Fr. Henri Nouwen

Fr. Henri Nouwen

May 2, 2016

Father Henri Nouwen is still trying to help us understand. He's been dead 20 years, but he's still talking to us about our gifts and our failures, our hopes and our doubts, God and love and sin and community and loneliness.

Thirty-eight of Nouwen's 39 books are still in print, some available in half a dozen or more languages. The books are studied in Catholic and Protestant seminaries, assigned as spiritual reading by retreat masters and passed from friend to friend.

More than seven million copies have been sold. U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has named his most popular book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, one of the most influential books in her life.

This extraordinary legacy from a single spiritual writer only partly explains Father Ron Rolheiser's enthusiasm for a three-day conference on Nouwen June 9 to 11 on the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus.

As a popular writer, a priest and psychologist, Rolheiser has found himself following a path laid by Nouwen for almost 40 years.

"This is not my most unfavourite topic. I love Nouwen," said Rolheiser. "He's influenced me in both the academic world and the non-academic world."

As a popular writer whose column has been featured in the WCR for almost 35 years, Rolheiser has aspired to achieve Nouwen's combination of simplicity and insight.

"You go back further, when I was young and I was in the academic world, I tried to be colourful and use bigger words. Through the years, I have adopted Nouwen's formula. How simple and clear can I make it?" said Rolheiser.

"The deepest things are the simplest things. It's easy to write complexity. It's not easy to write simple."

Nouwen's books have never had an enthusiastic embrace among academic theologians.

Academic snobbery directed at the author of The Wounded Healer, The Way of the Heart and Life of the Beloved does not leave Rolheiser serene.

"That's academic bias. You can use the word jealousy if you want," he said. "He was trying for a language of the heart. His formula was simple, but not simplistic."

In his own career as a university professor, Rolheiser has taught Nouwen's books despite the murmurings in the staff lounge.


"I've had that argument with faculties I've taught on," he said. "They said, 'Well, he's not academic.' I look at them and say Harvard and Yale didn't seem to think so. Harvard and Yale both gave him sweetheart contracts."

Nouwen's teaching career began at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. He also taught at Yale Divinity School, the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minn., the Pontifical North American College in Rome and Harvard University.

Nouwen was born into a middle class family in Nijkerk, Netherlands, in 1932. He followed a traditional path to the priesthood and was ordained for the Archdiocese of Utrecht in 1957.

While his desire to help others was sincere, there may have been more to it. Nouwen struggled with depression throughout his life. These struggles were related to another, unspoken, struggle.

Today, studies readily acknowledge anywhere from 25 to 30 per cent of Catholic clergy have a homosexual orientation. But 50 years ago it was a forbidden topic.


Nouwen found his sexual self, his desire for intimacy, a deep struggle he had to face almost entirely alone. There is no evidence he ever acted out sexually. But the struggle was there in the background - a concrete experience of doubt, loneliness and confusion.

"He was extremely intelligent and he was also extremely sensitive," said Nouwen's friend and literary executor Sister Sue Mosteller. "He allowed those two things to work together."

Mosteller is ready to concede that Nouwen's books are all about the same thing.

"My sense is that he is giving the same message in most of his books, but he's going down," she said.

"He's going deeper and deeper in terms of knowledge of Scripture and experience - life and Scripture, life and what the teaching of Jesus is."

On Sept. 21, 1996 Nouwen died suddenly of a heart attack in the Netherlands. He is buried in St. John's Anglican Church Cemetery in Richmond Hill near his L'Arche friends, in a coffin built in the Daybreak carpentry workshop.