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He served as underground priest in nation’s dark night

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Prague, Czech Republic

Fr. Tomás Halík’s election to the presidency of the Czech Republic is unlikely but hardly more so than the life he’s led up to now as priest, professor, psychotherapist and public figure. Born in 1948, the year communism was established in Czechoslovakia, Halík was raised in an agnostic, intellectual Prague family that was anti-communist. He converted to Catholicism in his first years at the university. Contact with several priests who were not allowed to practice their vocation and had earlier been imprisoned for their faith was an important influence in his conversion.

“I met the church not through the institution but through persecuted personalities who were really martyrs,” Halík recalls, going on to describe these priests as “people who had been 15 years in prison but were not destroyed but were really mature, charming personalities. “

A milestone in his decision to become a priest was the suicide of Jan Palach in 1969, an event that burned its way into the consciousness of the Czechoslovak people and is still commemorated today.

A fellow student of Halík’s at Charles University, Palach set himself on fire in protest not only against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia but against the Czechoslovak population’s growing acquiescence to it. When Palach died, Halík organized a requiem for him in a church in Prague.

“It was a January night and I went to the church through the snowy night with his death mask and had this inner dialogue with myself. I was so shaken by this sacrifice that I felt it was time for some sacrifice on my part. It was one step on my way to being a priest -- part of my war with this one-dimensional communist society.”

Communist Czechoslovakia had only one theological seminary, which was open to students leaving secondary school, not university. But Halík met an underground priest who knew that “this situation to be a priest and to have a secular job is not just a necessity but an opportunity.” After seven years of clandestine study, Halík was ordained secretly in the private chapel of the bishop of Erfurt in East Germany. Even his mother didn’t know of it, he said, nor of his 11 years as an underground priest, during which time he was also working as a psychotherapist and counselor to alcoholics and drug abusers.

During the last seven years of the communist regime, Halík became an assistant and confidant of Cardinal Frantisek Tomásek of Prague. Because the cardinal’s living quarters were bugged by the authorities, Halik was frequently entrusted with the responsibility of talking to Western visitors, often meeting them late at night and walking with them through the streets of Prague while acquainting them with the facts of what was taking place in Czechoslovakia.

Today Halík juggles half a dozen different roles. In addition to teaching at Charles University, he’s a popular university pastor who often baptizes as many as 40 or 50 students in a year. For three years he has been a member of the pontifical commission for dialogue with unbelievers. He has lectured in India and has spent time in Buddhist monasteries in Japan and at the University of Al Azhar in Cairo, the center of learning for the Sunni branch of Islam. Each year since the establishment of Forum 2000, a conference of world thinkers held annually in Prague, he’s organized the interreligious program, bringing prominent personalities and scholars of different faiths to the forum. The Czech Christian Academy, which he founded, holds numerous interreligious dialogues between Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus.

A sociologist, Halík calls the great issue of today not secularism but globalization. The Catholic church, because it has one foot in the modern world and one foot out, has a special opportunity to communicate between the West and traditional cultures, he believes. “The church needs to extend both hands to these two worlds,” he says.

While celibacy and the role of women in the church preoccupy many Catholics in the West, Halík views these issues as significant but secondary, complex enough to defy easy answers. The problems of the Catholic church go deeper, he says; the church must rediscover values important in its own mystical tradition.

In this connection, he speaks of St. John of the Cross, speculating that the Dark Night of the Soul that the Spanish saint described is an experience that may pertain not only to individuals but to the history of humankind and to the history of the church.

“Crisis is always an opportunity,” he notes. “To be a mature personality, you must go through some crisis. The experience of the century with all this darkness, with all this violence and totalitarianism, is perhaps this dark night of the soul in human history.”

Maturity is not, in his opinion, one of the outstanding characteristics of the church today. Too often, Halík says, those within the church seem to reflect either a childish conservatism looking to authority or an adolescent progressivism struggling with it.

“There are very few representatives who have a mature position. I’d like to support this maturity within the church.” Interviewed in Prague in between trips to Australia and Argentina, Halík reflected on a life that he finds full and satisfying but feverishly busy except for occasional periods of solitude at a hermitage he retreats to for contemplation.

“What I do is enough for five lives. If I could divide myself into five persons, all five would have much to do. I am crying to God [about this] and I think I receive the answer that my special vocation is to be between, to be in the center of all these activities. It’s a terrible answer. It’s your vocation and also your cross. I cannot say I will be just a politician or just a pastor or just a contemplative.”

Told that his sounds like an exciting life, he pauses.

“It sounds,” he says wryly. “But it’s not easy. It’s really not easy.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001