Nouwen and the wounded healer16 March 2017 | by Michael W. Higgins Last week Pope Francis said he was open to the possibility of the ordination of married men. But the crisis in the priesthood is about more than a dramatic fall in numbers. A fresh model of ministry is required and in the life and work of Henri Nouwen we see what it might look like
The recent Vatican document on the formation of priests made the headlines for its assertion that gay men should not be admitted to seminaries. Though it is not an especially enlightening or forward-thinking document, there is more to The Gift of the Priestly Vocation than that. It reflects Pope Francis’ concern for human formation throughout the process of training, and the need to safeguard against the contagion of clericalism.
But the deeper questions are barely broached: the relevance of seminary education in itself; the limitations of a clerical culture; the antiquated notion of priestly exceptionalism, and the general absence of women from the formation of men for the priesthood.
Where might one look for a model of priesthood more suited to a time of flux, fracture and turmoil around identity and relevance? Jacques Loew’s worker-priest movement was a bold attempt to re-connect with the de-christianised working classes that emerged in France in the 1940s. But it was eventually doomed by papal skittishness.
Perhaps it’s an idea worth resuscitating in the Bergoglio era. The life and work of Henri Nouwen, the most widely read Catholic spiritual writer of the last 50 years, is another model of a reformed presbyterate that is ripe for discovery.
Nouwen, a priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, saw himself simply as a pastor called to witness to the power of God’s unconditional love through his writing, his countless friendships, and his living qua priest. Denis Grecco, a seminary professor who served as Nouwen’s graduate assistant at Regis College, Toronto, once asked him what his starting point was: “His response was simple and direct, ‘communion’. He went on to explain that everything that a priest does flows from his communion with God … I learned two things from him that day about the spiritual life of the priest as he understood and practised it: the centrality of the person and the significance of relationship, and that both ways of thinking are key to his understanding of communion.”
Nouwen was every inch the priest. From the play-acting of his pre-teen years – corralling his siblings to serve as his devout mini-congregation as he presided in full liturgical vesture – to his early years in the seminary through to his ordination and subsequent graduate studies in psychology and theology, Nouwen never doubted his vocation. But that sense of vocation would undergo some profound transformations. Teaching on both Catholic and secular university campuses in the United States throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Nouwen weathered with anguish and genuine searching the erosion of the old securities, the assaults on authority and the growing disinclination to affiliate with institutions. He threw himself into the joys and tumults of his time and place, and embraced new situations as occasions of growth – working in a barrio, lecturing in a divinity school, testing the waters in a Trappist monastery, and living in a L’Arche home as an assistant and as a pastor – all with the understanding that he was someone called to be an instrument of God’s grace.
In The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life Nouwen wrote that, irrespective of our particular vocation – cloistered, lay, sacerdotal – our common vocation was to define our spiritual life as “a life in which we keep making connections between God’s story and our own”. But that narrative can be deeply disquieting, sundering treasured “truths”. In a searing self-disclosure, in Gracias: a Latin American Journal, written shortly after touring some Peruvian Catholic churches decorated with gaudy and macabre devotional art, he noted that “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 … Maybe deep in my psyche I too know more about the deformed Jesus than about the risen Christ.”
To move from the debilitating images of the broken Jesus to the risen Jesus required both a distancing from his Dutch pre-conciliar seminary formation and an honest confrontation with his own emotional and spiritual inadequacies. It is that relentless self-honesty, coupled with his promethean compassion, that fuelled Nouwen’s writings. He knew in his bones that recognising our vulnerability is not a sign of weakness or failure. As he wrote in Sabbatical Journey, just a few months before his death in 1996: “I am increasingly convinced that it is 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.”
Nouwen did not think of priesthood as a bastion of privilege. His liturgies were canonically valid but informal; his spiritual counselling exploratory but orthodox. He saw himself as the “wounded healer”, not as an ecclesiastical judge or gatekeeper. A chaste gay priest committed to his solemn promises, a writer who preferred humility to clerical exhortation, and a servant of the Church who loved his tradition and witnessed to Christ with fidelity, Nouwen is the perfect role model for a credible priesthood in our time. A letter to a Dutch friend who was shortly to be ordained encapsulates his own self-understanding as a priest:
“What I most want to say to you is that living a deep and intimate relationship with your Lord Jesus will allow you to be a source of healing for many people as you walk through life full of contradictions, conflicts and violence. I also want to say to you how important it is to be surrounded by good, caring friends who will hold you close to Christ by their affection, their care and their encouragement. Finally, I want you to fully trust that when you stay close to Jesus and to those who in the name of Jesus will embrace you with their love, you cannot be other than a source of life to others.”
Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut. His latest book is Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart.