Remembering Donald Cozzens, the priest who saw the sex abuse crisis coming—and worked to change the priesthood

America [New York NY]

December 13, 2021

By Edward Hahnenberg

I first met Donald Cozzens on the page. As a doctoral student interested in ministry, I picked up 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 make of this beautiful book. Here was a seminary rector calling out clerical culture, a former vicar for clergy grieving the betrayal of children—not only by priest perpetrators, but by church structures devoid of accountability. Here was a committed celibate taking up the taboo of sexual orientation, a spiritual director describing an Oedipal conflict between priests and bishops.

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

It wasn’t long before I met Don in person at an academic conference. We connected through mutual acquaintances and soon became friends. A few years later, it was Don’s encouragement that convinced me to join the faculty at John Carroll University.

John Carroll had offered Don a home after the controversy sparked by The Changing Face of the Priesthood. Appointed Writer in Residence, Don taught courses on Christian Spirituality, Christian Sexuality, Spirit and Psyche, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, and wrote regularly for journals like AmericaNational Catholic Reporter and Commonweal.

When the sexual abuse scandal exploded out of Boston in 2002, Don was rightly recognized as one of the few who had been raising the alarm for years. A highly sought-out speaker, Don helped audiences understand the scope of the crisis. He offered support for groups demanding greater accountability. He gave interviews and continued to write. Books came out every other year—examining structures of denial, the importance of honest speech within the church, the gift of celibacy and the way it can be twisted by canonical mandate. For Don, the present moment was calling the whole church to a profound conversion. And, as with any death to the old, he knew it was not going to be easy.

By the time I arrived at John Carroll, Don was a fixture of the campus community. His always-open door welcomed students, faculty and staff into a sacred space of “serious conversation leading to blessed communion” (to quote Walter Brueggemann), a privileged encounter with others that Don recognized as one of the great graces of the priesthood. Don spoke to students not about lives they should lead, but about the lives they were living. He presided at late-night Mass on campus to preach, and then joined students at the local pub afterward 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 among colleagues who gathered almost every day for lunch (at the ironically self-designated “Power Table”). His authenticity and basic human goodness attracted a wide circle of friends.

Don always described priesthood as his deep-down truth. While he welcomed the “humbling” of the priesthood that followed the Second Vatican Council, he still recognized the awesome mystery at the heart of his vocation. To him it was a privilege to be a priest, to introduce others to Christ and to welcome them into the church community. Of all the online encomia that appeared in the days after Don’s death, the words of one former student stood out: “[Father Cozzens] was one of the first people who made me feel like there was a place for me in the Catholic Church.”

In addition to his work as a seminary rector and a professor at John Carroll, when Don died on Dec. 9 at the age of 82, he left behind a legacy that 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 the Crisis in the Church (2002), Faith That Dares to Speak (2004), Freeing Celibacy (2006) and Notes From the Underground: The Spiritual Journal of a Secular Priest (2013). He also authored three novels: Master of Ceremonies (2014), Under Pain of Mortal Sin (2018) and The Cardinal’s Assassin (2021).

In the twilight of the papacy of Benedict XVI, Don wrote that he felt like he belonged to an underground church. It wasn’t that he doubted the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ or the saving paradox of the Paschal mystery. It was that he felt out of step with Vatican directives that seemed to dismiss the real struggles of ordinary Catholics. He felt uncomfortable among clergy or lay people who didn’t seem troubled by all the troubling pronouncements coming from on high.

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 on fire to make the world better. This was the underground church. What would it take to bring it to the surface?

Don was down the hall from me on March 13, 2013, the day white smoke announced that Pope Benedict’s successor had been chosen. Don came into my office and together we heard Cardinal Tauran pronounce the name “Bergoglio.” Craned over my laptop, we watched Pope Francis appear in simple garb and greet the world with a simple “Buona sera.” 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. Then, almost in disbelief, we paused 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 conversation. What really struck Don was that, instead of playing the role of pope, Francis acted like a priest. He welcomed those gathered, he prayed with his people, he asked for their help and then offered his blessing.

Don always had hope that church reform would come. As the new papacy unfolded, he saw in Francis that same hope. Don knew such reform would not be easy—so it is with any death to the old. But thanks to Don’s work and his witness, the church is that much closer to new life.

Correction:Father Cozzens passed away on Dec. 9, not Jan. 9.