Cardinal William Levada, who died September 26 in Rome, was precise in speech and reserved…
North America’s only cardinal-elect aims to help the Church ‘wherever we can, however we can’
On Oct. 5 at the Vatican, a day before the start of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, Pope Francis will hold a consistory for the creation of 13 new cardinals. It will be a full weekend for Father Michael Czerny, a Czech-born Canadian priest who serves as under-secretary of the Migrants and Refugee Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting an Integral Human Development. Father Czerny will be made a cardinal at the consistory on Saturday, and then on Sunday he will begin serving in his role as a special secretary to the synod.
In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Cardinal-designate Czerny — the only new cardinal from North America — discusses his role in helping the Church help those on the peripheries, his devotion to St. Oscar Romero, what he considers to be the greatest responsibility in advising Pope Francis and other issues facing the Church today, including dealing with the scourge of human trafficking.
Our Sunday Visitor: Pope Francis recently announced that you would be made a cardinal. How did you find out, and what does this nomination mean to you?
Cardinal-designate Michael Czerny, SJ: I found out through Vatican Radio. And what does it mean? It means more of the same. In other words, I do not think the mission changes, but it is more intense, direct, more linked to the mission of the Holy See, of the See of Peter. So I am very happy to do what I can.
OSV: What do you consider your greatest responsibility in advising Pope Francis?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: Telling the truth.
OSV: Being from Canada, you represent the Holy Father’s only nomination from North America. What added insight or perspective does this enable you to give?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: I was not born in North America; I was born in Czechoslovakia. I grew up in Canada, studied in the United States and worked in Central America, Canada, here in Rome and in Africa. I am happy to say that I think I represent, or am very like, if you will, many North Americans. And in fact, I think that is part of the mission, to live that pluralism in your life, to live it with empathy, with compassion for others, who were not as welcomed and didn’t have the chances as I did.
OSV: As a future cardinal, looking at your spiritual life, who is the saint to whom you have the greatest devotion?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: Certainly Oscar Romero, St. Oscar Romero, whom I knew personally, whom I saw shortly before his death. The fact he died as an archbishop, I believe, will make my devotion to him increase, because I now realize there is a special offering, a burden, a gift that you need to make of yourself when you are a successor.
OSV: What memories do you have of him?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: Well, I would say how he carried the suffering of his people, how he personally carried the suffering of his people, and how much he wished that more people in the Church would join him in carrying those sufferings.
OSV: As co-leader of the Migrants and Refugee Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, you help to address various elements so close to Pope Francis’ heart and the life of the Church. Which to you means the most?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: I think what is at the heart of our mission as the Migrants and Refugee Section is in fact to help the Church wherever we can, however we can and wherever we are needed to respond to migrants, refugees and other vulnerable people on the move. But in a certain sense, we actually cannot do much. We are a small section of a relatively small department in the small Holy See, but if we can help the Church to respond, then that is the heart of our mission. That means helping the bishops and others in their dioceses to act locally and link up with others. We do not get to do it much ourselves. If we can help, we are always happy to.
OSV: Pope Francis often speaks of “integral ecology.” Yet some still have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept. What would you say it means?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: In the Church, we have understood our human dignity very well, but until recently we did not realize how much our human dignity is tied in with integrity, with the vitality of what he calls our common home. So it refers to being fully a person and contributing fully, but that we also have to care for our common home. It is not a store room of infinite resources. The integrity of our humanity — and therefore the integrity of our ecology, our response — needs to include what we used to call the natural world and, very, very, very important, it needs to include future generations. We can’t just count on the planet carrying us around forever without us worrying what kind of water will our children and grandchildren drink, what kind of air they will breathe, and what kind of natural resources will be still available for them. And how warm is it going to be.
OSV: What is an appropriate response to the migrants and refugees we find in our midst every day?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: Open our minds and hearts and eyes, and especially realize that they are not migrants “in general,” they are individual people, so the response is specific. I think one of the problems we have is that we generalize, we talk about migration, instead of recognizing individuals, each of whom deserves a good welcome.
OSV: Even if human trafficking is not in the title of the Migrants and Refugees Section, it is one of the areas to which it is dedicated to combatting. Talitha Kum — an international network of consecrated life against human trafficking — recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary and held an international gathering in Rome. How significant is this anniversary in combatting the scourge of human trafficking? What more is needed to work to eradicate trafficking?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: It is very, very significant, because the sisters around the world are the frontline. They are the frontline workers. They are Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart for those caught in trafficking or just coming out of it. So the way in which Talitha Kum helps them to carry on when sometimes they don’t get much support locally, from the institutional Church, is hugely significant. And they certainly are in great danger, because they are confronting the structures of evil in a very direct way. So the fact that they have come together for 10 years and that they are learning more and more how to help one another and to be strong in their unity and yet in their diversity, I couldn’t be more enthusiastic.
OSV: What to you consider the greatest issue to address in human trafficking at this time?
Cardinal-designate Czerny: What the Holy Father has put his finger on, and what truly continues to be such an issue, is demand. People are getting organized to deal with the human trafficking itself, but there is pitifully little attempt and pitifully little success, or I would say practically none as far as I know, in addressing demand. Until society realizes that the same people, the same society, that is wringing its hands over trafficking is the same one that is driving it, we won’t get very far. So that is the real problem.
Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.