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Czech theologian wins Templeton for interfaith work

14 March 2014

anthony isbitt

THIS year's £1.1-million Templeton Prize has been awarded to a Czech Roman Catholic priest who defied Soviet rule to support the underground Church, and who has now become an advocate of interfaith dialogue.

Monsignor Tomáš Halík (above), Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Charles University, in Prague, said on Tuesday that it was a surprise and a "great honour" to win the Prize. He said he would use the money to support his work.

The Templeton Prize was established in 1972 by the philanthropist Sir John Templeton to reward "outstanding contributions in affirming life's spiritual dimension".

The value of the prize is always set to exceed that of the Nobel Prize, and past winners include Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. Mgr Halík, who is 65, said that he grew up in a secular family, and was first drawn to faith by reading English RC writers such as Graham Greene and G. K. Chesterton.

"Then I saw priests who had spent many years in prison [under the Communist Czechoslovakian regime]," he said. "But they were not broken, but mature people, and very ecumenical. They were for me the inspiration to become a believer."

The only official seminary in Czechoslovakia was controlled by the secret police. Mgr Halík had been labelled an "enemy of the regime" by the Communist government; so he went underground to study theology, and was ordained in secret in East Germany. So dangerous was his position that he could not even tell his mother that he had become a priest and was preparing for the fall of Communist rule.

Mgr Halík said: "Our intention was not just to have changes to economic and political structures, but also of the moral climate of society. For democracy, it is im-portant to have a moral climate."

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution overthrew Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, Mgr Halík began to travel and to write, finding a new focus on fostering dialogue between faiths. His books have been translated into 18 languages.

He said that he had led the first joint service with an Anglican cleric in Prague - a memorial service for Diana, Princess of Wales.

Mgr Halík also said that he longed to see the RC Church change how it spoke to those outside it. "The Church shouldn't just be the home of the people who have identified with Christianity, but also with the seekers.

"When evangelism is just monologing it becomes indoctrination. People are allergic to indoctrination after Communism - it needs to be inculturation.

"The Catholic Church has a problem. Both liberalism and conservatism are wrong because they are too concentrated on the outward structures. The Church will not be saved by changing the structures.We should not go to the left or to the right, but go deeper."

He said, however, that he believed Pope Francis was a "great sign of hope" for the RC Church, and was fulfilling his dream of a pope who was "near to the people".He also condemned the recent Russian military operation in Crimea, and the Orthodox Church in Russia.

"I think the Russian Church needs to be more critical of this Russian nationalism and aggression, but the Orthodox Church is too closely connected to political power," he said. "One of the reasons I became a Catholic was because the Church was the voice against the Communist power. It's our role to say to the people of power: 'You are not God, but just a man.'"

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