Diocesan priesthood through the eyes of Henri Nouwen

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff – November 15, 2017

ORLANDO | Diocesan priests attended an Aging with Grace retreat at San Pedro Spiritual Development Center in Winter Park, reflecting on the life of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest, professor, theologian and author. Professor Michael Higgins, a renowned scholar on the late theologian, presented the assembly with insight into Nouwen’s life through his books and favorite paintings.

The priests had the opportunity to study paintings significant to Nouwen’s spiritual journey and shared in his struggles and joys as a diocesan priest. Father Sean Cooney, now retired said, “He faced a lot of the difficulties that the diocesan priest has and beyond that, the problems of the priest in the 20th and 21st century—whether it is the priest in liberation theology, the priest with the sexual revolution, the priest due to diminishment, due to secularization in Western countries, or the lack of vocations to the priesthood.”

Higgins discussed how Nouwen “saw art speaking to him as a living, human document.” Father Cooney noted how Nouwen’s experiences speak to modern day issues of sexuality, which Nouwen himself faced. “How he was able to have that and live with that and turn it into a grace from God” impressed him.

Father Peter Sagorski, pastor emeritus at Immaculate Conception Parish in Melbourne could also relate. He said, “It was encouraging to learn the importance of being able to communicate with our congregation and with others and ways to do so—to think of the spiritual aspect of our objectives and goals in order to bring God to other people. It was very meaningful.”

Higgins said his goal for his audience was to understand, “That their ordination calls them to a new freedom of the Spirit. That means that they will sometimes be in a position where they will have to make decisions and discernment that are going be prophetic and difficult, but it is in the nature of their vocation. If they have a disciplined prayer life. If they have a relationship with Jesus that they’ve cultivated over years to depth, then they can rely on Jesus. I think that sense that Jesus is accompanying them gives them that freedom in the Spirit to sometimes take direction that sometimes caution, reserve or discretion would urge otherwise.”

He added, “In his writings Nouwen spoke about his impoverishment, he spoke about his primary wound; he spoke about the difficulties he had tasting God’s love. He talked about them openly and addressed his vulnerabilities. Higgins explained that, because of this, he allowed many priests and religious to do the same.