Indian Jesuit journalist friend who told him the the news. “I was afraid something terrible had happened,” Cardinal Czerny said. “My friend shouted, ‘Calm down, calm down, there’s good news – the Pope has made you a cardinal!’ Not a single one of us 13 knew ahead of time, and I at first, I couldn’t believe it.”
Cardinal Czerny first talked to The Globe and Mail in late February, just before the pandemic shut down all of Italy. He confined himself to his Jesuit residence, San Pietro Canisio, near the Vatican.
Four months later, in a second interview, he said the pandemic was particularly stressful because the residence doubles as a retirement home for some 25 Jesuit priests whose ages range from 80 to more than 100. The Italian pandemic has been especially fatal to the elderly. “We had to be really careful because the virus could turn into a massacre in the residence,” he said. “But we didn’t have a single COVID case.”
Did the pandemic, which many Italians call “the plague,” as if it were some godless Medieval monster, shake the faith of any of the Catholics he knows? He said the pandemic might be “bloody unfair” but should not be viewed as an indication that God’s love has gone AWOL. “The question is how you help others who are suffering,” he said.
Cardinal Czerny is fairly tall and slim, and seems younger than his age. He is simply dressed; the standout feature of his black, priestly attire is a large pectoral cross made from the wood of a shipwrecked migrant boat that was crossing from Libya to Italy.
The Cardinal’s office in Palazzo San Callisto, a Vatican office near his residence, is spacious and sparsely decorated with religious artifacts and family mementos. One stands out – a picture of the RMS Scythia, the illustrious Cunard ocean liner that worked as a troopship in the Second World War and ferried refugees to Canada from Europe immediately after the war. Among its freedom-seeking passengers, in late 1948, was the Czerny family, fleeing Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) as the Soviet Union took control of the country. Michael was two years old, his brother Robert a baby.
The war was tragic for the Czernys. Their mother, Winnifred Hayek Czerny, was raised Catholic but deemed by the Nazis to be Jewish because her grandparents were born Jewish. She spent 20 months in the infamous Terezin concentration camp and ghetto in German-occupied Czechoslovakia.
Their father, Egon Czerny, was also Roman Catholic but with no Jewish heritage. He spent eight months in a forced labour camp in the last eight months of the war because he refused to divorce his “Jewish” wife. The boys’ maternal grandmother, Anna Low Hayek, died in Auschwitz a few weeks after it was liberated by the Allies in 1945 – she was too weak to survive. Her husband and two sons died sometime earlier.
Anna Hayek was an amateur artist. Cardinal Czerny turned one of her few remaining religious paintings, Flight into Egypt, into a memorial card which he passed out on the day he was made cardinal.
A friend of the boys’ parents sponsored their trip to Canada, and they settled in Montreal. As a boy, Michael loved to ski, was mechanically minded and had a subscription to Popular Mechanics. They went to a Jesuit school and Michael gave no early indication that he was destined for the priesthood “You wouldn’t know Michael was different from the thousands of other men his age,” Robert said. “But given the era, it was not too startling that he went that route.”
It was the “social gospel,” as Robert put it, that always interested his brother – social justice, inequality, poverty and racial tensions. Michael evolved into a sort of street priest, one who did not shy away from areas rife with violence and despair. He was ordained in 1973, and opened a social action and community development centre on Toronto’s Queen Street East in the late 1970s.
A turning point in his career came in 1989, when six Jesuits and two others were murdered at their residence at the Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador during the country’s civil war, which pitted government forces against the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas.
The Canadian Jesuits rushed then-Father Czerny to El Salvador, where he became director of the university’s human-rights institute, a role that had been held by one of the murdered Jesuit priests. Later, he and the institute prepared for the trial of the government soldiers responsible for the murders. In an interview last year with Aleteia, a Catholic news service, Cardinal Czerny said his El Salvador ordeal was ultimately one of hope, not trauma. “In the face of death and injustice, much more life emerged, much solidarity, many signs that God was with us.”
Another long and difficult mission would come in 2002, when he founded the African Jesuit AIDS Network. He spent the next nine years in Africa directing the efforts of Jesuits in 25 countries in providing pastoral care, education and health services for the victims of HIV/AIDS. The Vatican’s position against the use of condoms no doubt made his job more difficult.
Returning to Rome in 2010, he worked for Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian cardinal who was president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In 2013, a long-shot candidate for the big job at the Vatican, Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected Pope Francis and took an early liking to the Canadian priest who, like him, was a Jesuit who had worked in difficult situations helping the poor and the unhealthy.
In 2015, Francis tapped Cardinal Czerny to work on the first draft of Laudato Si, the Pope’s landmark encyclical “on care for our common home,” a critique of the irresponsible consumerism and economic structures that are degrading and warming the planet.
An amazing vote of confidence came in 2016, when Francis allowed him to commission a monumental bronze sculpture by Ontario artist Timothy Schmalz on the theme of refugees. The result was a six-metre-long bronze with 140 figures standing in a boat. Each of them depicts a refugee or migrant – from Jews fleeing Nazi Germany to Syrians escaping the Syrian civil war, and two of them depict Cardinal Czerny’s parents. It was placed in St. Peter’s Square in September, 2019 – the first sculpture addition there in four centuries.
Called Angels Unawares, Francis said he wanted the sculpture “to remind everyone of the evangelical challenge of hospitality.” Mr. Schmalz said Cardinal Czerny played a big role in crafting the sculpture’s message. “He supported one change early on,” Mr. Schmalz said. “He said everyone is in the sculpture except Native people. He said that the Indigenous people, too, were migrants. Just because they were not in a boat does not mean they weren’t moved, that we we all came from some other place. So I added them.”
Cardinal Czerny denies that he’s a key player in the Pope’s inner circle, even though all the evidence suggests otherwise. “What I have learned is that there is no inner circle,” he said. “He is very wise, and free, in seeking help and advice.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has invited Pope Francis to Canada and has urged him to apologize to Indigenous peoples for the Church’s treatment of children in schools it ran there.
Might he go? “Sure, he might,” Cardinal Czerny said, though he is unaware of any Canadian travel plans. If the Pope does go, Cardinal Czerny will almost certainly be at his side. In spite of his modesty, there’s little doubt the Canadian Jesuit refugee has captured Francis’s attention and admiration.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that no priest had been made a cardinal-elector, a Cardinal under the age of 80 who is eligible to vote for the next pope, before spending years as a bishop.