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Pope’s Point Man on Migrants – Made a Cardinal in October – Takes Over Titular Parish

New Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny greets Cardinal John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, during a consistory led by Pope Francis for the creation of 13 new cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 5, 2019. (Photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

By Inés San Martín

ROME (Crux) — Canadian Jesuit Michael Czerny, made a cardinal by Pope Francis last October, became the titular pastor of a parish in the outskirts of Rome on Jan. 19.

During his homily, he spoke to the thousands gathered – many of whom were migrants – about his own family fleeing war and finding refuge in North America.

“My family of four fled from post-war Czechoslovakia,” Cardinal Czerny said. “We arrived in Canada by ship in the year 1948. This life experience of ours was immortalized in advance in the Flight into Egypt painted on glass by my maternal grandmother, Anna Hayek Löw.”

Long after his grandmother created that work of art, the life experience has continued to shape Cardinal Czerny’s ministry and work, to the point that his new coat of arms depicts a boat with a family of four.

This image, he said, represents his family and also “many refugees and migrants who now travel by boat. The boat is also a traditional image of the Church as the Boat of Peter, which has the mandate of Our Lord to ‘receive the stranger’.”

Furthermore, Cardinal Czerny continued, the boat serves as a reminder of the works of mercy towards all those who are excluded, forgotten or disadvantaged.

Cardinal Czerny’s words came during his homily as he was installed as the titular pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Pietralata, on the outskirts of Rome. The neighborhood, some 40 minutes by train from St. Peter’s Basilica, is home to thousands of migrants who have arrived at the Eternal City looking for better opportunities.

Cardinal Czerny has long been considered a close collaborator of Pope Francis, who appointed him to head the migrants and refugees section of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. The Jesuit cardinal answers directly to the pontiff, not the head of the dicastery, Cardinal Peter Turkson.

Pope Francis, himself the son of immigrants who came to Argentina from Italy, has long made known his concern for the resettling and integration of migrants fleeing hunger, violence, persecution and climate change.

The first trip of his pontificate was to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013. In 2016, together with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos to raise awareness over the deaths of thousands of African migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. On that occasion, the Holy Father brought three migrant families back with him on the papal plane. In late December, at Pope Francis’s request, several other refugees were helped to relocate in Italy after being stranded in Greece.

During his homily on Sunday, Cardinal Czerny quoted a letter the pontiff penned for the 13 new cardinals created in 2019, in which he wrote: “This new stage in your life may enable you to imitate Jesus more closely and increase your capacity for compassion for all those men and women who, victimized and enslaved by so many evils, look with hope for a gesture of tender love on the part of those who believe in the Lord.”

“I hope to live out this mission also among you here at St. Michael the Archangel Parish,” Cardinal Czerny said.

Explaining his choice for a pectoral cross, often made with precious metals but in his case, with the wood recovered from a ship that carried African migrants across the Mediterranean, the cardinal told the faithful that the wood “reminds us of the cross on which Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified to take away the sins of the world. The nail struck clearly reminds us that Jesus was nailed to the cross.”

“The poor wood suggests the Jesuit vow of poverty and the desire for a humble and committed Church,” Cardinal Czerny continued. “The origin of wood reflects my family’s escape and my current responsibilities in the Migrants and Refugees Section. The cracks in the red paint and in the wood remind us of the wounds, the suffering, the bloodshed in the crucifixion of Christ, who renews himself whenever the world forgets compassion and justice. The lighter color – at the top – indicates the resurrection of our Lord and Savior and the fullness of life that He has come to bring.”

Father Gianmarco Merlo, the parish priest, welcomed the cardinal saying that the appointment was a “sign for us of Pope Francis’s continuing attention to this parish that he visited 5 years ago.”

“It is also a gift of the Holy Spirit who ‘descends and remains’ with us to prompt our fraternal communion and attention to the special needs of the universal Church that our cardinal’s ecclesial duties represent so well,” Fr. Merlo said.

Pope Francis visited the parish on Feb. 8, 2015. He was the third pope to visit the church of St. Michael the Archangel. Pope Paul VI celebrated Christmas Mass there in 1963, and John Paul II visited in 1991.

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