Tomás Spidlík was born 17 December 1919 in Boskovice, Moravia (present-day Czech Republic). He finished his first studies in Boskovice and, in the 1938–39 academic year, entered the department of philosophy at the University of Brno. In 1939, because of the Nazi occupation, the universities were closed. Gradually, the desire to become a Jesuit grew in him. In 1940, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Benesov near Prague, but in 1942 the site was occupied by the Nazis and the novitiates were transferred to Velehrad, Moravia, where the tomb of St. Methodius (®¢885), brother of St. Cyril who, like him, was an apostle to the Slavs, is venerated. On 24 September of the same year he took religious vows. Between 1942 and 1945 he finished his philosophical studies in Velehrad. Spidlík’s studies were interrupted at later times because of forced youth labor, first exacted by the German soldiers, than by Romanian soldiers, and later by the Russian soldiers. After finishing his philosophical studies he was prefect of Velehrad’s secondary school between 1945 and 1946, fulfilling the role that is called magister by the Jesuits. He taught the Czech and Russian languages.
As soon as the war was finished he was sent to Maastricht, Holland to study theology. Spidlík was ordained a priest in Maastricht on 22 August 1949. A year later, in Florence, he finished the long formation period as a Jesuit with the “third year of trial”. Perhaps he did not realize that the longest stay of his life would begin this way.
In 1951, after finishing the third trial, Spidlík was called to Rome by Vatican Radio. The programs broadcast to the countries behind the Iron Curtain were a precious aid to a freedom in danger of being slowly but inexorably suffocated. From this work with Vatican Radio sprang a special mission that would always accompany him and that made him known in lands despite their communist domination. Among others, he met with Aleksandr Dubcek and the current president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. Fr. Spidlík’s Sunday homilies in the Czech language aroused such interest that they have been published and translated in various eastern European languages, such as in Czech, Polish, and Romanian, but also in Italian.
For 38 years he has been the spiritual director of the Pontifical Nepomuceno Seminary, the old Boemo Seminary. All of these duties do not stop him from being a man of study, such that Fr. Spidlík is one of the greatest experts of the spirituality of eastern Christianity today.
In June of 1955, he defended his doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. That year marked the beginning of his university career as a professor of patristic and eastern spiritual theology at various universities in Rome as well as around the world. If it was his teacher Fr. I. Hausherr who laid the scientific foundations for the study of eastern Christian spirituality, without doubt it has been Fr. Spidlík who has given flesh to its development in a vital direction, so much so that today his work is not simply an exercise of history of spirituality, but represents an organic theological vision.
Fr. Spidlík’s work is the fruit of years and years of diligent research and reflection, accompanied by a strong artistic sensitivity for contemporary culture. With this sensitivity Fr. Spidlík has investigated areas of eastern theology, the contents of which can be a source of life today and at the same time can provide life precisely in how they are received. In his work, which embraces research, systematization, and popularization, Fr. Spidlík has had an enormous sense of inculturation. Fr. Spidlík has a strange effect on his topic: others have brought ancient things long-buried back into the light, but they remain dead. With Fr. Spidlík they become the richness of the incarnation, of the transfiguration of cultures in Christ in the history of salvation. They immediately acquire a theological message that is capable of inspiring and orienting people, of assuming an existential value for them.
Fr. Spidlík’s work seems a long list of citations, but behind the stream of pages of books and articles a red thread emerges that the eastern peoples (not only of Slavic countries), and lately even those in the west, have felt as a stifled need. Perhaps this is a need that nas never been verbalized, never been explicitly expressed, but a need that, if one has the sense of a spiritual voice and a spiritual reading of events, is able to be identified in so many years of “exile”, to be outlined in the retrieved treasures that are explicitly sought out today.
His publications flow without end, along with his acknowledgments in the academic and international field. During the 1989–1990 academic year, after having taught for 45 years, he became an emeritus professor. Not only has he continued to teach, but he has also continued to have large audiences.
In 1989 he was chosen “Man of the Year, 1990” by the American Bibliographical Institute of Raleigh in North Carolina (USA) and, a year later, the same institute chose him as “The most admired person of the decade”. Since 1991 he has lived and worked at the Centro Aletti, a center for the study of the eastern Christian tradition in relation to the problems of the contemporary world, which is connected with the mission of the Society of Jesus.
On 26 July 1992, the city of Uh. Brod, birthplace of John Amos Komensky (1592–1670), Czech educator and theologian better known by his Latin name of Comenius, awarded him honorary citizenship. Fr. Spidlík has been invited to Russia many times, for example on the 600th anniversary of the death of St. Sergei of Radonez (25 February 1392) celebrated on 8 October of the Gregorian calendar, at which time he was received at the Kremlin.
In April 1994, on the occasion of the publication of his Russian Ideas, the city of Troyes awarded him the medal of the city as a commemoration of honorary citizenship.
In 1993, the Society of Byzantine Studies in St. Petersburg named him an honorary member.
In the 1994–95 academic year, Fr. Spidlík was named the first holder of the seat of Eastern Theology founded at the Pontifical Oriental Institute by Sir Daniel and Countess Bernadine Donohue. The inaugural lecture, “The Person’s Return to Eastern Spirituality”, was held 14 November 1994.
In March of 1995, Fr. Spidlík led the spiritual exercises of Pope John Paul II and his Curia.
In 1997, he received two doctorates honoris causa: the first in May from the University of Cluj-Napoca, in Romania as one of the greatest authorities on theology and eastern spirituality, and the second in December from the theological department of the University of Olomouc in the Czech Republic.
In October of 1998, Václav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, decorated him with the medal of the Masaryk Order, one of the highest honors of the Czech State. In May of 1999, the University of Prague also conferred a doctorate honoris causa on him. Created cardinal in the consistory of October 21, 2003.