CZECH Republic Catholic priest Monsignor Tomas Halik knows about the “Church suffering” first hand – it turned him into a courageous man of faith.
Raised under eastern Europe’s repressive communism, Msgr Halik trained underground to become a priest, and his ordination had to be kept secret – even from his mother.
“I realised … I had to be part of the spiritual, moral struggle with the communism regime,” he said.
Today the world-renowned priest and philosopher can speak openly about his conversion, his faith and his astonishing insights into the contemporary world – and this is exactly what Msgr Halik delivered during a luncheon conversation with the Assembly of Catholic Professionals in Brisbane on July 14.
Msgr Halik, 67, grew up in a cultured but secular family and discovered “the intellectual attractiveness” of Catholicism in his father’s library, where he found the works of G.K. Chesterton and Graham Greene.
He had the rare opportunity to study abroad at the University of Wales, but on his return to Prague, he became a thorn in the side of his nation’s communist government.
In 1972, he was condemned as an “enemy of the regime” and spent nearly two decades organising and building an extensive secret network of academics, theologians, philosophers and students dedicated to cultivating the intellectual and spiritual underpinnings for the democratic state he and others envisioned.
Those years of groundwork and counselling to liberation leaders such as Václav Havel and Cardinal František Tomášek helped Czechoslovakia transition to democracy following the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Msgr Halik became one of the external advisors of Czech president Václav Havel. Pope John Paul II appointed him as an advisor to the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers in 1992.
Since that time, Msgr Halik has advocated religious tolerance and understanding through his writings and lectures by sharing ideas and beliefs among followers of widely varying cultural and spiritual traditions and, notably, non-believers.
In 2010, his book Patience with God was awarded Europe’s best theological book prize and, in 2014, Msgr Halik won the Templeton Prize, awarded annually to a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works.
Speaking to a Brisbane audience Msgr Halik delivered an impassioned plea for Europe to stay united, despite the rise of nationalism and spurred on by Brexit.
“Europe should be united,” he said.
“Especially now there are so many dangerous things – the problems of immigrants is difficult for them, but it is possible to solve it without hysteria, … but we need solidarity between European nations.”
Msgr Halik said Europe represented a common cultural bloc with shared values, and this was important to maintain.
“The European identity is very important. The national state and the national culture is not enough. We can discover the real value of our national culture in the context of the European culture,” he said.
Msgr Halik warned against President Vladimir Putin’s Russia as “very, very dangerous” with its reliance, as in communist times, on secret police to maintain control.
“It is the ruling force. Putin is a former agent of the KGB and his main task is to renew the old empire so there is a very sophisticated agenda especially against the former Soviet satellites,” he said.
“Putin is giving millions and millions of dollars for propaganda and he is supporting all the nationalist and neo-fascist movements in the whole of Europe.
“Now the rise of nationalists … all over the world is so dangerous, and I think it is a sign that social capital of the Western culture is weakening.”
Msgr Halik said trust in democracy, in institutions, and in politicians was shaken in many countries.
Within the Church, he has been a passionate voice for ecumenism and religious tolerance, befriending the Dalai Lama, and hosting events with Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths.
He said the world today needed “mutual inspiration”.
“The great task for society is to turn globalisation into a process of cultural communication – not the unification, but the complementarity of the differences,” Msgr Halik said.
In many ways he reflected the thinking of Pope Francis today: in his desire for dialogue with other religions and his hopes for a humbler Church.
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”.
By Mark Bowling