The Rev. Jim Bacik, who is retiring July 2 as a priest in the Toledo Catholic Diocese, chose the spiritual journey and struggles of the Rev. Henri Nouwen as the topic for his final talk in Corpus Christi University Parish's prestigious spring lecture series. Speaking to more than 500 people who filled the church's circular sanctuary -- and warning those who double parked to be ready to move their vehicles -- Father Bacik never mentioned his pending retirement during Tuesday's hourlong lecture nor the half-hour Q&A that followed. He didn't have to, as Dorothy Haverbusch, Ann Welly, and others wiped away tears during his talk. While it was Father Bacik's last talk as pastor of Corpus Christi in the parish's popular series, the Oxford-educated theologian will continue to celebrate Mass through June and is scheduled to return to Corpus Christi in October for the fall lecture series. He also is slated to speak May 21 at Sylvania United Church of Christ's "Scientists in Congregations" series.
Wearing his familiar blue blazer and open-collar shirt, Father Bacik on Tuesday did without the pulpit and stood at floor level, delivering his lecture without looking at any written notes. After immersing himself in the various aspects of Father Nouwen's life and works, he would then ask listeners what was next on an outline that had been passed out beforehand.
Opening the talk, Father Bacik asked how many people had read Father Nouwen's influential books. Almost everyone raised a hand. "Henri would be happy by that, but not satisfied," he said, sparking laughs.
Dissatisfaction and a drive to achieve were two prominent traits of Father Nouwen, who was born in the Netherlands in 1932, lived in the United States and Canada, and died in 1996 at age 64.
His overall theme was, "How are you going to deal with woundedness?" Father Bacik said.
Father Nouwen's battles with depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of rejection and aloneness resonated with many people and pointed to a national malaise in the modern world, Father Bacik said.
Father Bacik said that although his writings were "limited," because he never wrote systematic theology or referred to Christian tradition, papal encyclicals, or those who shaped Christian theology, his writings resonate with people. More than 2 million copies of his books, most notably The Return of the Prodigal Son and Wounded Healer, have been sold and translated into 22 languages.
One famous fan is Hillary Clinton, who told the Washington Post that Father Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son helped her find inner peace and deal with her husband's infidelity.
Father Nouwen, who bared his soul not only in books but also in more than 18,000 letters, felt unloved despite his acclaim and was "rigorously honest in looking at himself and his failings," Father Bacik said. The one notable exception was his sexual orientation.
Father Nouwen kept his homosexuality hidden until he was in his 40s, when he first disclosed to a friend that he was gay, Father Bacik said. Although his friends urged him to speak openly, Father Nouwen was afraid his sexuality would become an issue that eclipsed his spirituality among readers.
We are all unique individuals who can feel alienated for a multitude of reasons, Father Bacik said. Whatever demons we wrestle with, Father Nouwen has something to relate to it. His very personal account encourages people to say, "What's my dark spot?"
One way Father Nouwen countered his aloneness was to step away from the world. Though appearing counterintuitive, solitude can heal a person who turns inward and "comes home" to oneself, Father Bacik said.
Father Nouwen found inspiration in another unexpected source, a circus trapeze act from South Africa called the Flying Rodleighs. He viewed the catcher, whose hands are always ready to receive, as a metaphor for of God with hands outstretched, waiting to catch us. It's OK to take risks, but "we must trust the catcher," Father Bacik said.
In his quest to find himself, Father Nouwen contemplated serving as "a priest for the poor," living for months at a time in Bolivia and Peru before deciding that was not his calling.
His last years were his happiest, Father Bacik said, when he was a caregiver for Adam Arnett, a severely disabled man who became his unlikely spiritual guide.
"In his brokenness, Adam enabled [Father] Nouwen to look at his own brokenness and start on the road to healing and new life," he said.
Contact David Yonke at: email@example.com or 419-724-6154.