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The hidden face of the age as discerned by a priestly confessor

Here’s Tomáš Halík, the Czech public intellectual, Roman Catholic priest, and scholar who was persecuted by the secret police as an “enemy of the regime” during his country’s communist period, and who later served as an advisor to Vaclav Havel, talking about the fundamental outlook of the collective contemporary soul as he has come to understand it over several decades of hearing people pour out their deepest secrets to him in his role as a confessor:

For many years of my service as a priest, more than a quarter of a century, I have been regularly available for several hours each week, to people who come to the sacrament of reconciliation, or, because many of them are anabaptized or nonpracticing Catholics, for a “spiritual chat.” I have thus lent an ear to several thousand people. It is likely that some of them confided to me things they had never spoken about even with their nearest and dearest.

. . . Despite the uniqueness of individual human stories, after years of practice as a confessor one discovers certain recurrent themes. Through the multitude of individual confessions, which are protected by the seal of absolute discretion, the confessor comes into contact with something that is more general and common to all, something that lies beneath the surface of individual lives and belongs to a kind of “hidden face of the times,” to their “inner tuning.”

It is particularly when you accompany young people on their spiritual journey that you have access to a kind of seismograph enabling you to gauge to a certain extent impending tremors and changes in the world, or a Geiger counter recognizing the level of spiritual and moral contamination within the society in which we live.

It sometimes strikes me — even though I’m very rationally minded and have a powerful aversion to the fashionable shady world of occult premonitions and spiritualist table tapping — that the events that subsequently erupt onto the surface and shake the world, such as wars, terrorist attacks, or even natural disasters, have some kind of analogy or even augury in people’s inner world and are presaged long in advance by changes in the spiritual lives of many individuals and the “mood of the times.”

In that sense, therefore, my extensive “confessional experience” colours my view of contemporary society. I constantly compare it with what is written by my professional colleagues: philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and theologians, as well as by historians and journalists, of course. At a time when evil is becoming globalized in a striking fashion — its most blatant manifestation being international terrorism, although natural disasters also constitute one aspect of it — and our human intellect is incapable of sufficiently grasping these phenomena, let alone averting them, there seems little chance of resuscitating the optimism of the modern era. Our epoch is definitely a post-optimistic one.

. . . Much has already been written about the naiveté of secular optimism (an Enlightenment faith in “progress” as the panacea) and its failure. However, I would like to take a stand against “religious optimism” — facile belief, making use of people’s anxiety and suggestibility for a manipulatory “bargain with God,” and providing simplistic “pious” answers to complex questions. It is my deeply held belief that we must not conceal our crises. We must not evade or elude them. And we must not let them scare us. Only when we have passed through them can we be “remoulded” into a state of greater maturity and wisdom.

MORE: Tomáš Halík, Paradoxical Faith in a Post-Optimistic World,”
ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), February 1, 2012