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ROME – Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, who is currently in Slovakia visiting Ukrainian refugees, has praised the warm welcome being given to those who have fled their homeland after Russia’s invasion three weeks ago.
Speaking to Crux by phone from Slovakia, Czerny, currently the interim prefect of the Vatican’s department for promoting integral human development and the leader of its section for migrants and refugees, said, “you cannot but help but be impressed with the quality of the welcome” being given to Ukrainian refugees.
What is striking, he said, is that people seem to be “instinctively aware that just handing out sandwiches or blankets is essential, but it’s not the main point; it’s the welcome.”
“People need to be welcomed humanely, emotionally, spiritually, linguistically, and the volunteers of the different Catholic, Christian, ecumenical, and secular organizations seem to know this instinctively,” he said.
Noting that Europe in the past has had difficulty showing welcome to incoming migrants and refugees, Czerny said that for the countries that border Ukraine such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, “this experience of welcome will be something that will stay with them.”
“They will realize from within that this is the right thing to do, and that our response to whoever is other and whoever is needy, is to welcome. This is what it means to be human, this is what it means to be Christian, this is what it means to be Fratelli Tutti,” he said.
Czerny left for Slovakia March 16, marking his second visit to one of Ukraine’s western borders following an initial March 7-10 visit to Hungary. At that time, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the pope’s almoner, made a visit to Poland to meet with Ukrainians who have fled.
In both Hungary and Slovakia, Czerny has met and is meeting with Ukrainian individuals and families who have fled following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, and the volunteers who are assisting them.
In his conversation with Crux, Czerny said he’s been struck by the long lines of Ukrainians waiting, sometimes for days, to cross the border into neighboring countries, and he has been moved by the people and their recognition of the pope’s prayers and closeness.
He stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire and said people have also shown appreciation for Pope Francis’s decision to consecrate both Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary during a March 25 penitential service in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Far from being a one-sided act, the consecration seeks “to bring the Russian and Ukrainian people to a place of mutual comprehension and mutual acceptance and finally, affection as siblings,” he said.
Crux’s interview with Cardinal Michael Czerny is below:
Crux: This is your second time going to border countries with Ukraine and crossing over to meet with refugees and those who are fleeing the war. What are your main takeaways from this experience? What are the biggest takeaways from the encounters you’ve had?
Czerny: One very important takeaway is that the real difficulty, the real agony once people get to the border is the waiting. For different reasons, it seems to take a great while for them to be processed to cross. When I say a good while, this is not hours, it can be days, so both from Hungary and from Slovakia, what most struck me on the Ukrainian side of the border are the lines of people waiting. They are waiting in their cars, those who have cars, and they are waiting outdoors on foot, those who came by public transportation and who finally walked. So, this is a real sign of their fright.
At the same time, on the Ukrainian side, where of course the needs, the resources are very limited and very hard to get, nevertheless people are doing their best to care for them. What struck me very much was that the clergy and the church workers who themselves could and, some would say, should flee – they are close to the border, they can get out relatively easily – they are staying to take care of those who come through. I thought this was a very meaningful and beautiful sign of the church’s ministry and solidarity. That’s on the Ukrainian side.
On the Hungarian and Slovak side, on the other hand, you cannot but help being impressed with the quality of the welcome. Here what strikes me is that the church people are especially aware somehow, perhaps instinctively aware, that just handing out sandwiches or blankets is essential, but it’s not the main point, it’s the welcome. People need to be welcomed humanely, emotionally, spiritually, linguistically, and the volunteers of the different Catholic, Christian, ecumenical, and secular organizations seem to know this instinctively. I don’t think there’s been time to do training, but they are welcoming people with a human welcome that fleeing people so much need. This is the first moment that people can breathe again, so it’s very important that they be really warmly welcomed.
In all the different situations, there are various degrees of coordination, which means there are also varying degrees of non-coordination, and people are struggling to do better. Obviously, the more coordinated the better the response, but they’re not waiting to get coordinated before responding, so in the midst of the emergency, they’re also doing their best to learn to coordinate.
I’m sure your presence has been a real comfort for the people there…
What struck me so much is that I nearly never really needed to be introduced, people seem to anticipate the reason for my coming, they seem to understand from within why the Holy Father would send a cardinal and they felt his presence and his prayer and his solidarity, and I practically didn’t need to say it or explain it, and that touched me very much. It was as if they were waiting for this blessing, this act of presence, you could even say this sacrament of the pope’s presence.
What are you doing in Slovakia in your time there? What are your priorities or the things you hope to accomplish during this trip?
I have no priorities. I am here, as I was in Hungary, to see and to listen, but especially to convey this message of nearness, of closeness, of solidarity, of hope, the Holy Father’s insistent invitation to all of us to pray. I also add a bit of encouragement for us to make an examination of conscience, since this is Lent, to examine our own consciences and ask, in what ways am I failing to contribute to peace? In which ways am I helping to fuel the violence? Because we’re all involved. That I think is also a worthwhile thing to convey.
You’ve spoken about the solidarity you’ve seen. What are some examples of this? How have you seen this solidarity in action? Also, what are the greatest needs you are seeing?
The single greatest need is a ceasefire and a settlement. That’s the greatest need of all, and the sooner the better, and the more just the better. You could say that goes without saying, but it has to be repeated and we have to make good on the Holy Father’s very strong offer: He said the church is ready to do anything it can to help bring about a settlement, a ceasefire, and a new start.
This is the top priority, but close to the ground here and especially once people have crossed the border, the needs are the immediate needs. More often than not, what is very touching is to hear how those who are welcoming are able to meet not only the most immediate needs for a place to sleep and a bit of food and drink and a place to wash clothes, those basic necessities, but within a few days people are finding a family to stay with or even work. Some people are finding work soon and quickly so they can earn their own living while they are either settling down here in Slovakia or preparing to return home, which is an important theme too. Hopefully, many people will want to go back to rebuild.
My next question involves the welcome you said you’ve seen. It’s uncomfortable to say, but many of the countries now welcoming Ukrainian refugees were not so willing to do so in 2015 when Europe got the first big waves of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Now there appears to be a change in tone with the Ukraine crisis. In your view, what’s the reason for this difference? Why were we unwilling to welcome newcomers in 2015, but we are now?
There’s a difference of immediacy, there’s a difference of sodality, there’s a difference of shared history and, with some differences, there’s even a certain affinity or similarity of language, so there are a number of links or bonds that we have now in this movement of people that were not present in 2015.
At the same time, there are also other considerations of distance from the conflict, the historical involvements, but … right now the difference isn’t important, I would say it’s the other way around: having this experience and discovering their own welcoming, their own hospitality, that the Hungarian people, the Slovakian people, and all the others along the border, the Polish people, that this experience of welcome will be something that will stay with them and that they will realize from within that this is the right thing to do, and that our response to whoever is other and whoever is needy, is to welcome. This is what it means to be human, this is what it means to be Christian, this is what it means to be Fratelli Tutti.
The people who are welcoming on the borders and throughout Hungary, Slovakia, Poland are receiving a grace which will surely be fruitful in the future.
One final question. The Vatican recently announced that Pope Francis will consecrate both Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It’s said that this was a big request from people on the ground, both Ukrainians and those in neighboring countries. What does this gesture mean to the people there with whom you’ve spoken?
What is obvious to me, from the few echoes I’ve had, is that people deeply understand the Holy Father’s gesture. It’s as if they have an inner understanding or an inner grasp of what he’s doing or the grace he’s seeking by doing this. What strikes me is that he’s consecrating both Russia and Ukraine to the heart of Mary, consecrating them together. Not the impression we might have had earlier that this consecration was sort of a one-way consecration. It’s not that, it’s consecrating the Russian people and the Ukrainian people as brothers in the heart of our one Mother.
While it’s true that brothers and sisters can and do fight, it’s also true that there’s a deeper bond there that, with God’s help, helps people to get through the conflicts and to reconcile. So, by this act of consecration, I think the Holy Father is seeking to bring the Russian and Ukrainian people to a place of mutual comprehension and mutual acceptance and finally, affection as siblings. Yes, we have our differences, but we are brothers and sisters, children of our one Creator and Lord, but also of our one Mother, and I think the Blessed Mother’s motherhood is a place of refuge where the Holy Father hopes the grace of reconciliation will flow abundantly.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen