Every so often an article appears that perfectly crystallizes the current historical moment. Such is the case with Tomáš Halík’s brief but penetrating essay “Christianity in a Time of Sickness,” which was published in the April 13, 2020, issue of America magazine, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was cresting in the United States.
Halík is a Czech Catholic priest, theologian, and professor of sociology at Charles University in Prague. He has published numerous books and articles that have been translated into several languages. His most recent work in English is the memoir From the Underground Church to Freedom, which details his experiences during the Communist regime. His religious witness often came with great personal risk: after being denounced as a “subversive,” he was forced to study theology clandestinely and was ordained in secret in East Germany in 1978.
Halík’s work with the underground church gave him a measured perspective on the priesthood. Unlike some of our American clergy who see any legitimate critique of the church as a form of persecution, Halík and his covert community of priests discerned their struggle as an opportunity to learn. “We strove to understand what God was telling us by permitting this state of the church,” he writes in his memoir. “Was he inviting us to multiply our pastoral activities or instead to meditate honestly on the ‘signs of the times’ and reappraise many things on which the church had become fixated in the recent past?” Carrying out his ministry in secret, without the steadying rhythms of “parish-based pastoral activity,” taught Halík that “the priesthood was not just a social role that could be characterized by the customary external signs, but a lifetime vocation and way of life. So it was necessary to take that ontological core and develop very creative and bold new forms, a new style of living, praying, and working.”
These themes of reimaging not only the office of the priesthood but also the structures and functions of the church and the parameters of its uniquely entrusted mission form the backbone of Halík’s America article. “Maybe this time of empty church buildings symbolically exposes the churches’ hidden emptiness and their possible future unless they make a serious attempt to show the world a completely different face of Christianity,” he writes. “We have thought too much about converting the world and less about converting ourselves: not simply involvement but a radical change from being ‘static Christians’ to a dynamic ‘becoming Christians.’”
Halík’s prescription for this diagnosis involves several components: a deepening of the contemplative and mystical impulse within the church; a renewal of Christian socio-sacral spaces into “schools of wisdom” that nurture spirituality and foster dialogue; a form of missionary outreach that does not proselytize to the seekers and “nones” among us, but sees each encounter as an opportunity to expand our conception of human being, and of humans being church; and an ecumenical vision that sees interfaith exchange as one part of an even “bolder search for God in all things.”
Each of these inspired recommendations could be the theme of an essay unto itself, and in our moment of pandemic they take on additional valence. To follow Halík’s thinking, then, is to begin to imagine a new future for the church on the other side of Covid-19—a future that is not built on unattainable ideals, but that rises out of the real needs of people confronting a dramatic irruption.
Take, for instance, Halík’s turn toward the contemplative dimension of religious life. This is not a mysticism sui generis, but a response to the material conditions of the church in the world, a church forced to temporarily close its doors and suspend administration of the sacraments. Halík sees this moment “as an opportunity to stop and engage in thorough reflection before God and with God” and compares it to the flourishing of mysticism in the Middle Ages, when ecclesiastical “general strikes” led people to nurture their inner relationship with the divine. Such contemplation, born of historical necessity, might open new horizons for the church’s journey in history.
Halík’s reimagining of Christian communities as “islands of spirituality and dialogue” furthers this contemplative project. He does not have the space to offer more than a brief sketch of what practical forms these “islands” might take, but he does suggest that all Christian institutions—including monasteries, parishes, and other congregations—would benefit from a culture of spirited exchange. In this model, the search for truth is shared between student and teacher, layperson and cleric, novice and abbess; one can even envision communities combining elements of monastic, academic, and parish life to create naturally interdisciplinary, nonhierarchical environments for the practice of the presence of God.
But Halík is not content to just reformulate existing structures, no matter how daring these reformulations might be; rather, he wants a church that removes the barriers it has erected around itself, both institutional and mental, that keep the Lord from venturing out to meet others and others from venturing in to meet him. He reminds us that part of meeting people on the margins includes the margins of the church: those “seekers” who have an innate hunger for God, and yet whose humanity we reduce when we see them as subjects to be converted. The seeker, Halík implies, has much to teach us about the movement of the Spirit today: her longing for God, the keening of her heart for a divinity she does not name, may inspire us to reinvigorate rituals grown too familiar or revitalize a sedate prayer life. The fruits of her search can help us to “broaden radically the boundaries of our understanding of the church,” even if they don’t comport right away with our doctrines and institutions.
What this all points to is a vision of the church that is fearless, unbounded by nostalgia, and instantiated in the world in new and fresh ways. It does not abandon its tradition or its institutional reality, but allows that reality to grow out of the interpersonal relationships of its members, organically, as the body of Christ evolving in time. It encourages those members to look out from that body with the eyes of Christ, greeting the stranger, the seeker, the nonbeliever, in such a way that honors her humanity and the complexity of her journey rather than limits them. Going further, it is unafraid to enter into dialogue with those of different spiritual persuasions—not with the goal of forcing them into existing structures but, as Halík clarified in a 2016 lecture at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, to “enrich the treasure of the church with the experience of those who don’t walk with us.”
This expansion of boundaries finds its fulfillment in Halík’s final recommendation: a deeper notion of ecumenism that seeks God in all things. This means in the church, yes, as well as in our brothers and sisters who believe differently than us, but it also means in those instances that we don’t often think of as “spiritual”: the small everyday moments of beauty, the bouts of suffering that can be transformed through the cross, the gifts of illumination we let pass by because they are too subtle and we are too preoccupied. If, as Halík has stated elsewhere, the church is entering the “afternoon” of its life, having passed through the morning of institutional formation and the midday crisis of secularization, then we must be ready to set aside outmoded debates and enter more fully into the mystery of God. We must turn our faces outward to the next dimension of the church’s mission: the infusion of the world with the Spirit that is never coercive nor divisive, but that leads always with unity, mercy, and love.
Editor, Today’s American Catholic