‘I always knew Jesus’ love to be real and personal’: Q&A with Bishop Andrew Cozzens
In America’s interview with Pope Francis in November 2022, the Holy Father said that “the grace of Jesus Christ is in the relationship between the bishop and his people, his diocese.” We asked U.S. bishops to answer five of our nine questions. In these brief interviews, we hope to highlight and foster this relationship, and to offer some unique personal perspectives and spiritual insights of the shepherds leading our church.
Q&A with Bishop Andrew Cozzens
Diocese of Crookston, Minn.
What is an event from your childhood that helped you to understand who God is?
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was invited to go with my dad to a retreat at our parish. The retreat happened in the parish basement, and it was led by a priest. I remember that we were sitting on those hard folding chairs that are often found in church basements. I don’t really remember anything that happened at the retreat, but I do remember one experience that happened at the end. I remember the priest asked each of us to close our eyes and imagine ourselves in our favorite place. My favorite place was a fort my friends and I had built in a junkyard at the end of my street. It was full of abandoned couches and things like that. So I imagined myself in this old semi-trailer that was our fort. The priest said, “Imagine Jesus standing in front of you there.” I don’t know how to explain it, except that when he said that, I experienced Jesus was really before me there. Then the priest said, “Imagine how Jesus looks at you with love,” and I experienced Jesus really looking at me with love. Then he said, “Imagine Jesus reaching out to touch you on the shoulder,” and so I imagined that, and I felt something go through my whole body, and I just knew in that moment that Jesus was a real person and he loved me. In fact, I remember that having such a profound impact that I remember going home that night, going into my bedroom, jumping up and down on my bed, and saying to myself, “Jesus is real, and he loves me!” Afterward, I always knew Jesus’ love to be real and personal.
What is your favorite movie/book/play/musical/art/sport/etc. right now?
Every summer, a close priest friend and I go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, and we spend a week canoeing every day. We have been doing this vacation together for 12 years. We rent the same cabin, on the same shore, the same week every year. It has become a beautiful way to mark the years of my life. We spend our mornings praying on the dock, and then we have Mass together, and a big breakfast, and then we go on long canoe trips. Our longest trip this year was a 33-mile canoe trip in one day.
Each year we try to catch several new lakes; there are hundreds of lakes in the B.W.C.A. We don’t fish like many people do; we just enjoy the scenery and the beauty and the wildlife and the friendship. I always say a lot goes into the water as you paddle the canoe across the lake—the many concerns you might carry in life seem to go into the water and go away. Every night we sit on the screened porch of our cabin and play cribbage. We have an annual cribbage tournament. My friend won the first eight years, but I have won the last three years! It’s a beautiful time of prayer, friendship and nature that is very refreshing.
What’s something that people might not know about you?
Some people may not know that over my years of priesthood, I have become a very close friend of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s sisters. I was sent to Rome to study and earn a doctorate five years into priesthood, and during that time I was invited to become a confessor for the novices of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I went to hear confessions weekly for two years as they prepared to take their vows during their novitiate. I was able to do that for two separate groups over four years. During that time, I was inspired by the spirituality of the Missionaries. I was often invited to give retreats for them around the world. Three times I was invited to Calcutta to teach in a course they have for superiors and formators there.
I am grateful that the first time I taught the sacraments was to Mother Teresa’s sisters in Calcutta, even before I taught it in the seminary. Teaching it to those religious women who work with the poorest of the poor had a great impact on the way I saw the power of the sacraments and ultimately how I ended up teaching it in the seminary. Every place I have traveled around the world to give them retreats I have been able to see that beautiful joy of love for the poor and how refreshing it is for the soul to be living and working in poverty with the poorest of the poor. Of course, Mother Teresa’s sisters, like everybody else, have their human struggles; but there’s an incredible power to the charism she gave the church. I got invited to preach the General Chapter to the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in early 2022 but was unable to go because of the pandemic. The restrictions at that time made it so that I could not travel to India. If I could do anything I wanted to do, I would probably be in some third-world country giving a retreat for some Missionaries of Charity, because I have found that to be one of the great joys of my life.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned from the life of your favorite saint that is most applicable to your life today?
I’m writing these answers on the day before the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux; she is certainly one of my favorite saints. The lesson I learned from her when first reading her biography as a college student was the truth of confidence in God. St. Therese had this great desire to give herself to God completely, and she tried to do that with confidence despite being small and weak. In fact, I remember very well Oct. 1, 2013, because that was the day the papal nuncio called me to tell me I had been named a bishop—on the feast of St. Thérèse. That morning I had read something of her writings, and it spoke of this great confidence in God and this desire to give yourself to God completely. I remember praying to God that morning in my morning holy hour, saying “God I want to give myself to you completely with great confidence like St. Thérèse.” Then at 3 o’clock that afternoon, when I received the call from the papal nuncio that Pope Francis had named me a bishop, I could hear in my heart the words of St. Thérèse: “Have confidence, trust him, and go forward.” That lesson that I learned from her, that despite our littleness and our weakness we can go forward with confidence, helps me during difficult days.
Who’s someone in your diocese, not necessarily someone in an official church role, whom you admire and have learned from?
The person that comes to mind is a man named Pete Zavoral. Pete is from a great Catholic family; he’s a husband, father and grandfather. Pete’s family owns an excavation company in my diocese and he raised his sons in that field. Pete is a joyful, apostolic man. I met him because when I first came to the Diocese of Crookston, we were in the middle of a capital campaign, and he was helping with that campaign. Pete was telling me what a joy it is to ask people for money. This is not the ordinary reaction of people; most people do not find joy in asking for money. Pete finds it joyful because he says it gives people an opportunity to be generous. Pete exudes generosity in everything he does. This generosity flows from a very tender and personal love for Jesus; he goes to daily Mass and willingly smiles and talks about Jesus. I asked Pete once where he developed this great love for the Lord, and he told me it was from a Cursillo retreat many years ago where he met the Lord in a personal way and it changed his life. I find that I like being around Pete because it makes me joyful. He has a hopeful, can-do attitude. He really believes in Jesus’ power, and that if we are joyful and have confidence in Jesus, he will do great things in us.
Read more from our Bishop Q&A series: