E s s a y s
DISSIDENT PRIEST SHEPHERDED IN REVOLUTION
Halík recalls surprise at how quickly things turned around
The communist rulers in 1989 could be forgiven for echoing the words of England's Henry II, frustrated at Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, asking his knights, "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"
In 1989, Tomáš Halík was a troublesome priest, deeply involved with dissident politics.
Investigated by the secret police as an "enemy of the regime," he was banned from teaching at universities.
Halík, secretly ordained in 1978, worked on a pastoral program in 1987 titled, "The Decade of National Spiritual Revival," its core point being that freedom demands a moral revival and a change of society's values, a clear challenge to the communists. "This was a topic I had discussed many times with the leading figures of dissent, including my good friend Václav Havel."
It was not a blueprint for revolution but a set of standards by which it could be subsequently measured. Havel believed Halík should have been a presidential contender, an opportunity Halík turned down because of his vocation.
In November 1989, Halík was in Rome for the canonization of Agnes of Bohemia and a memorable meeting with the pope.
"The winds of change had been blowing for some time due to perestroika, but I did not believe in early 1989 that I would be celebrating Christmas in a free country. But that changed for me not on Nov. 17 but Nov. 25. It was a Saturday [Halík had returned from Rome Nov. 19], and there was a mass demonstration at Letná. After that, we knew the regime would resign without a fight. When I was in Rome, I delivered a speech in front of 12,000 pilgrims and explicitly mentioned the old prophecy that the canonization of Agnes of Bohemia would bring better times to our country. Little did I know at the time that the change was so close and so radical."
Before the media coined the term "Velvet Revolution," it was commonly called "the Revolution of Agnes of Bohemia."
A meeting with the pope revealed the Vatican had a greater insight into the imminent changes than many realized.
"On Nov. 7, I was invited for dinner with Pope John Paul II. It was my first meeting with him in person; I had a chance to talk to him undisturbed for over an hour. He told me the end of communism was near and that we had to be prepared to take on new responsibilities. I have to admit, at the time I did not think things would change so quickly. However, in just 10 days, Nov. 17 came. He was right, not me. I went back to Prague Nov. 19. When we landed, we were told the revolution was here. I immediately started getting involved, and I was invited to give lectures to students on strike at various university departments. Cardinal Tomášek asked me to prepare a speech for him to be delivered at the cathedral Nov. 25, which became famous when he uttered the sentence: 'At this historic moment of our nation, I and the Catholic Church stand on the side of the nation.' ''
But the revolution was tainted, Halík said. It may have been "velvet" but it could also be termed "Teflon" - nothing stuck, and the communists were still influential.
"Very soon, I realized the communists switched from the political to the economic sphere; they were the only ones to have capital, contacts and information. The communists turned into the first capitalists, and today they again have political power."
Halík has little time for President Václav Klaus, whom he accuses of focusing too narrowly on privatization during his days as prime minister in the 1990s.
"These people, whose only education in the political sphere and social sciences is Marxism-Leninism, got their ideology in the shape of Václav Klaus. He handed them his simplified theory of economic determinism: that economic privatization solves everything; other things like law and morals are only superstructure," Halík said.
Born in the year the communists took power, 1948, Halík now lectures in philosophy at Charles University. Earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI granted him the title of monsignor, but his political antenna is still finely tuned.
"Klaus' fear stems from the possibility that European law might be valid here, and some things might come to light in the face of international supervision. However, more and more people - especially the young and educated - understand the greatest national interest for our republic is to be a part of the Western world in a strong, integrated Europe. Although many have misused freedom, and we have wasted many opportunities, I am grateful for the events of November 1989, and I look to the future with hope."
- Klára Jiřičná contributed to this report.
(Published in: PRAGUE POST, November 11, 2009)