Remembering Donald Cozzens, the priest who saw the crisis of sexual abuse come – and worked to change the priesthood

I first met Donald Cozzens on the page. As a doctoral student interested in the ministry, I chose The Changing Face of the Priesthood as soon as a copy arrived at the library and read it that afternoon. At first, I didn’t know what to think of this beautiful book. There was a seminary rector calling for clerical culture, a former vicar of the clergy mourning the betrayal of children – not only by guilty priests, but by ecclesiastical structures devoid of responsibility. Here is a committed celibate taking up the taboo of sexual orientation, a spiritual director describing an Oedipal conflict between priests and bishops.

Was it theology? Spirituality? Psychology? Was Father Cozzens “conservative” or “liberal,” a patient confessor or a prophetic voice? Yes, I have decided, all of the above.

It didn’t take long for me to meet Don in person at a college conference. We became acquainted with each other and quickly became friends. A few years later, it was Don’s encouragement that convinced me to join the faculty at John Carroll University.

When the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002, Don was rightly recognized as one of the few who had sounded the alarm in years.

John Carroll had offered Don a home after the controversy sparked by The Changing Face of the Priesthood. Appointed writer in residence, Don has taught courses on Christian spirituality, Christian sexuality, the mind and psyche, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, and has written regularly for journals such as America, National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal.

When the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002, Don was rightly recognized as one of the few who had sounded the alarm in years. A much sought-after speaker, Don has helped audiences understand the scale of the crisis. He offered his support to groups demanding greater responsibility. He gave interviews and continued to write. Books appeared every two years examining the structures of denial, the importance of honest speech in the church, the gift of celibacy, and how it can be distorted by a canonical mandate. For Don, the present moment called the whole church to a deep conversion. And, as with any death for the ancients, he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

By the time I arrived at John Carroll, Don was an integral part of the college community. Its ever-open door welcomed students, faculty, and staff into a sacred space of “serious conversation leading to blessed fellowship” (to quote Walter Brueggemann), a privileged encounter with others whom Don recognized as one of the greatest. graces of the priesthood. Don spoke to the students not about the life they should lead, but the life they were leading. He presided over late-night mass on campus to preach, then joined the students at the local pub to listen.

Don never turned down a challenge on the racquetball court or an invitation to the dining hall. His quick wit and self-deprecating humor came out of his colleagues who met almost every day for lunch (at the ironically self-proclaimed “Power Table”). Her authenticity and basic human goodness have attracted a large circle of friends.

Don always hoped that church reform would come. As the new papacy unfolded, he saw this same hope in Francis.

Don has always described the priesthood as his deep truth. Although he congratulated himself on the “humiliation” of the priesthood which followed the Second Vatican Council, he nevertheless recognized the impressive mystery at the heart of his vocation. For him, it was a privilege to be a priest, to present Christ to others and to welcome them into the ecclesial community. Of all the online encomia that popped up in the days following Don’s death, the words of a former student stood out: “[Father Cozzens] was one of the first people to make me feel there was a place for me in the Catholic Church.

In addition to his work as seminary rector and professor at John Carroll, when Don passed away on January 9 at the age of 82, he left a legacy which included a number of books on the church and the priesthood: The spirituality of the diocesan priest (1997), The Changing Face of the Priesthood (2000), Sacred silence: denial and crisis in the Church (2002), The faith that dares to speak (2004), Liberate celibacy (2006) and Notes from the metro: the spiritual diary of a secular priest (2013). He is also the author of three novels: Master of ceremonies (2014), Under the pain of mortal sin (2018) and The Cardinal’s Assassin (2021).

In the twilight of Benedict XIV’s papacy, Don wrote that he felt like he belonged to an underground church. It was not that he doubted the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ or the saving paradox of the paschal mystery. It was because he felt out of step with Vatican directives which seemed to rule out the real struggles of ordinary Catholics. He felt uncomfortable among the clergy or laity who did not seem confused by all the disturbing statements coming from above.

Instead, he found solace in small communities of contemplatives, in vibrant parishes committed to social justice, in brother priests who gathered for honest conversation, in students returning from immersion trips in fire to make the world a better place. It was the underground church. What would it take to bring it to the surface?

Don was in the hallway from me on March 13, 2013, the day the white smoke announced that Pope Benedict’s successor had been chosen. Don walked into my office and together we heard Cardinal Tauran say the name “Bergoglio”. Leaning over my laptop, we watched Pope Francis appear in a simple costume and greet the world with a simple “Good evening. “When the new Pope invited us to pray for his predecessor, Don and I joined the rest of the Catholic world and recited the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory be to the Father. Then, almost in disbelief, we stopped. in silence as Pope Francis asked us to say a prayer of blessing for him.

After the new Pope left the balcony and the talking heads took over, Don and I lingered in the conversation. What really struck Don was that instead of playing the role of pope, Francis acted like a priest. He greeted the gathered people, he prayed with his people, he asked for their help and then offered his blessing.

Don always hoped that church reform would come. As the new papacy unfolded, he saw this same hope in Francis. Don knew that such a reform would not be easy – so too with any death for the elders. But thanks to Don’s work and his testimony, the church is all the closer to new life.

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