Henri with his father and younger brother, Paul.
Nouwen would often say, “I grew up in a very protected and safe environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there were people, many people, who were neither!” As a youth he experienced the Second World War as dangerous and exciting rather than comprehending its deep significance. At times he had to bicycle into the country in search of food for the family. At other times he helped hide his father from German soldiers.
Nouwen was a good student. He expressed his desire to become a priest at age six. His maternal grandmother had a child-size altar and vestments made for him, so he could “celebrate” the Eucharist with his siblings and playmates in the attic of their home.
When Nouwen was older, he spoke about the two voices that he heard as a child. The voice of his mother praised and affirmed him as he was, and called him always to love Jesus. The voice of his father, proud of his accomplishments, encouraged and challenged him to become a better and more successful person. Nouwen commented that he lived the first part of his life listening more to the voice of his father, and the second listening more to the voice of his mother.