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New Canadian cardinal seen as key to Pope Francis's reform 'vision'

On Saturday, Pope Francis will name Montreal native Michael Czerny as a new cardinal. Czerny's friends say he is socially progressive and can help Francis institute his reform agenda.

Michael Czerny has special interest in social justice, refugees

Michael Czerny, who is a Czech-born, Montreal-raised social justice advocate, will be Canada's fourth cardinal. (Submitted by Michael Czerny)

Among the 13 Catholic cardinals Pope Francis will create this Saturday at St. Peter's Square is a Canadian few expected would become a "prince of the church." 

Yet his elevation to the high-ranking all-male group is also a resounding confirmation of the direction the pope is steering the Catholic Church in.

Michael Czerny, a rare Jesuit nomination to the role of cardinal, said he was as surprised as anyone when he got word one morning last month from an Indian Jesuit friend who called him during a trip to Brazil.

"He told me the news," said the 73-year-old Czerny, "and told me to keep calm."

Keeping calm, say friends, is a defining trait for Czerny, whose reputation for hard work has earned him the nickname "the Beaver" among his fellow Jesuits.

"Michael is thoughtful, hospitable, has a great sense of humour, is intense and very, very committed," said Canadian Jesuit priest Peter Bisson.

A Czech-born, Montreal-raised social justice advocate, Czerny is the only soon-to-be-cardinal who was a simple priest and not already a bishop.

"Those of us who work in social justice are not supposed to be on the track to become cardinals," said Paul Hansen, a Canadian Redemptorist priest and longtime friend who was shocked and delighted that Czerny will become Canada's fourth cardinal. 

"We work, as Francis would say, on the margins. We have the smell of the sheep on us. We're the field hospital. And those kinds of positions don't usually have cardinals."

Promoting justice

As founder of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto in 1979, Czerny was influenced by Liberation Theology, leading a wide network of Canadian church groups and social activists in promoting justice for the poor and marginalized and refugees during the revolutions in Central America.

In 1989, when the Salvadoran army murdered six Jesuits, a housekeeper and her daughter at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, Czerny left Canada and moved to El Salvador despite the risk.

The Jesuits had been trying to broker a peace treaty between the warring government and guerrillas, and considered the priests to be subversives for their support of people most affected by the conflict. 

While in El Salvador, Czerny directed the university's Human Rights Institute and prepared the case against those who carried out the massacre, while also supporting negotiations that led to the 1991 peace agreement.

Czerny has long had an interest in the plight of refugees. (Submitted by Michael Czerny)

"I felt that somehow, mysteriously, the Jesuits who died achieved in their death what they didn't achieve in their lifetime," Czerny said of that period.

Czerny went on to head the Jesuit response to the HIV and AIDS crisis in Africa, publicly toeing the church line that condoms should not be part of the prevention of the disease's spread in Africa.

Helped write encyclical

More recently, he's worked alongside Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, advising the pope on the environment and, say Vatican insiders, taking a lead in writing Laudato Si, the pope's major 2015 encyclical calling for an urgent global response to climate change.

Despite the document's hard-hitting political analysis and focus on global inequality, Czerny said he's a firm believer that small, everyday initiatives will save the planet.

"We're not going to solve the environmental and climate crisis on the large scale. We're going to solve it over and over again where ordinary people live and work," he said. "So I'm not at all discouraged when I hear about small steps. That's what gives me hope. I recognize that large-scale efforts seem to be frustrated, but I don't think that's the main story."

For the past several years, Czerny has headed the Vatican section of refugees and immigrants, a group he identifies with.

"One of the happy consequences of being a migrant and growing up in Canada is that you grow up in a multilingual, multicultural family [and] you learn a kind of flexibility and sympathy," he said.  

Friends say that in his role as an advocate for migrants, Czerny has become increasingly close to the pope.

"When Francis took a special interest in refugees and immigrants, he made Michael his goal person," said Hansen.

Francis's mission

Hansen said that in the early years of his priesthood, Czerny, who has a PhD in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Chicago, was weak on theology. But Hansen said he has since articulated a theological approach to respond to people's needs, rather than impose doctrine from above.

One of Czerny's friends said that "the choice of Michael Czerny as cardinal is more about Pope Francis than Czerny." (Fabio Frustaci/EPA-EFE)

"If you want to know who Mike Czerny is right now, he's Pope Francis," said Hansen. "Pope Francis hasn't changed a thing about dogma [Catholic rules]. But he's changed everything pastorally [spiritual guidance]. Mike is not an ideologue, but someone who has built his approach to social justice by listening to the poor."

Jesuit Peter Bisson describes Czerny as a theologically grounded progressive who is open to discussion about controversial issues such as ordaining women and LGBT inclusion in the church, but who will not stray from the church's official stance on issues.

When asked whether he supports female ordination, Czerny at first bristled at the question. Later, he said he would not be comfortable articulating the goal now, but is open to "getting the listening started. [The question] shouldn't be off the table."

That openness to at least listening in a church that for years shut down frank discussion and dissent in its synods (or bishop gatherings) is a key component in the profound shift occurring in the Catholic Church under Francis, observers say. 

The shift away from enforcing doctrine is the reason for ongoing attacks from traditionalist factions within the church, who are gathering in Rome this weekend for protests against the latest synod on the Amazon rainforest. Czerny will write the final paper, which may discuss the possibility of ordaining married men.

"When a pope makes cardinals, especially in this pontificat, he's looking for men who will embrace his vision for reform and missionary impulse, reaching outwards," said Vatican expert Robert Mickens. "In selecting Michael Czerny and the others, it's his way of ensuring this vision."

As cardinal, Czerny has now been officially enlisted in Francis's mission.

As Hansen put it, "The choice of Michael Czerny as cardinal is more about Pope Francis than Czerny."

About the Author

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.