Henri Nouwen as a Model of Renewed Priesthood

By J. Michael Parker, 20 July 2019
Henri Nouwen. Image: Oblate School of Theology.


“Our common vocation is to define our spiritual life as ‘a life in which we keep making connections between God’s story and our own. We insert ourselves into the Christ narrative, a narrative of redemptive love.’”


Henri Nouwen, the greatest spiritual writer of the past 70 years, provides a sterling model for the type of priests the Catholic Church needs in an age of priests’ declining numbers and lowered public esteem, Nouwen’s authorized biographer declared recently at Oblate School of Theology.

Dr. Michael Higgins, Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., addressed some 400 people June 19, opening OST’s 2017 Summer Institute on “The Life and Spirituality of Henry Nouwen.” The Dutch priest (1932-96) authored 39 books, selling seven million copies in 30 languages.

Higgins began by noting the precipitous fall in the numbers of active priests and the failure of new vocations to stem the decline. The public image of the Catholic priest, once widely revered, has been tarnished and irreparably damaged by “a combination of a redundancy of function brought in by secularism, pastoral irrelevance occasioned by the emancipation of the Catholic laity, and considerable internal dysfunction generated by the extent of the clerical sex abuse scandals,” Higgins asserted.

Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as Model for a Reformed Priesthood. By Michael W Higgins and Kevin Burns.

Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as Model for a Reformed Priesthood. By Michael W Higgins and Kevin Burns.

Popular films and novels of the last century illustrate how that public image  has undergone “seismic” changes, he said, contrasting old films such as Going My WayThe Bells of St. Mary’sBoys Town and On the Waterfront, portraying priests as  “exemplars of a rugged, practical holiness” and “sanitized models of perfection,” with more recent films such as Linus Roach’s film Priest, Brendan Brendan Gleason’s Calvary, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Doubt and others.

Higgins said novelists have been more successful than films in capturing the personal conflicts and tensions that define “real blood-and guts priests.” Catholic piety has long been fed an unhealthy diet of hagiographic fiction, but recent works have been more probing, transparent and insightful in their treatment of Catholic priests, he stated, citing Linden McIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me and Jennifer Haigh’s Faith.

The damage to the Church’s credibility from the sex abuse scandals has been stanched only partly, he added, and systemic causes of the scandals only peripherally addressed. Yet the decline in clergy numbers has other causes as well, and a large gap remains between the death rate among priests and the replacement rate.

Seminary training is fundamental to rejuvenating and replenishing the priesthood, the professor commented, but there is a widening discrepancy among bishops on how to do this. Still, he said, “the operating moral and pastoral imperative to get it right to revitalize a priestly ministry shorn on the attributes of a destructive legacy of clericalism remains intact.”

Quoting Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, president of OST, Higgins recalled an Evangelical minister who said that the Christian church “”has the living water, which Christ gave us to quench all thirst.” Fr. Rolheiser’s response to the comment was, “The problem is, we aren’t getting the living water to where the fires are; we’re spraying it everywhere except where it’s burning.” He added that the answer is to make better churches, not to blame the culture.

Higgins cited a Hartford Courant statistic asserting that in 50 years, attendance at Mass in the Connecticut archdiocese had declined by 70 percent. “Can you imagine any CEO in any other structure keeping his or her job with statistics like that? We won’t have a better church or better priests unless we create an abundance of fine, mature priests for our time—and this is no mean challenge,” the professor warned. Several kinds of issues must be tackled creatively before such priests can be produced, he continued;  the time for the type of priestly exemplars such as St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, has passed, and recovering the old mystique of the priesthood is a doomed effort.

“What is necessary is the crafting of a new image of presbyteral ministry stamped with an evangelical zeal, appealing pertinence and heroic possibility. No better model for this can be found than Henri J.M. Nouwen,” the professor declared.

Nouwen’s death from a heart attack Sept. 21, 1996, was felt deeply by millions around the world who had been touched by his huge body of writings. Higgins explained that Nouwen had many vocations: non-institutional contemplative, pastoral psychologist, spiritual counselor, scrivener of the heart. These were Nouwen’s ways of maximizing the good he could do. There also were threshold moments when he “tried to ascertain the direction in which he felt his ever-enticing God was calling him,” the professor added.

At one point, he explained, Nouwen wrote, “I’m convinced that it’s possible to live the wounds of the past not as gaping abysses that cannot be filled and therefore keep threatening us, but as gateways to new life.” He would be the wounded healer for countless others as well as himself. His vast legacy of writings included books, thousands of letters, journals, extended homilies and epistolary responses to acute human suffering and sustained reflections in biblical themes.

Although the priest-author could be “sentimentally mushy, cloying and even crushingly needy, mostly Nouwen was “measured, penetratingly observant, immediately accessible, and on occasion, positively luminous, like the mystics,” Higgins said. In the epilogue to The Road to Daybreak: The Spiritual Journey, Nouwen reflected on the apparent capriciousness of God’s grace:

“The last thing I ever expected from going to the Daybreak Community was this truly abysmal experience of being ripped apart from the inside out. I expected to love and care for mentally handicapped people, supported by a deep friendship and surrounded by a beautiful network of Christian love. I was not prepared to have to deal with a second loneliness. It is dark agony; it is following Jesus to a completely unknown place; it is being emptied out on the cross and having to wait for new life in naked faith.”

Higgins commented that such exquisite honesty and transparency underscores the continuing appeal of Nouwen as a spiritual quester “who self-discloses rather than disguises, probes rather than exhorts and humbles himself in the presence of the awesome silence of the holy one.”

The professor observed that theologians, Catholic intellectuals, academicians and psychologists have difficulty categorizing Nouwen’s various vocations, but his readers and those who attended his sessions loved him unconditionally. He cultivated close relationships, never abused hospitality, and he reveled in the warm intimacy of their companionship. “That’s why the substratum, the foundation upon which all his diverse vocations were explored, remained his priesthood,” he said.

Nearly 21 years after Nouwen’s death, Higgins believes it is instructive to see Nouwen as “a post-conciliar prophet of a reformed presbyterial model, an exemplar of a renewed priesthood who was contemporary and non-clerical but was enabling and effective — a ministerial priesthood in keeping with the ecclesial vision of Pope Francis.” Nouwen saw himself simply as “a pastor called to witness to the saving power of God’s unconditional love, centered on Jesus, the unique incarnation of that very love. He did this through his preaching, teaching, writing and countless friendships.”

He was “every inch the priest,” from the time he play-acted as a priest as a pre-teen to his early years in the seminary through his ordination and his graduate studies, Higgins said. Nouwen doubted his worth and the efficacy of how he lived his vocation, but he never doubted that he was called forth by God to serve as a presbyter.

Nouwen weathered numerous challenges from the 1960s through the early 1980s that beset both the church and academia, including “the erosion of old securities, assaults on authority, the growing disinclination to affiliate with institutions,” and the rapid spread of what some termed “Gallic-inspired” critical theory in the halls of the academy; he did so with anguish and genuine searching, the professor said.

He said that Nouwen was not one to be seduced by new models of thinking. He saw himself as a teacher and preacher, not a theoretician or a professional academic. What mattered to him were witness to human value and human freedom. He inserted himself into the joys and tumults of his time and place , embracing new situations as occasions of growth—working in a barrio, lecturing in a divinity school, testing the contemplative atmosphere of a Trappist monastery.

In 1985, Higgins said, Nouwen asserted his conviction that, however we each live our individual vocation, “our common vocation is to define our spiritual life as ‘a life in which we keep making connections between God’s story and our own. We insert ourselves into the Christ narrative, a narrative of redemptive love.’”

That can be disquieting, he commented, “sundering the treasured truths we we hold of ourselves and of the One to whom we are conforming our lives.” In what Higgins called a “searing self-disclosure” in Gracias, a Latin American journal, Nouwen reflected on grisly depictions of Jesus’ sufferings he had seen in some Peruvian churches. “The nearly exclusive emphasis on the tortured body of Christ strikes me as a perversion of the Good News into a morbid story that intimidates but does not liberate them,” the professor quoted Nouwen as writing. “Maybe, deep in my own psyche, I, too, know more about the deformed Jesus than about the Risen Christ,” he wrote

It is this kind of vulnerable self-disclosure, Higgins pointed out, that prompts his readers to say, “Yes, I think I can understand that. Someone who can say that—a priest who can say that — is certainly a vessel of grace.” Nouwen’s relentless self-honesty and his Promethian compassion, the professor explained,  fueled his extensive spiritual writings and made him “the go-to persona’ not for hundreds or thousands, but for millions of readers hungering for spiritual direction. He saw himself as a wounded healer, not an ecclesiastical judge or gatekeeper. Higgins noted a “marvelous similarity” between Nouwen’s example and the papacy of Pope Francis.

The professor said that Nouwen’s frankness around issues of sexuality and his willingness to self-disclose on matters of emotional fragility make him a model at a time when many bishops are keen on retaining traditional seminaries and priestly formation strategies that highlight the recovery of “a now-discredited, new-Tridentine template” promoting “John Paul II and Benedict XVI priests,” as if they have forgotten somehow that they are, most importantly, priests of Jesus Christ.

He quoted a 1995 diary entry in which Nouwen wrote that as a young man, he was convinced that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church and that his task was to bring all non-believers into the One True Church. But much had happened to him since then.

His psychological training, exposure to people of many faiths, the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s new theology of mission and life at L’Arch Community had deepened and broadened his view of Jesus’ saving work. “Today,” Higgins quoted Nouwen as writing, “I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door of God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door whether they know about Jesus or not.”

Nouwen said he now believed that his call was to help every person to claim his or her own way to God. He witnessed to Jesus as the source of Nouwen’s own spiritual journey and who thus created the possibility for others to know Jesus and commit themselves to him.

“What better model of a Catholic priest can we find than this?” Higgins asked.  He used the priest characters in three Graham Greene novels to illustrate that despite Nouwen’s wounded psyche, the ideal priest must still speak for the alienated, the abandoned and the hopeless. To be an alter Christus—another Christ—he also must be a credible priest, not merely a sacramental functionary.

He said Greene’s priests, for all their flaws, carry the soul of kenosis—self-emptying love.      “They approximate by their condition and witness the broken Christ on the cross, and yet they are condemned by the Sanhedrins of both church and state,” the professor observed. At no time does their humanity more recommend itself than during acute questioning, searching doubt and anguished unbelief.” In such moments, Higgins continued, their priesthood is ennobled rather than eclipsed. They are most like Jesus, he said, “not in the degradation of the cross nor the triumph of the empty tomb, but in the exquisite torment of Gethsemane.”

Concluding, Higgins observed that the crisis of definition around the priesthood is still present in the Church. Pope Francis has expressed his alarm at the deficiencies of seminary training, the antiquated process of vocation discernment, myopic curricula and the corrosive effects of clericalism.

“Dramatic change is called for—bold, prophetic and visionary,” the professor declared. “The style and substance of Nouwen’s priestly vocation was his premier vocation. It provides precisely the kind of Christian depth and human maturity our Church needs. His personal ministry as a priest serves as a marker for a rejuvenated and meaningful ministry for our tremulous, fragmente—yet hope-filled—Church.”

With thanks to J. Michael Parker who authored this article in 2017 and the Oblate School of Theology.


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