Czech priest wins $1.8 million Templeton Prize for interfaith dialogue


Msgr. Tomas Halik, a Czech priest, has been named the 2014 Templeton Prize winner for his work in promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding throughout the world.

The John Templeton Foundation made the announcement March 13 at a news conference in London.

John M. Templeton Jr., foundation president and chairman, said in a statement that this year’s winner “inspires us all to break free of repression, whether it comes from a totalitarian government or our own blinkered world view.”

Msgr. Tomas Halik gestures during a news conference after being awarded the 2014 Templeton Prize in London March 13. Msgr. Halik, a Czech priest, was honored for his work in promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding throughout the world. (CNS photo/Oliva Harris, Reuters)

In an interview from London a day earlier, Msgr. Halik, 65, told Catholic News Service that the honor belongs in no small part to his teachers, many of whom were imprisoned for years under communism.

“They inspired me intellectually and morally,” Msgr. Halik said.

He was born in 1948 in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. Influenced by authors such as Graham Greene and G.K. Chesterton, he entered the Catholic Church as a teenager in 1966. In 1978, after years of training in secret for the priesthood, he was clandestinely ordained. Even his mother was not told of his new status.

Before the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” that toppled communism in his country, Msgr. Halik helped organize an underground university and church community that advanced the ideals of faith and freedom.

“Whether risking prison to liberate the minds of his nation or daring to engage views that many keepers of the faith would find heretical, Tomas Halik has continually opened vistas that advance humankind,” said Templeton.

The revolution that brought down Czechoslovakia’s one-party government came about through massive, nonviolent street demonstrations organized by students and other dissidents. In June 1990, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.

Msgr. Halik initiated an ecumenical project called the “Decade of National Spiritual Renewal” to create “a moral and spiritual biosphere” to prepare Czech society for a democratic transition.

In 1993, the country split into two independent nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

After the fall of communism, Msgr. Halik returned to public life. In addition to serving as pastor of his parish in Prague, he was appointed as an adviser to the Pontifical Council for Non-Believers by Blessed John Paul II. In 1993, the council was incorporated into the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Msgr. Halik also began lecturing on sociology and religion in universities across Europe and the Americas.

Since 1995, Msgr. Halik has traveled all over the world to promote understanding between religions and cultures. He has taken part in talks among Jewish thinkers in Israel, Hindus in India and Great Britain, Buddhists in Nepal, Japan and Thailand, and Muslims in Egypt, Jordan and Great Britain.

Msgr. Halik believes that Catholics play an instrumental role in interfaith dialogue today.

“The Catholic tradition may be the only one which has something in common with both of these very different worlds, the world of Islam and the world of secular culture,” Msgr. Halik said. “We can understand both sides and promote dialogue between them.”

Each year, a nine-member panel chooses a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension to receive the Templeton Prize.

The prize includes a monetary award of about $1.8 million. Msgr. Halik told CNS that he had no immediate plans for the money, but would use it to further encourage dialogue among faiths and with nonbelievers.

“I see my mission as being a communicator with seekers,” the priest said. “It is important for the church not to be concerned only with dwellers, but also with seekers.”