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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,"
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.
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?"