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Theologian Urges Health Care Students to follow Henri Nouwen’s Vision of Healing

‘Culture of respectful treatment and acknowledgment is paramount’

Chris DeBono speaks in the Table-Based Learning Lab at the Center for Healthcare Education.

A theologian speaking at Sacred Heart University’s new Center for Healthcare Education recently urged students and faculty to follow the philosophy of the late Henri Nouwen to help their patients heal.

Christopher E. DeBono, vice president of Mission, Ethics & Spirituality at Providence Health Care in Canada, is a Roman Catholic pastoral/practical theologian with specialized clinical training in spiritual care and clinical/organizational ethics. His address at SHU focused on Nouwen, an internationally renowned priest, author and professor who passed away in 1996. Nouwen’s central message, said DeBono: hospitality is a core component of health care, and promoting a culture of respectful treatment and acknowledgement is paramount.

DeBono said Nouwen believed health-care providers should weave skill with empathy when treating patients. Integral to this message is Nouwen’s belief that practitioners can create an avenue for patients to feel safe enough to heal. With his own self-avowed psychological and emotional woundedness in mind, Nouwen opined, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

Through Nouwen’s work and words, people discover that the greatest gift one can give to another person—be it patient, friend or stranger—is to listen, paying homage to their wounds, their loneliness and their story, DeBono said. In closing remarks, he presented a challenge and observation to the scholars: “Find the space needed to be hospitable in the work that you will be doing as clinicians. You have the ability to touch lives so profoundly…you will be remembered for all the days of your patients’ lives.”

DeBono’s talk was part of SHU’s Contemporary Catholic Conversations Lecture Series.