I confess I had a prejudiced view of the Templeton Prize, a prestigious award which “honours a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” I assumed that a Catholic couldn’t and wouldn’t win it because the Church is seen as too combative and uncompromising in its beliefs. After all, two recent winners of the prize have been Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, both great spiritual leaders who have been taken up by Western liberals and who never appear to offend anyone. Now I am glad to say that the prize, worth $1.8 million dollars, has been won by a Czech Catholic priest; I have quickly rearranged my prejudices.
The winner is Mgr Tomas Halik, a professor of the sociology of religion at Charles University in Prague. He has a formidable CV – not the sort that lists academic successes, though I daresay he has that, too, but the curriculum of a life forged by hardship and persecution. Like the late pope, John Paul II, whom he met when he helped to organise his papal visit to the then Czechoslovakia, he was ordained in secret and lived and worked under Communism for many years. Like John Paul II, he knew the “Church Suffering” at first hand.
Indeed, Mgr Halik humbly and generously dedicates his award to all the heroic priests he knew who lived and sometimes died “in Communist concentration camps, or prisons and uranium mines” and who had almost zero possibility of writing or publishing for themselves. They were, he says, his moral and intellectual mentors. Significantly, the blood of these unknown martyrs has again provided the seed of hope and renewal in the Church today, in the person of this quiet academic.
Again, unusually, Halik grew up in a cultured but secular family, somewhat like the late president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. Havel was to write in his memoirs that when, as head of state, he met John Paul II “every conversation was like a confession…Afterwards I felt I had been born anew”. Nonetheless, despite the clear spiritual impact the late pope had on him, he did not convert – unlike Halik who discovered “the intellectual attractiveness” of Catholicism in his father’s library, where he found the works of Chesterton. Later he also read Cardinal Newman, explaining “his emphasis on conscience and English Catholicism was for me this minority Church which was without triumphalism…”
It is extraordinary how often modern converts cite Chesterton and Newman as seminal for their intellectual and spiritual journey into the Church. Interestingly, Halik perceived the Church as not being triumphalist – the very word often used to describe it in the decades before Vatican II. He was also clearly influenced by priest friends who suffered imprisonment under the Communists and who met there “many non-Catholics and non-believers and they discovered they have things in common so they perceived this persecution also as a sort of purification of the Church…”
One can see how closely Mgr Halik reflects the thinking of Pope Francis today: in his desire for dialogue with secularists and non-believers, his hopes for a humbler Church, “serving the oppressed and the poor”. It is also telling that, like Pope Francis, he sees the Church as, in a sense, a “field hospital” for the wounded. He has written a book entitled “Touch the Wounds”, explaining that the social and spiritual misery in the world “are the wounds of Christ today.” That language could be the Holy Father’s.
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