Templeton Prize goes to Czech priest

(Photo: Tomáš Halík)Tomáš Halík

The Templeton Prize has been given this year to 65-year-old Czech Catholic priest Monsignor Tomáš Halík.

The $1.8m award is presented each year to a person who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works".

Speaking to Vatican Radio, Mgr Halík said: "I perceive it as an award also for my teachers because many of my teachers they were priests, they spent many years in Communist concentration camps, or prisons and uranium mines and they had very little possibility to write or publish, and many died during Communism.

"They inspired me morally and intellectually, and I think this award is also for them."

The prize was established in 1972 by American-born British entrepreneur Sir John Templeton. According to his obituary in the Economist, he founded the prize because he felt "spirituality was ignored" by the Nobel prizes.

The first winner of the award was Mother Teresa in 1973. Other notable winners have included the evangelist Billy Graham in 1982, physicist Freeman Dyson in 2000, Dali Lama Tenzin Gyatso in 2012, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2013.

Coming from a secular family of intellectuals, in what was then Czechoslovakia, Mgr Halík discovered Christianity through the works of G K Chesterton and his interpretation of Catholicism as "a rich paradox".

Later through the works of Graham Greene and Cardinal Newman on the conscience, Mgr Halík found his faith beginning to flourish in a particularly English form of Catholicism. "This minority Church which was without triumphalism ... it was very near to my heart."

After studying sociology and philosophy in Prague and Bangor in Wales, he returned to communist Czechoslovakia and was promptly banned from teaching. Instead he worked for a time as a psychotherapist for drug addicts and alcoholics.

His dedication to the cause of undermining and ultimately overthrowing the Communist regime came in 1969 when a fellow student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR.

After organising Palach's requiem, the young Halík resolved to enter the priesthood.

He studied theology secretly in Prague and when not working, he covertly organised a secret network of academics, theologians, philosophers, and students. This was part of a plan to preserve the intellectual life of Czechoslovakia ready for when it would return to democracy.

This work naturally was not approved of by the Communist authorities. After the Prague Spring of 1968, dissent from the party line was much less tolerated. In 1972, Halík was declared an "enemy of the regime", but he remained active and in 1978 he was clandestinely ordained as a Catholic priest in Germany.

Despite the Church suffering greatly under Communism in Eastern Europe, Mgr Halík saw it as a process which the Church needed to go through.

"I met these priests who spent so many years in prison ... they perceived this persecution also as a sort of purification of the Church.

"They dreamed of a Church without triumphalism, a Church serving the oppressed and the poor."

As Communism ended, Mgr Halík became one of the key advisers to Vaclav Havel, the chief architect of the new Czech Republic, as democracy took hold and the Velvet Revolution got underway.

Speaking about that time in the press conference announcing his receipt of the award, Mgr Halík said: "At the time of the 'Velvet Revolution' 25 years ago, my friend Vaclav Havel expressed the hope that 'truth and love' would triumph over lies and hatred.

"That is an enormous and difficult task for the entire remainder of history. In the rest of my life I would like to do some small things that would bring light and warmth to people in our world."

Since that time, Mgr Halík has worked as a university professor, teaching on the sociology of religion at Charles University in Prague. His advocacy work has been directed towards interfaith dialogue, seeing Roman Catholicism as a kind of bridge between the secularism of the west, and Islamic culture in the Middle East and beyond.

Dr John M Templeton Jr, current president of the John Templeton Foundation said of Mgr Halík: "Whether risking prison to liberate the minds of his nation or daring to engage views that many keepers of the faith would shun as heretical, Tomáš Halík has continually opened vistas that advance humankind.

"Rising to these challenges, he inspires us all to break free of repression, whether it comes from a totalitarian government or our own blinkered world view."

Karel Schwarzenberg, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, also praised Mgr Halík, particularly his interfaith work.

"For many years, Professor Halík has been building bridges between various religions, cultures and nations. Through his life and work, he has helped foster respect for spiritual and religious values among secular public opinion," he said.

Speaking about receiving the award on the same day as the first anniversary of the ascension to the Holy See of Pope Francis, Mgr Halík said on Vatican Radio, "I'm very happy the announcement of this prize will be also the day of the first anniversary of Pope Francis who is also for me and for many people outside the Church a sign of hope. He is a man who is showing nearness to the people."