By Caroline Hroncich
After the 1989 murders at the University of Central America of six Jesuit scholars, their housekeeper and her daughter — one of the most notorious episodes in the 13-year Salvadoran civil war — the Society of Jesus assigned members from abroad to fill the posts of their fallen companions.
One of the substitutes was Father Michael Czerny, whose new duties included philosophy teaching, parish ministry and direction of the university’s Institute of Human Rights. By documenting and denouncing human rights violations, the Jesuit says, the institute contributed to United Nations-led negotiations, between the government of El Salvador and the rebel coalition, that brought the war to an end in 1992.
“My two years in El Salvador were an immense lesson in the many human dimensions of a historical crisis of injustice caught up in the geopolitics of the day,” Father Czerny told Catholic News Service. “These are not abstract ideas. They are complex, lived, flesh-and-blood realities; they are the people, whom the church wants to be with.”
That experience was only one episode in Father Czerny’s long career in the field of social justice, which he now pursues inside the Vatican as an official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
The Montreal native graduated from Spokane’s Jesuit-run Gonzaga University in 1968 with a joint degree in philosophy and literature. The next year he entered the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in the analysis of ideas and the study of methods — an interdisciplinary humanities program unique to the university — with a study of Christian-Marxist dialogue.
Father Czerny said the program’s “disciplined pluralism has served me well in the problem-solving, dialogue, team-work and communication” required by his work as a Jesuit and now at the Vatican.
Another experience he considers a career highlight was his work as founding director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network, an organization he says helps “respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in an effective, evangelical and coordinated manner.”
The group is more than a clinic and counseling service, he explains; its wide-ranging activities include music, art and literature programs for AIDS patients, and care for orphans of those killed by the disease.
Father Czerny said he was impressed with the great dignity of the people he served, who testified to their “resurrection experience, how the ministry of the church brought them back from death to life.”
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called the Jesuit to the Vatican. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, founded in 1967 in response to a proposal of the Second Vatican Council, supports the church’s work on a range of issues that threaten the dignity of human life. Father Czerny says the office thus acts as an instrument of evangelization, since many individuals have come to know Christ through the church’s response to violations of human rights.
The council has published an authoritative compendium of the church’s social teaching and many specialized documents on the subject; and regularly organizes conferences, such as a meeting at the Vatican last September where mining company executives discussed their industry’s treatment of employees and impact on the environment.
Father Czerny serves as assistant to the council’s president, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, and his ordinary duties include attending conferences and meetings, writing speeches and occasionally travelling with the cardinal.
“I am always drawing on the many wonderful contacts I have made all over the world in my 50 years as a Jesuit, to engage willing hearts and great minds in the work of justice and peace,” he said.
With the release of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) in late November, and his World Peace Day message scheduled for Dec. 12, the Vatican has been especially focused lately on the defense of human rights.
Giving a nod to the title of the pope’s exhortation, Father Czerny said Christians must be “infected with the joy of being followers of Christ” in order to face the challenges of modern society.”They are, first and finally, ethical and spiritual challenges,” he said. “Do we have the courage to face them as mature men and women? Or do we keep on letting ourselves off the hook and taking the easy way out?” – CNS