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ROME – Earlier this week, Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human development, was in Auschwitz to mark the 80th anniversary of the death of St. Edith Stein, the celebrated German Jewish philosopher who became a Carmelite nun and who perished in the infamous Nazi death camp in 1942.
On the occasion, Czerny did something he rarely does in public – he talked about himself.
Born in the former Czechoslovakia in 1946, Czerny is the son of a mother who was born and raised Catholic but came from a Jewish family. He recounted the story of how during World War II she was imprisoned and then sent to a concentration camp, as was Czerny’s Catholic father for refusing to divorce her. His grandfather died in a concentration camp, his grandmother died from typhus shortly after liberation, and two uncles were murdered in forced labor camps.
From those details, it seemed clear that Czerny feels a special sensitivity to the legacy of the Holocaust, which undoubtedly helps explain the passion he’s long felt for suffering peoples, including, at various points in his career, advocacy for victims of human rights abuses, AIDS victims, and migrants and refugees.
In terms of church politics, Czerny’s name figures on many handicapping lists today of papabili, meaning contenders to become the next pope. He’s got the languages, speaking English, French, German, Italian and Spanish; he’s got the global perspective, having served in both Latin America and Africa before coming to Rome in 2010; and he’s a favorite of Pope Francis, meaning he’d be an attractive “continuity” vote.
For those with long memories, Czerny’s ascent is reminiscent of another luminary cardinal with Jewish roots whose star burned bright during the Pope John Paul II years: The late Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, who was also considered a personal favorite of the pope he served and a leading candidate for the top job himself.
As opposed to Czerny, it wasn’t Lustiger’s ancestors who converted from Judaism to Christianity but the young man himself. Born to Ashkenazi Jews from Poland who had immigrated to France, Lustiger converted to Catholicism at the age of 13. His mother was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died the next year, while the rest of the family took refuge in unoccupied southern France.
An active intellectual, Lustiger spent much of his early career in and around academic circles until being named Bishop of Orlèans by John Paul II in 1979 and Archbishop of Paris in 1981, becoming a cardinal two years later.
Like Czerny under Francis, Lustiger was seen as a stalwart protégé of his pontiff – a strong conservative, an ardent evangelist and a pastor with a special concern for youth and vocations. John Paul had a vision of reawakening the Christian roots of Europe by appointing charismatic leadership to its major cities, featuring cardinals who could engage the worlds of culture and thought, including Christoph Schönborn in Vienna, Miroslav Vlk in Prague and Carlo Maria Martini in Milan.
In that firmament, no star burned brighter than Lustiger. Yet he wasn’t without his critics either.
As an administrator, he was nicknamed “the bulldozer” because of his reputation for riding roughshod over opponents or people who didn’t share his agenda. He was seen as the scourge of liberal clergy in France, among other things setting the stage for John Paul’s removal of Bishop Jacque Gaillot in 1995 over Gaillot’s progressive views on married priests, condom use, same-sex relationships, and a host of other contested issues.
In one sign of the tensions that surrounded Lustiger, he was never elected president of the French bishops’ conference, although he got a sort of revenge in 1995 when he was elected a member of the Académie Française (whose members, for the record, are known as “the immortals”.)
Lustiger was also a controversial figure in Jewish/Catholic relations. On the one hand, his roots and intimate knowledge of the faith, and the fact he lost a parent in the Holocaust, made him a natural interlocutor. Yet because he was a convert, some Jews also saw him as a symbol of Christian efforts to proselytize Jews over the centuries.
Former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau once accused Lustiger of betraying the Jewish people by his conversion, and when he was given an award for advancing Jewish/Catholic relations in 1998 by Sacred Heart University in Connecticut the Anti-Defamation League objected, saying “he converted out, which makes him a poor example.”
In the end, the waters were never really tested on Lustiger as a papal candidate. By the time John Paul II died in April 2005, Lustiger had already resigned and was known to be in weak health, and he would die of bone and lung cancer two years later.
Nonetheless, for the better part of two decades, this “Jewish cardinal” and staunch ally of the pope helped to mark the terms of debate in the Catholic Church. If that sounds familiar, it should. Czerny isn’t himself a convert, but he comes from a family of converts and shares the same profile as a determined ally and implementer of Francis’s vision.
Whether Czerny’s papal prospects will play out differently than Lustiger’s remains to be seen.
Czerny just turned 76 – coincidentally, the same age at which Francis was elected – and, by all accounts, seems to be in decent health. One potential drawback is that unlike Lustiger, who governed one of the world’s most complex archdioceses for almost 25 years, Czerny has relatively little traditional pastoral experience. Of course, the same thing was said of the future Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and that didn’t stop cardinals from electing him anyway.
Whatever the future may hold, for now Czerny does seem a new Lustiger, in that he’s a cardinal with a moving personal story involving Judaism, a right-hand man to the current pope, and a mover and shaker in the church … all of which makes him, needless to say, someone to keep an eye on.