At the very beginning of this three-day conference, I was looking at the list of participants and thought, "This is going to be interesting!" The Acton Institute had invited about twenty-five priests, students, and people of different professions from many countries—including Romania, Netherlands, Lithuania, Kenya, Slovakia, Portugal, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, Great Britain, Bulgaria, and Germany—to meet in Tepla, Czech Republic, to discuss the principles of a free and virtuous society. To me, the fact of bringing together so many different people from such varying educational, political, and religious backgrounds and experiences would have, on its own, been a success. But the fact that there were also well-prepared, competent, highly up-to-date, and inspiring lectures made the conference a really great experience for me.
For me, this was more than a refreshing change from ordinary university lectures. Having the opportunity to discuss questions such as citizens’ rights and responsibilities, the role of government, free markets, and globalization with people from former communist regimes and from Africa made a big difference in my perception. Formerly "academic" questions turned out to be of very existential significance. It felt a bit like waking up to reality. Since then, I have been much more interested in getting information, for example, about my neighbors in Eastern Europe and their political and economic development; they seem to be so much closer now! My formerly mild view of the widely praised successes of the modern (welfare) state has gotten more critical; also, regarding my own country, I am more alert in the evaluation of cultural, economic, and political developments. Overall, the conference lectures and discussions helped me to shape my own point of view in a more distinct way. I only regret that there was too little emphasis on the practical side of the issues.
No less important than the academic input, however, were the interpersonal encounters. The open and warm atmosphere at the conference was remarkable. All of the staff members were easy to approach, and many passionate discussions went on well into the night. And the interaction among people from so many different religious backgrounds was remarkably sensitive and unobtrusive.
Only two days after returning from the conference, we all had to witness the inconceivably cruel terrorist attacks not only on New York and Washington, but also on a free and open society. It was, and still is, a shock. But in the midst of the tragedy, we also witnessed the virtues of American society: The empathy and compassion for the victims and the bereaved, the unsolicited support that was offered immediately and wholeheartedly, and the willingness of the people and the government to react in a cautious and well-considered way. Here in Europe and all around the world we also saw a wave of solidarity. In a time when many speak about the erosion of values and virtues, and this gives all of us a lot of hope.
These tragic events stress the need to talk about the significance of freedom; about its risks, costs, and rewards; about values and virtues; and about of the role of government, community, church and the individual.
I am very grateful for what I learned at the conference and for the dedication of each team member of the Acton Institute.