Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine will deliver the inaugural Henri Nouwen Lecture Nov. 14 in Toronto.

Lecture series launched in honour of Henri Nouwen

  • November 12, 2015

TORONTO - Almost 20 years after his death, the extent of Fr. Henri Nouwen’s influence in the Catholic community is still being discovered.

And his admirers would like to see it grow. To commemorate the anniversary of their patron’s death, the Henri Nouwen Society is launching an annual lecture series in his honour. Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto will be host to the inaugural Henri Nouwen Lecture on Nov. 14 with guest speaker Jim Wallis. Wallis is a New York Times bestselling author, public theologian and editor of Sojourners magazine.

He will be speaking about “The Spirituality of Social Justice,” a theme that reflects Nouwen’s passion for active faith.

“I think Jim Wallis is an outstanding person right now,” said Karen Pascal, executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. “He has taken a major stance in the States, especially in this year of election... I think the Canadian audience will be inspired by him.”

Wallis and Nouwen were great friends. Together they had many conversations about issues on how Christians can take their faith. As friends and colleagues, they wrestled with this topic over many years, and it’s this relationship and insight into Nouwen’s views on social justice that make Wallis the right speaker to start off the series, said Pascal.

“They were like iron sharpening iron,” said Pascal. “They both saw it as a really important thing that there was this social justice and Christian witness that went hand in hand.”

Pascal said that for a long time, the Henri Nouwen Society had been wanting to launch a lecture series, reminiscent of CBC’s Massey Lectures. With the upcoming anniversary of Nouwen’s passing, Pascal felt now was the time to get the ball rolling. “For Nouwen audiences, we want to make sure that Nouwen readers know that Henri is someone who cared deeply about applying one’s faith to the most vulnerable,” said Pascal.

“Probably one of Henri’s greatest strengths was announcing what other people were doing. He was wonderful at announcing liberation theology and the profound way that social justice and faith needed to work in tandem.”

Before his death on Sept. 21, 1996, Nouwen published almost 40 books and more than 100 articles. His most popular books include The Wounded Healer, In the Name of Jesus, The Way of the Heart and The

Return of the Prodigal Son. From 1966 to 1986, he spent his early priesthood as a professor in academic institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School. In addition to teaching, Nouwen often travelled as a public speaker.

Nouwen’s popularity as a spiritual guide has been attributed to his ability to describe his own personal struggles with faith in a very relatable way. He experienced many moments of clinical depression in his life. In many of his works, he talked about his struggle to reconcile his priestly vows of celibacy with the sense of loneliness and longing for intimacy.

It was while he was teaching at Harvard that he met L’Arche founder Jean Vanier. Nouwen’s friendship with Vanier greatly influenced his spirituality. In 1986, during a time of spiritual struggle, Vanier invited Nouwen to work as pastor at L’Arche Daybreak, a community in Richmond Hill, Ont., for people with intellectual disabilities. Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life there.

Pascal said that there is still so much more about Nouwen’s life that even the most well-read fans don’t know. Pascal hopes to shed more light on their patron through this new lecture series and perhaps also attract new followers to Nouwen’s works.

“I’d love them to come away wanting to read a Henri book if they haven’t read one yet,” said Pascal.

“There will be a lot of people that might say that I didn’t know that Henri cared about social justice and there’ll be a number of books that they can look at that will inspire them.”

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