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2014 Templeton Prize winner hails Pope Francis' 'culture of nearness'

(Vatican Radio) A Czech priest, author and philosopher, who was ordained in secret during the communist era, has been awarded the 2014 Templeton Prize for progress in promoting spiritual values. Msgr Tomas Halik, currently a professor of the sociology of religion at Charles University in Prague, spent nearly two decades under communism organizing a secret network of academics, theologians and students, aimed at preparing the intellectual and spiritual basis for a future democratic society.

As the award was announced in London on Thursday, Msgr Halik said he's very happy that the nomination coincides with the first anniversary of the pontificate of Pope Francis, hailing him for introducing 'a culture of closeness' to the people.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Msgr Halik spent a month working in the Vatican with Pope John Paul II to prepare the pontiff’s visit to Czechoslovakia, his first trip to a post-communist nation.
Since then he has become a well-known international figure advocating, amongst other things, for interfaith dialogue and constructive engagement with non-believers. Halik sees the intellectual history of Catholicism as a potentially powerful bridge between Western secularism, religious tradition and Islamic culture.

Listen to Philippa Hitchen's interview with Msgr Halik…. RealAudioMP3

“I perceive it as an award also for my teachers because many of my teachers, they were priests, they spent many years in communist concentration camps, or prisons and uranium mines and they had very little possibility to write or publish and many died during communism. They inspired me morally and intellectually and I think this award is also for them….

I grew up in a Czech intellectual secular family, my father was a historian of literature….in his library there were the works of (G.K.)Chesterton and I discovered through him Catholicism as a rich paradox…and also through the novels of Graham Greene, and then I discovered Cardinal Newman, his emphasis on conscience and English Catholicism was for me this minority Church which was without triumphalism and it was very near to my heart….

I think my first step towards Catholicism was this intellectual attractiveness and also it was a little bit part of the political protest against state imposed atheism. But then I met these priests who spent so many years in prison….and they discovered through this experience something that was very important for Vatican II: they met in prison many non-Catholics and non-believers and they discovered they have things in common so they perceived this persecution also as a sort of purification of the Church…..they dreamed of a Church without triumphalism, a Church serving the oppressed and the poor – I think this was exactly the message of Vatican II and also very important for Pope Francis….

I’m very happy the announcement of this prize will be also the day of the 1st anniversary of Pope Francis who is also for me and for many people outside the Church a sign of hope. He is a man who is showing the nearness… the people….I wrote a book with the title ‘Touch the Wounds’, it is of course the scene from St John’s Gospel about the apostle Thomas touching the wounds of Christ and saying ‘My Lord and my God!’ I think the problems of our world, the social misery and spiritual troubles. They are the wounds of Christ today and when we ignore the wounds of Christ we have no right to say ‘My Lord and my God’.