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An Interview with Tomáš Halík, author of “From the Underground Church to Freedom”

Tomáš Halík worked as a psychotherapist during the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia and at the same time was active in the underground church as a secretly ordained Catholic priest. Since the fall of the regime, he has served as general secretary to the Czech Conference of Bishops and was an advisor to former Czech Republic President Václav Havel. He has lectured at many universities throughout the world and is currently a professor of philosophy and sociology at Charles University. His books, which are best sellers in his own country, have been translated into many languages and have received several literary prizes.

Geraldine Fagan, Editor of the East-West Church Report, met with Monsignor Halík to interview him for the journal. She has given us permission to publish part of the interview, which appeared in the most recent issue of the East-West Church Report.

Fr. Tomáš Halík

You were born in 1948, just as Czechoslovakia fell under Communist rule. How did you come to be an active Catholic?

I was baptized as a child, but I grew up without any sort of religious education. In practice, I converted in the late 1960s. Around the time of the Prague Spring [January-August 1968] I met several priests who had spent many years in prison. Some of them were leading theologians, like Josef Zvěřina, Oto Mádr, and Antonin Mandl. It was due to their influence that I started to think about becoming a priest.

And you were also able to travel abroad at this time?

Yes. Before the Prague Spring it was very difficult, and afterwards it was quite impossible for anyone who did not have connections with the Communist Party. But there was a short period during the Prague Spring when anyone could travel to the West, and many students made use of this opportunity—especially to go to Britain, because they were interested in learning English. So I spent some time during my holidays on an English course at Bangor University in North Wales. My father had been editor of the works of the Czech writer Karel Čapek, and Bohuslava Bradbrook, the wife of a Bangor professor, was also a specialist on Čapek. She invited me, but the last day of my holiday—21 August 1968—was the day of the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. So I was offered the possibility of studying at Bangor, and I stayed on.

During the Prague Spring, Czech Catholic intellectuals suggested that the Church should not remain on the sidelines, as the popular demands for reform concerned the whole of society.

Yes. In 1968 some Catholic intellectuals and priests— many of whom had spent long years in prison—decided to greet the Prague Spring as an opportunity to take part in the new political situation, hoping some sort of liberalization of the Communist regime would follow. We gathered in March 1968, and in May we travelled to Velehrad—a Catholic pilgrimage site in the region of Moravia. There we founded a renewal movement in the spirit of Vatican II. We also planned to establish new Catholic radio programming and publishing activity, but the majority of this was suppressed after several months, under the Russian military occupation.

For a year or two some possibilities to publish remained. Persecution was not immediate after the occupation; the so-called “normalization” of the regime was introduced step-by-step. This was quite clever, because it meant that we kept hoping: “Okay, the Russian tanks are here, the situation will not be so open as we dreamed, but there will still be some possibilities.” But step-by-step it became worse and worse. While it was not so drastic as in the Stalinist period of the 1950s—there were no executions or 20- year prison terms—it was more sophisticated. Secret police were everywhere, and the psychological pressure people were under destroyed the moral climate in society—perhaps even more than in the 1950s, when everything was black and white.

Was the window of greater freedom afforded by the Prague Spring closed by the time you chose to study to become a priest in the early 1970s?

Formally, there was a seminary for priests, but it was totally controlled by the secret police. Students were not allowed to enter if they already had a university degree. There was no possibility for me to enter because I had already completed my studies in philosophy and sociology at Charles University in Prague. Also, I already had some contacts with dissidents, including Václav Havel.

Furthermore, my intention was to work in another way than the priests in the officially recognized parishes. I felt my vocation was to work with students and academics—the intelligentsia—because this was the milieu that I knew very well. The only possibility for that was in the underground Church.

What form did the underground Catholic Church take in Communist Czechoslovakia?

It was not a united organization—there were several groups. One part consisted of priests who had been officially ordained but who had lost their government permission to serve as priests. All these official priests were practically in a schizophrenic situation. They were paid by the state, but if they performed their work well—if they had a full church, or the interest of young people—they were punished. Everywhere there were Communist-appointed secretaries for church affairs who controlled everything, especially the priests, and they had the power to take away their permission without any explanation. If a priest had some kind of activity with young people, he was especially likely to be punished. Some were sent to regions near the border, which was practically a religious desert. Or, their permission was taken away completely, and they had to work as a window cleaner or janitor. So they worked in such jobs while continuing to perform some priestly activity in private apartments.

Another part of the underground Church were priests who had been secretly ordained by bishops who had themselves been secretly ordained. Even prior to the Communist putsch in 1948, Pope Pius XII expected hard persecution of the Church, so he allowed the secret ordination of bishops for this time of persecution. But practically all of these secretly ordained bishops were discovered and arrested by the Communist secret police. Some of them used the last moment before they were taken into prison to ordain another bishop. However, this was without a decision of the Holy See, so things became complicated from the point of view of canon law.

The third part of the underground Church were priests who were ordained by bishops in other so-called socialist countries, such as Poland and East Germany, to which we were allowed to travel. I was ordained a priest in East Germany in 1978, in the private chapel of the bishop of Erfurt.

And there were very few people who knew you were a priest?

Yes, even my mother was not allowed to know about it. There had been damaging experience of family members telling others, and of that information being passed on.

How did the ordination take place?

In the autumn of 1978 I was awaiting an invitation to go to Erfurt for my priestly ordination. Then Pope John Paul I died suddenly, and we thought that might put a stop to the process. Among the bishops there were different attitudes towards the underground Church—some were more cautious about supporting it. In time the date I should be in Erfurt was clandestinely communicated to me: 20 October. So I went there, received my ordination, and celebrated my first Mass with the then auxiliary bishop of Erfurt, Joachim Meisner, in a monastery chapel.

—From Vol. 28, Issue No. 2, 2020 of the East-West Church Report

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