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‘I sat with John Paul as Communism crumbled’

Ed West talks to the man who has has joined Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Billy Graham on the list of Templeton Prize winners

By on Thursday, 27 March 2014

Mgr Tomas Halik (CNS)

Mgr Tomas Halik (CNS)

On the night before the Berlin Wall came down this year’s Templeton Prize winner, Tomáš Halík, visited Blessed John Paul II. He recalls that the pope turned away from the television, which was showing protests in Germany, and said: “This is the end of Communism”.

Halík remembers replying: “Holy Father, excuse me. I don’t believe papal infallibility works in the political world. We’ll have five years of perestroika.’ And he said: ‘No, no, it will come in10 days.’” And he was right. The following day the Berlin Wall fell and nine days after that the Communist regime in Prague crumbled too.

That was also the week that Agnes of Prague was canonised, and for the priest, philosopher and academic, who was as old as the Communist state itself, it was a fulfilment of the prophecy that when Agnes was declared a saint Bohemia would have a brighter future.

A quarter of a century later, with Blessed John Paul himself about to be canonised next month, Halík is a hugely respected international figure who has had more than 200 publications translated into countless languages, who lectures around the world on the philosophy and psychology of religion, and has received more awards than most of us have had hot dinners.

Now his name has been added to the Wikipedia page of recipients of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, under those of Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Billy Graham and the very first winner in 1973, Mother Teresa. The award, established by the American philanthropist John Templeton, is the second largest in monetary terms, at £1.1m, although its prestige value is greater.

Perhaps the world expert on religion and culture, Halík grew up in a secular household in one of the most irreligious circles of the most atheistic society on earth.

His father was an art historian and part of Bohemia’s intellectual elite. “There was an atmosphere of secular humanism,” he recalls. “We celebrated Christian festivals but we never went to church, and the Bible was part of the education, like the Greek myths.”

Today the Czech Republic has the lowest religious observance of any European country, a result not just of Communism but a history of religious dissent that extends from Jan Hus onwards. The anti-clerical tradition is deep, he says. “It was there in the first republic [between the wars] and it was perhaps the reason why the Communists chose Czechoslovakia as a field of experiment for the total atheistisation of society.” This was in contrast with Poland, where Catholicism was far stronger and so the regime had to accommodate it to some extent. “But it’s also the Czech mindset that we’re always on the side of the weak so there was some sympathy for Catholicism, and in my generation it was attractive because going to a church was a political protest.”

The young Halík was attracted by “the Catholic culture, then the intellectual influence”. In particular, he was “struck by English Catholicism”. “My father was a historian of literature,” he explains. “He was the editor of the Czech writer Karel Čapek and Čapek was very close to Chesterton. So in the library of my father there were all the books of Chesterton.”

Chesterton fascinated him, especially his writings on paradox – Halík almost shouts the word with a great smile – then he became interested in Graham Greene and John Henry Newman. “Newman’s emphasis on the conscience resonated with the Czech tradition,” he says.
Halík studied sociology, philosophy and psychology at Charles University in Prague. In 1968, with the easing of restrictions, he left the country to study the philosophy of religion at the University of Wales in Bangor. Then came the Soviet crackdown: he had to decide whether to stay or return home. “In 1969 Jan Palach burned himself in Wenceslas Square. I organised the Requiem and made the decision to stay. It was hard because I loved British culture. I was very happy here. But Palach made this sacrifice and I thought: ‘I must do more with my life. I cannot live just for the career, the money. I must devote my life to something with higher values.’ And I think it was one of the first steps to my decision to become a priest.”

The Communists viewed him as an “enemy of the regime” and he was banned from teaching at university or travelling abroad again. As a punishment he was made to work with alcoholics and drug addicts as a psychologist. “Every religious activity not controlled by the state could be punished,” he says. “It was risky and in our group of priests was a known traitor. I was interrogated many times but I was never in prison.”

Halík taught in the “underground university” and published in dissident journals. He secretly studied theology and was ordained surreptitiously on October 21 1978 in East Germany. He was among the first priests ordained after John Paul II’s election, and watched the Polish pontiff’s installation on German television with the bishop, “and I thought perhaps one day I will have a chance to meet this pope”.

His clandestine church activities under Communism included seminars in homes and distributing samizdat material. All the bishops’ palaces were bugged and he laughs as he recalls that the Archbishop of Munich once visited the Archbishop of Prague and asked: “Can we speak openly here?” His Czech counterpart replied “yes” while vigorously shaking his head.

After the Communist regime fell in Czechoslovakia, Fr Halík found himself transformed in just a month from an enemy of the state to a friend and comrade of the new president, Václav Havel. Their friendship dated back to 1967 when Havel, then in his late 20s, began to visit Halík’s father at his discussion group for intellectuals. They used to smuggle in people from the West to give talks, including Hans Küng and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Havel would invite the circle to his holiday home in Bohemia where he would cook (“he was a wonderful cook”) and listen to the conversations. “He never had a university education but he had an artistic intuition just to recognise what is the most important idea,” Halík says. He pauses, then adds: “He was a hero.”

Although Havel talked of Halík as a possible successor as president of the Czech Republic, he has steered clear of politics and focused on his parish at Charles University, where he has bucked the Europe-wide trend of decline. He has baptised 1,000 young people and “this year we have 105 catechumens and our churches are full”. The key, he says, is to provide a “living Church” with “many spiritual programmes, retreats, meditation courses” and to provide for non-believers as well as Catholics. It seems to be working: Czech Communism has been buried and, despite the odds, Christianity in Bohemia is still the future.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (21/3/14)

Francis Phillips: Mgr Tomas Halik is a deserving winner of the Templeton Prize