A Witness to Catholic (Under)Groundwork for Czechs’ and Slovaks’ Freedom

BOOK PICK: From the Underground Church to Freedom

(photo: Cropped book cover)


By Tomáš Halík

Translated by Gerald Turner

University of Notre Dame Press, 2019

352 pages, $35; also e-book, $16.99

To order: undpress.nd.edu or (800)848-6224, ext. 1


Nov. 17, 2019, marked the 30th anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution,” the peaceful overthrow of communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, an event in which Father Tomáš Halík played a role.

Czechoslovakia no longer exists as such — as it had since been reorganized, in 1993, at the end of the Cold War, as two distinct countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But in focusing on the time during communist rule of Czechoslovakia, this book is part autobiography, part spiritual reflection on the life of a Catholic priest who lived through this horribly trying period.

Born in 1948, Father Halík grew up in an intellectual’s home, which in Czech terms meant under the influence of skeptical humanism as formulated by one of Czechoslovakia’s founding fathers, the late 19th- and early 20th-century statesman Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Czechoslovakia as a distinct sovereignty was created in 1918 after declaring independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s said that the Czech Republic is among Europe’s most “atheistic” countries — a term Father Halík wants to qualify — but that phenomenon was certainly not attributable solely to communism’s domination of the country for almost half of the 20th century. The influences of Masaryk and 15th-century proto-Protestant Jan Hus also contributed, as did the Czech Church’s association with the pre-communist Austrian Habsburg rule, to which the Czechs and Slovaks were subjects until their independence in 1918.

Father Halík writes that he was baptized in infancy, but noting, “I wouldn’t even vouch for the faith of the priest who christened me …” and adds that he believed much less that the others in the baptismal party possessed the faith. Halík’s “conversion” — when he embraced the truth of the faith for himself — occurred when he came of age, ready to enter university. It also coincided with the communist liberalization of 1968, which gave Halík a chance to visit the West. He chose to return to his homeland as Soviet tanks crushed the “Prague Spring” and ushered in 21 another years of stagnant repression, including repression of the Catholic Church.

Halík was deemed subversive by the authorities, who cut him off from an academic career. He was ordained an underground priest in 1978, carrying on his ministry while working publicly as a psychotherapist with alcoholics and drug addicts. He only openly became known as a priest in 1989. He subsequently served as an adviser to President Václav Havel and taught briefly in the revived theology faculty of Charles University before moving to religious studies in its arts faculty, became chaplain of the university parish of St. Salvator, and has been serving as a public intellectual and visiting professor ever since. The University of Notre Dame, which published this book, hosted him in the latter capacity in 2015 and 2017.

This book provides a fascinating view into an underground priest’s life, while also grappling with his spiritual struggles and thoughts throughout his life, up to the present.

Father Halík is an optimist, what one might even sometimes call a theological “progressive,” far more broadly receptive to contemporary cultural currents — even secularism — than I would be. But his insights are challenging, the result of a life still even now being lived amid struggles to keep and share the faith. The latter has led him to embrace a kind of “apophatic” theology, a theology of negation (what God is not) and silence, not unlike Meister Eckhart, whom he admires. In particular, Father Halík’s reflections on life and death in light of his trip to Antarctica (Chapter 14) are thought-provoking. Without always concurring in Father Halík’s conclusions in this book, I was moved by and share his beautiful meditation on how trust in God arranges into something beautiful the crooked lines of our lives:

“[Antoine de Saint-]Exupéry says in The Little Prince, ‘What is essential is invisible to the eye,’” the author writes. “Seldom do we realize how God operates in our lives. I imagine it is like the way an oriental carpet is woven. If we look at the back of the carpet, all we see is a fairly unsightly maze of threads and knots. When the carpet is finally woven and turned over, one is astounded by the upper side, with its symmetrical decoration and bright colors. That hope gave me strength at very knotted periods of my life.”

Clergy — Catholic and Protestant — played essential roles leading up to and during the Revolution of 1989: Some names are well known to American readers, such as Pope St. John Paul II and Polish martyr-priest Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, beatified in 2009, while others are renowned within the spheres of Czech and Slovak history, such as Ján Korec, František Tomášek, Václav Malý, the Lutheran pastors of East Germany, Laszlo Tokes … and Father Tomáš Halík.

A timely book, From the Underground Church to Freedom provides an opportunity to know better one of these Eastern European heroes, his fight for freedom from oppression and his struggles as a champion of the Catholic faith.

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia. All views are exclusively his.

This book pick was updated after posting.

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