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A key figure in communist Czechoslovakia's "underground church" on the religious side of the revolution. A TOL special report.
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia's communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: author, commentator, and Catholic priest Tomas Halik. For more memories of 1989, see the Recollections section of our 20 Years After website.
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A priest, theologian, sociologist, and psychotherapist, Tomas Halik was a key figure in communist Czechoslovakia's "iunderground church." Today he is one of the Czech Republic's most prominent public intellectuals and a respected voice on moral, ethical, and political issues.
Trained in sociology and philosophy at Prague's Charles University, Halik studied theology clandestinely and was secretly ordained in East Germany in 1978. Eleven years later, he was assisting with preparations for the canonization of Agnes of Prague – a 13th-century Bohemian princess who abandoned her life of privilege for one of charity – when the mass protests that triggered the regime change erupted.
Branded "an enemy of the regime" and banned from university teaching during communist rule, Halik did postgraduate work in clinical therapy and worked for several years with alcoholics and drug addicts. After the revolution he served as an adviser to President Vaclav Havel (who at one time suggested him as a potential successor).
Now a professor at Charles, Halik has lectured at Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard and written more than 200 articles and several books, including Patience With God (published in English in April by Doubleday) and Confessor's Night (scheduled to be released in English next year). Earlier this year Pope Benedict XVI granted him the title of monsignor.
We started preparing for the canonization of St. Agnes of Prague in 1987, but there was a delay, and so the canonization was in November ’89. When we left Prague for Rome there was already something in the air.
One evening in Rome, I was out walking, although the weather was terrible. Down a little street I ran into [Archbishop of Paris] Cardinal Lustiger, whom I had met once before in Prague. He said, "Try to contact the Holy Father," so I wrote a letter. I went to dinner with John Paul II on the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had been on the news that day saying, "There will be an end to communism. You will be free." I said, "Holy Father, I don’t believe it. I think that in five or 10 years, maybe it might happen." But he insisted that it would come soon.
I was still in Rome when I heard that there was a great demonstration in Prague, and a few days later I flew back with [Archbishop of Prague] Cardinal Tomasek. The ambassador of Italy was waiting at the airport, and he said, "Eminence, there is a revolution." We went straight to Wenceslas Square to the demonstration. The atmosphere was wonderful. It was a revolution without violence, without hate. It was like a national fiesta.
On Sunday there was a thanksgiving Mass for the canonization. I went to the cardinal and said, "Maybe you should speak some strong words in the cathedral," and he agreed. During Mass he said, "At this momentous point in our history, the Catholic Church stands on the side of the nation." There was great applause. I thought: the psychological wall between the church and the Czech nation is finally falling.
When the service ended, hundreds of people went from the cathedral to Letna Park, where Vaclav Havel and Father Vaclav Maly were speaking. A policeman who had been beaten by student protesters at one of the demonstrations came to demand an apology. There were almost a million people there, and so much emotion that I was afraid the people would lynch him. Vaclav Maly said, "We will say an ‘Our Father,’ and we will put particular emphasis on ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ " A million people tried to say an "Our Father," and many of them didn’t know it and they were trying to remember. For me it was so moving. From this moment I felt that this was not just a political revolution but also a spiritual revolution. It was not just a struggle for power, but a struggle for justice.
When the government abdicated it was on the news. For months, people had been talking about who the next leader of the Communist Party would be. Then somebody said at a demonstration, "Now it’s completely unimportant who the leader of the Communist Party is." And it was true. We didn’t expect that it would be so quick and so radical. We thought step by step there might be a little more liberation, like in 1968.
I was surprised that my friend Vaclav Havel was so quickly elected, and that all voices were for him. For me he was the natural leader, but he was not known well by society, only among dissidents. Many people only knew him through attacks against him in the communist press. And he was not a charismatic leader; he was a poor speaker, and very shy, and he has a slight speech impediment. He is a typical intellectual, who sits in a coffee house and converses. When I saw him at the mass demonstrations he was quite nervous and it was amusing. When I see Vaclav Havel’s face I remember the revolution. Though now, of course, we are old.
Communists from the political scene and the secret police abdicated power. But in the euphoria after the revolution we didn’t notice that the last communist became the first capitalist. They had the capital, the information, the contacts, and they used it in the free economic market. And they became powerful again.
The canonization of St. Agnes was very important, though now it is more or less forgotten. Cardinal Tomasek’s Mass was the first Czech Mass ever broadcast on Czech television. Afterwards, I think through the British press, it became "the Velvet Revolution," but at the time many people called it "the Revolution of St Agnes."
Publisher in: TRANSITIONS ONLINE
16 November 2009
Natalia O'Hara is a journalist in Prague.