Friday 30 November 2018

"Pope Francis is starting a new era of the Church"

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Fr. Tomás Halík. The published version can be found here, in Portuguese.

Esta é uma transcrição completa, no inglês original, da minha entrevista com o Pe. Tomás Halík. A notícia pode ser lida aqui.

Pope Francis has been a strong critic of what he calls self-referentialism. Is there anything more self-referential than an autobiography? Does this worry you?
I think my book is a testimony. It is inspired by St. Augustine's “Confessions”. It is the combination of a theological reflection and autobiography. It is not only an autobiography, it is not only about my life story, it is also about the history of the Church in our country, and not only in our country. There are many of my life experiences, from the time of the hard persecution of the Church and the transition, and there are some which I felt I should share with other people. 

You have become a very popular writer and spiritual reference. Your books are translated in many languages, you have won awards, you mingle with important and successful people. How do you keep from being affected by vanity and pride?
There is a nice story from the Desert Fathers. One told people to go to the cemetery and think very good things about the people there. They did so and when they returned the spiritual father asked them what the dead had replied. And they said: “nothing”. 

So, he said “Go again and think terrible things about the people there, blame them”, and so on. They did so and when they returned he asked them what they had answered. They said: “nothing”. 

So, the master told them they must be like this. If people are attacking you, if they are glorifying you, you must be like the dead people. 

I think that what God thinks about us is more important than what other people think about us. 

You say that the persecution in Czechoslovakia was worse than in the rest of the communist bloc. Why?
I think that the communists chose Czechoslovakia as a terrain for the total atheisation of a country, because of the very dramatic Czech religious history. Jan Hus, the reformer who was burned in Konstanz in 1415, then the Hussite wars, the crusades against the Czechs and the violent Catholicisation in the XVII Century, then the link between the Catholic Church and the Habsburg Monarchy. There are some wounds in the history of our country, and there were tensions between the Catholic identity and the national identity. 

It is the opposite of Poland. In Poland the Catholic Church was always an instrument of national identity, but not in our country, because of these tensions and these anti-Catholic feelings from before the Communist times. And the communists tried to use this, but the effect was rather the opposite, because Czech people are always sympathetic to the persecuted, so during the persecution the moral authority of the Church increased.

In the first few pages you mention several times the importance of Jan Hus for the Czech mentality. Who was he, why was he so important and why do so many Czech Catholics seem intent on restoring his standing as a Catholic? Would you like to see that happen?
Yes! When I first met John Paul II, in 1989, the day before the fall of the Berlin wall, one of his first questions was "what should we do with Jan Hus? I rehabilitated Galilei, perhaps it is time for the rehabilitation of Jan Hus. Remember that the Polish delegation was the only one which defended him in the Council of Konstanz”. 

So, I returned to Prague and I visited our Archbishop Cardinal Tomasic, and I told him about this, but the Cardinal was very reserved, because he spent his youth in the time of the first republic and at that time Jan Hus was a symbol of the anti-Catholic tensions. So, we had to wait. But when the Holy Father came to Czechoslovakia for the first time, I was in Rome to help him prepare, because it was his first visit to the post-communist world, he spoke about Jan Hus in a very positive way, and then, on the eve of the new millennium, there was a symposium in Rome about Jan Hus and the Pope made quite a remarkable speech there, and many other figures were present as well. 

Something happened there, because St. John Paul said a very important thing. "Hus was a sign of our division, between Catholics and Protestants, and now he may become a bridge between Catholics and Protestants", because he was a Catholic priest his whole life, and he didn't want to fight against Rome, he wanted to reform the Church, but many of his ideas were developed in a more radical way by Martin Luther and the German Reformation, but he was not in such tension as the German reformation. 

A friend of the Holy Father, a Polish Theologian and Historian, wrote an article called "Jan Hus: Heretic or precursor of Vatican II?". He wrote about some of Jan Hus' ideas which were fulfilled by Vatican II, a poorer and more modest Church, without triumphalism. I think Pope Francis is the type of Pope Jan Hus would like very much. 

The Church is going through a period of division now, and it sometimes seems like those close to Pope Benedict XVI are against Pope Francis. But you have been a strong defender of Pope Francis and you were also close to Pope Benedict. How do you interpret this current division in the Church?
I think that John Paul II and Pope Benedict ended – with great honesty and in a very positive way – a long period of Church history. It was a long period where the main task was confrontation with modernity. I think the happy end of this confrontation was the famous interview of Cardinal Ratzinger, the year before he was elected Pope, with German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. They both agree with the statement that Secular Humanism and Christianity need each other to overcome one-sidedness.

Also, Pope Benedict had a wonderful speech during his flight to Portugal, I always say that his best speeches were in the airplane... Perhaps because he was so near to heaven! And this speech about the compatibility of secular culture and Christianity was very profound and very courageous. 

I think it marked the end of one long period of Christianity. But now modernity is over, we live in the post-modern global age, the age of internet, of radical plurality, and we need something different. And I think Pope Francis is starting this new era of the Church, and every time somebody starts something new, such as happened with many saints in History, they found trouble in the Church, they were attacked, but they keep the fidelity to the Church, and I think that the supporters of Pope Francis want, and have the sensitivity, to read the signs of the times, and I think Pope Francis really discovered in a new and profound way, the very heart of the Gospel, which is mercy, solidarity with the poor, the struggle for Social Justice and responsibility for nature.

I think this is a very important thing. These things have been a little bit overshadowed by things to do with sexual morality, which are important questions, but they are not the most important questions. The most important is solidarity, mercy, justice and this is the focus of the message of Pope Francis.

At one point you say that you would not be comfortable in a society which is overtly Christian. Is this just a question of personal sensitivity, or do you think there is something inherently wrong with more overt expressions of popular devotion, as we see in Latin or African countries, for example?
I think that sometimes people in the countries where religion is taken for granted have the temptation for superficial religiosity, conformism. But in the secular situation we must make a personal choice.

I think that in the countries where religion is very traditional, and is taken for granted, there is a temptation for religiosity to be superficial, just keeping the traditions, turning to the past, but in the secular society we must decide, our faith is our free choice, and we must think about faith, and rethink many things, so what I support is the idea, which is expressed for example by the American philosopher Richard Kearney of Irish origin, who speaks about “anatheism”, to believe again, not to return to the past, to pre-modern religiosity, to take seriously the criticism of religion by many modern thinkers.

After this criticism this could be a time of purification of faith, purification of idolatry, and then we can believe again, after the crisis, and believe deeper, not just return to the past. I think our faith is the faith of Easter, and Easter is the mystery of death and resurrection.

Sometimes our faith, in our personal history, but also in the history of the Church, must be crucified and withstand the “dark night of the Soul”, Must withstand the moment in which Christ was crying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. And then after the Good Friday we can be open to the Easter morning. There is no resurrection without the Cross. 

I was struck by something… You were an only child, and although you had many uncles and aunts, it seems that most of them either never had children or had very few. Looking around the world one does seem to notice that countries that draw away from God seem to have fewer children. Does that explain what happened in the Czech Republic in your time? Does it have a deeper meaning?
I think this phenomenon is more recent, that people are not willing to have families and rear children. I think it was not like that in the generation of my parents, it is more now that the family is in crisis.

We should rethink many things. I am a little bit afraid of the Feast of the Holy Family, because I have heard many sermons for this feast and Holy Family was spoken of as an ideal patriarchal family from the XIX Century, a bourgeois family, and the family of Nazareth was not like that.

Our situation is also not like this. We cannot turn to this model of the traditional patriarchal family of the XIX Century. Now we live in another time, and it is not easy to find a proper model for the family of our time. I think we should think deeply about the spirituality of the family, about the role of women, the relation between the generations, we cannot just keep, or try to return to, the past.

There is something substantial about the family, the love between men and women, and procreation and education of children, but the history and the context is always changing. I admire the young people who, in this situation, have the courage to not only found a family, but I am digressing…

You explain conversion as a sunrise. This is a very profound image… Could you elaborate?
Faith is, for me, not just a worldview, some sort of philosophy. It is an existential orientation, and conversion is the transformation of the whole personality. I think that people who were brought up in the traditional family must also experience this sort of conversion, because the faith of children is nice, but there is always a time when that children's faith is in crisis. And I think that education in the Church, and pastoral work, is not prepared to work with this crisis, as a challenge to go deeper. For many people this crisis ended in atheism or a “apatheism”, where people are apathetic to the Church, and we need to accompany people through this crisis, not to push them back to the faith of their childhood, this is often a type of fundamentalism, this attempt to go back to the style of my faith as it was in my childhood, or in the past of the Church.

We must go through this crisis and discover the deeper dimension of the faith. It is a transformation, it is not just a situation where we add something to our worldview, but it is real, like a sunrise, and now we see everything in a new light, from a new perspective, and I think we all need this perpetual transition, this perpetual conversion.

The sign of the times today is to move from being Christian to becoming Christian, it is a long-life process.

You express the moment when you, yourself, went through this conversion. But is this something which happens only once? When was the last time you experienced a sunrise such as this, which changes the way you see reality?
I think it was at the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Francis. I realised that there was something new in the Church, a new way to read the Gospel and to take it and the radical challenges, the radical message of the Gospel very seriously. So, when I meditate, practically every day, on the preaching of the Holy Father in Santa Marta, which can be found on the Internet, which is sometimes very simple, but it has something new and fresh, the spirit of somebody who is deeply involved with the heart of the Gospel.

This was a wakeup call for me and led me to read the Gospel in a new and more radical way.

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