Dr. Richard Geraghty answered a similar question on EWTN’s forum and said: “Fr. Nouwen is orthodox enough. But many liberal Catholics like him because he talks more about the personal aspects of religion rather than about doctrinal matters. But I do not think that he is a dissenter. Yet I think that Catholics need to consider doctrinal matters more.”
Father Henri Nouwen was born in Nijkerk, Holland on January 24, 1932 to a mother who was described in this article by Harry Forbes of the Catholic News Service as “strongly religious” and an intellectual father. From a very early age, Nouwen preferred to spend his time in the attic with a child-sized altar rather than go outside to play with his friends. His siblings confirmed that he was very spiritually oriented, even from a young age, and that he was very attached to his mother which explains why he was so devastated when she died.
He was ordained a priest in 1957 and came to the U.S. to teach psychology at the University of Notre Dame. He also taught pastoral theology at Yale School of Divinity and later at Harvard Divinity School.
But where he really distinguished himself was as a spiritual guide whose books gave thousands of seekers a better understanding of Christian spirituality.
“Beyond being such a prolific writer, Father Nouwen was an impassioned lecturer and teacher (Yale and Harvard) and a dedicated humanitarian,” Forbes writes. “Yet, despite all this, the numerous talking heads . . . speak of his chronic personal loneliness and alienation, all very much at odds with such an outwardly manic, high-energy personality whose gestures sometimes conjure Woody Allen.”
Henri became very involved with the civil rights movement and even marched behind the casket of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spent seven months living with Trappist monks and worked among the poor in Latin American and the L’Arche community for the handicapped.
Michael O’Laughlin, who worked as Nouwen’s teaching assistant while studying at Harvard, said the life of his former boss “was always marked by a deep restlessness. He was never sure he had found his proper place in the world. He had tried all the standard paths open to a priest. He explored being a psychologist, an academic, a monk, and a missionary. Normally when someone has a ‘higher’ vocation, they fit into one of those slots. Henri hadn’t fit anywhere, and he was beginning to run out of choices. The time he was at Harvard Divinity School –before he went to l’Arche– was a time of waiting for him. It’s only in retrospect that we see that l’Arche was his vocation and he was moving toward it.”
L’Arche in Trosly, France was the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. A year later Nouwen came to make his home at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada.
He had his personal troubles, some of which surrounded his struggle with celibacy, but there is no evidence that he ever broke his vows to the Lord.
“For all Father Nouwen’s mental brilliance, he is described paradoxically as childlike and helpless, often plagued with a sense of self-rejection,” Forbes writes. “He had a complete breakdown after the deterioration of a ‘close and meaningful’ friendship during the L’Arche period . . . In any case, when he recovered, it was with a sense that God must be our first love.”
Nouwen believed that what is most personal is most universal, which is why he wrote so freely about his own very human struggles in life. “By giving words to these intimate experiences I can make my life available to others.”
One of his most popular books was Inner Voice of Love, a diary he kept during one of his most serious bouts with clinical depression.
He suffered a massive heart attack in 1996 and before he died, told a friend: “If I die, just tell everyone I’m enormously grateful.”
He died on September 21, 1996 in Holland and is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario.