16. Sep, 2016

Ecumenism: The Christian Response to a Gospel Imperative

Passionately desiring to belong – to be loved – himself, Nouwen longed for all people, irrespective of their different backgrounds, capabilities and commitments, to accept the fact of their belongingness, to grow in their awareness of their need for one another and for God, and to return to a vision of unity Christologically shaped.

My doctoral thesis, Finding One Another in Christ (in Lambeth Palace Library) argues for a retrieval of Henri J.M. Nouwen’s approach to ecumenism, which is centred on Christ, undergirded with insights gained by an in-depth study of psychology, and nourished by compassion, deeply personal, yet, at the same time, profoundly universal in scope, that is: ecumenism as the Christian response to a Gospel imperative.

Although fellowship and friendship, especially following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), have been enabled – without which paths towards unity can never hope to get anywhere – ecumenical efforts have been successful only in part. Throughout the thesis it is argued that Nouwen’s understanding of ecumenism is, and a case is built up that the retrieval of such an understanding could reinvigorate, if not reshape, contemporary ecumenism, which is ‘ripe for reform and renewal’.[1]

I begin by tracing the awakening of Nouwen’s consciousness to ecumenical possibilities in his life and writing, especially in the light of the Second Vatican Council. As Vatican II addressed aspects of aggiornamento, Nouwen was quick to seize the opportunity of integrating spirituality and psychology, in both his charismatic teaching and prolific writing, all provoking the most extraordinary turn around in his response to non-Roman Catholics, from his early conviction that there was no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church to an inclusivity that reached out beyond Christians of every denomination to embrace all human beings.

I then examine the contribution pastoral psychology made to Nouwen’s ministry, in order to understand why and how Nouwen took the steps he did towards ecumenism. I explore Nouwen’s research into the work of Anton T. Boisen, his studies in pastoral psychology at Nijmegen and at the Menninger Foundation, which were to facilitate him greatly in his ecumenical ministry, the impact of pastoral psychology on Nouwen’s teaching at Notre Dame (inviting Protestant speakers) and Yale (communicating RC and non-RC alike), as he started his ecumenical ministry, all in the light of the gospel. His integration of spirituality and psychology facilitated his ability to connect at a deep level with persons of widely varied backgrounds. His insights into the human person – self-revealing without being exhibitionist – enabled him to keep his ministry on a vitally inter-personal level and, thereby, he gained a greater awareness of the potentialities that may be encountered in ecumenism which is pastorally effective and theologically sound, ‘reincarnating God’s love, mercy, and justice in the world’[2] in which the minister is both wounded and healing.

The life and work of four pivotal mentors, is considered, whose influence on Nouwen was intense and long lasting, particularly in the crucial importance they attached to living compassionate lives (the significance of which, until now, has remained understudied) and to investigate the synthesis which Nouwen made of their influences, especially with regard to his understanding of ecumenism: Merton, van Gogh, Vanier, and Rembrandt, each anticipating Nouwen’s work of retrieving ‘an authentically Christian vision of the world,’ and enabling certain theological concepts to emerge as they did so, writing, catalysing, centring, and nurturing Nouwen’s outreach to others in compassionate dialogue, friendship and community.

I come to the theological heart of the thesis, analysing the role compassion plays in Nouwen’s inter-personal relationships. A close theological reading of Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life is followed by systematic reflection. Throughout Compassion it is argued that compassion goes against the grain, turning Christians completely around, requiring no less than a total conversion of heart and mind. A radical removal of denominational barriers that prevent true discipleship may be perceived as possible and desirable. I draw attention to the paramount importance of community, of the acceptance of difference, of friendship, and of hospitality. I also demonstrate that Nouwen’s type of ecumenism, which emerges from a personal level of ministry, is grounded in something that transcends church politics and has a much bigger context than simply ecumenical theology.

I look afresh at Nouwen’s years in L’Arche, perceiving ecumenism being nourished by such compassion. Very little attention has been paid to his ecumenical life or work there, nourished by compassion. In the light of this period, which was critical for Nouwen in sharing his life with people with and without learning difficulties, it is debated whether for Nouwen – and many others – the ecumenical life invites not so much the embrace of an elaborate theology as a commitment to living, working, playing and praying together – all tested means in the Christian tradition for cultivating a wider and deeper love in relation to the world, a move towards the realisation of a holistic and transforming way of life, recognising the presence of God in all people, in all places, and at all times.

The final chapter places Nouwen’s striving for unity within the wider horizon of ecumenism in the late twentieth century. As it does so, it focuses not so much on the apocalyptic/eschatological hope that all are one but rather the ‘now’, on the state of ecumenism now, the crucial present of necessary incompleteness, of striving, of tension, and the possibility that, ultimately, all will be one, upon which all ecumenical endeavours hinge.

Christo-centric, undergirded with in-depth lessons learnt from psychology, deeply personal yet profoundly universal in scope, Nouwen’s striving for unity, crossing boundaries of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice that only Catholics in full communion with the Church should be allowed to receive – indeed, reaching into our Lord’s prayer that we might all be one – gestures towards a compelling praxis, which has the potential for enlivening ecumenical practices.

The importance of the thesis, therefore, lies in the fact that it presents the first detailed and purposed study of Nouwen’s approach to ecumenism, filling lacunae in the extant published literature about both Nouwen and ecumenism. It also emphasises the significance of both psychological insight and compassion in Nouwen’s creative perception of ecumenism, matters hitherto not appreciated in the published secondary literature on Nouwen.

The thesis contends that, in Nouwen’s life and writing, ecumenism is nothing less than a way of life, a crucial response to the vocation to live as a Christian, with important lessons that have significant implications for the future of the Christian church. 

by Fr Luke Penkett

[1] Avis, Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole? London and New York, NY: Continuum, 2010, vii.

[2] Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, Collegeville, PA: Liturgical Press, 2009, 80.