Review: The unknown story of Czech priest, Tomáš Halík

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

The name Msgr. Tomáš Halík first came to my attention in 2014 when he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize. I only learned as much about him as the press release allowed. If readers of this review are similarly unaware of Halík’s story, then this book is essential reading. From the Underground Church to Freedom is equal parts memoir, history, theology and spirituality, with a little bit of psychology mixed in for good measure. It does not hurt that Halík also punctuates his life story with wit and humor. 

From the outset of the book, it is evident that Halík is a polymath whose influences range from Mother Teresa and Fyodor Dostoevsky to Jan Hus and Karl Rahner, but what follows in the ensuing pages is delightful, profound and easily digestible by all readers. The text is populated by dozens of Halík’s acquaintances and wonderful anecdotes about them.

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From the Underground Church to Freedomby Tomáš Halík, translated by Gerald Turner

University of Notre Dame Press, 374p $35

This book, the story of a Czech priest working under communist oppression, constitutes a profound reflection on the 1989 collapse of communism and the liberation of the Czech people. This context permeates the entire book. “Freedom” is not only part of the title of this book; it also underlies every page. Readers will constantly ask if they themselves are really free, or if they are beset by fear.  

This book, the story of a Czech priest working under communist oppression, constitutes a profound reflection on the 1989 collapse of communism and the liberation of the Czech people.

Much of this book reads like a thriller. Take, for example, Halík’s account of his clandestine ordination in which he was whisked into the bishop’s private residence under an overcoat to avoid detention (or worse) by the secret police. Moments like these make this account seem like it must be fiction. In what would normally be an exceptionally dramatic conclusion, the final chapter details how Halík almost died in Antarctica. After interrogation by the secret police decades earlier, though, this near-death experience seems mundane by comparison. 

While every reader will take away different things from this text, I was most profoundly moved by Halík’s understanding of the ordained priesthood. His greatest personal influences are mostly members of the Czech clergy and hierarchy, and yet Halík proclaims, “A priest without a parish, a church, a clerical collar, or a rubber stamp was obliged to reflect constantly, and ever more deeply, on what constituted the true essence of priesthood; he must seek it deeper.” Equally comfortable in the company of St. John Paul II, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus or Bishop Walter Sullivan, Halík constantly reminds the reader that God is “no-thing,” to borrow Meister Eckhart’s (a favorite of Halík’s) description. Therefore, the only way to find God is to empty ourselves.

It is possible that Halík is the most thoughtful, learned and interesting Catholic that is widely unknown in the United States today. Hopefully, this book will right that wrong.

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