Nouwen and the wounded healer: History offers a vision of what the priesthood can look like Premium

16 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.

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