From the Underground Church to Freedom
By Tomáš Halík
University of Notre Dame Press, 374pp, £39.50/$35
At one point in this autobiography, the Czech priest Mgr Tomáš Halík reminds his readers of the reverence the early Church paid towards those who had suffered for the faith. Meeting them, fellow Christians would kiss their chains and shackles, acknowledging their witness. Speaking or writing about the suffering the Church endured in Eastern and Central Europe under communist persecution and Soviet occupation requires a similar reverence for the enormous hardship of those who attempted to stay faithful to Christ.
Although a few attempts have been made to record some of the stories of the suffering Church during that period, from the Russian Revolution until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the subject is so vast that all the tales of martyrdom, torture and small acts of fidelity will probably never be reported. This book certainly provides a stimulating historical description of the latter part of the suffering endured by Christians in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Born in 1948, as the communists began to exert totalitarian control over the Czech and Slovak lands, Halík was baptised, even though his parents did not practise their faith. Now in his 70s, his long-serving assistant jokes with him about writing his autobiography, suggesting that he is writing about himself “again”. However, the real interest of the book is, as Halík writes, “half a century of history” and, moreover, the history of the “sorely tested Czech Catholic Church”.
Halík, a curious and precocious only child bought up by loving parents, describes how he much preferred the company of adults as mixing with other children left him bored. With genuine humility, he admits to having spent much of his life dealing with a “certain sense of exclusiveness and a tendency to excessive self-preoccupation” – something which emerges as he writes about his life.
Intellectually gifted and able, Halík graduated with a doctorate in sociology and philosophy, but was unable to teach after bravely refusing to read the communist propaganda text he was expected to recite when he graduated.
In many ways, both in his life and in the history he describes, it is the significance of the year 1968 that is at the heart of this book. The “Prague Spring”, when for a brief moment it seemed that the Czech people would regain their freedom, is the moment when Halík decided he should begin to discern the call to the priesthood.
What he calls the “spring of my life” was also, of course, the time of student rebellions in the West. That experience was what convinced the late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton to become a conservative, and it profoundly changed the attitude of Joseph Ratzinger who had, until that point, been considered a theological liberal.
Halík, it seems, is very much a man of the Sixties, and was inspired by the vision of the French worker-priests. He is, he says, a “modern thinking and feeling person”, which leads to the central theme of this autobiography: his vision of the priesthood.
He was ordained a “clandestine” priest in 1978 in Erfurt, East Germany. Even his mother was not allowed to be told that he had become a priest. He worked in as a a psychotherapist treating addicts, seemingly with very little sacramental ministry. It is impossible – and unnecessary – for us to judge what was needed at that particular moment in the life of the Czechoslovak Church. What is intriguing is the sense that Halík believes the model of a truly “secular” priesthood – a priest combining a secular career with priestly ministry – can be a model for today’s Church.
Sadly, like so many in the Church who see the late 1960s as the moment when the faith came of age, Halík has a rather condescending view of conservatives in the Church, lamenting the fact that many of the students he serves in the university parish in Prague spend time in a local monastery “wearing white robes and inhaling the sweet smell of incense”. He feels that he can only help such young people when they have “grown out” of it.
I spoke to a friend about Halík who told me of a conversation he had recently with a Czech priest. This young man told my friend that, in many ways, Fr Halík had inspired his vocation; yet now he described him as a “tragic figure” who believes that the future of the Church should follow the current mode of thinking in the German Church.
Halík, speaking of both the underground and official Church, reminds the reader that “there were both heroes and traitors – but above all weak and erring individuals on both sides”. Perhaps the conclusion which acknowledges both his heroism and his weakness is the quotation of Lenin that Halík spots on his way to his secret ordination in East Germany: “sparks create a flame”. And he remarks to himself: “Ours will blaze much longer than yours.”
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