Donald Cozzens sits at a unique crossroads, being both a priest of 35 years and the rector of a major seminary. So this must have been at once a sadand yet liberatingbook to write. For what Father Cozzens, rector of St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland, has embarked upon is as comprehensive and honest an examination of conscience of the American priesthood as we have seen, or are likely to see, in our currently paralyzed state. And, while the image is not always an attractive one, this priest’s passionate love for his calling would not allow him to be other than utterly truthful. The ordained priesthood is both too precious and too endangered to be addressed in any other way, he seems to be crying out.
When the history of this difficult time for the American clergy is written, this book will surely mark one of its signal moments. For the rectorthe ultimate insider, who has also served as vicar for priests and is hardly the kind thoughtlessly to do disservice to the churchhas not looked to his own career or image, but has boldly written the book that is on the mind of a good number of his fellow rectors, seasoned priests and lay people alike. Many a priestand not a few bishopsgrumble privately about the state of the priesthood; this brave man speaks out quite publicly in a clear, reasoned, compassionate voice.
The book offers a rich banquet, no fillers, the real stuff. Cozzens looks at priests present and those who left after the Second Vatican Council, those who carry on in the priesthood’s best traditions and thoseand the pedophiles are just a small number of themwho do more harm than good, killers of the soul and spirit whom we all have encountered.
The picture Father Cozzens sketches of his fellow priests and fellow seminarians of his era is a sadly familiar one. First off, none of the priests who came to him as vicar and said they were leaving the priesthood to marry ever talked of a loss of faith. They loved the priesthood, but were emotionally desiccated by the lack of intimacy and community.
Among those still in the ranks are many, many heroic men who are besieged by niggling ecclesial bureaucrats, overwhelmed with the ritual demands of their life (more and more often, a solitary one), generally battle-fatigued but still within the ranks because, most would echo with Father Cozzens, the priesthood is "my truth."
And seminarians? Too many of them are gay, which creates an unsavory and actually "destabilizing" atmosphere in some seminaries and hardly replicates the people they are to serve. They are also decidedly second rate, intellectually and emotionally, again not on a par with a Catholic population that is better educated and largely open to a progressive, Vatican II-inspired church.
But beyond assessing the state of present and future priests, what Father Cozzens does so well is present a telling picture of a church culture that is alarmingly dysfunctional. With a doctorate in psychology, conversant with both Freud and Jung, he is superbly qualified to address both the Oedipal conflicts of both priests and hierarchy and to address those who "cannot bear to stand in the fire leading to true adulthood."
Priests can become stalled in their love of mother church (it reminds me of a Jewish seminary where they were finding their candidates "loved Judaism but hated Jews"); bishops can be unwilling "to be at the same time a man of the Church and one’s own man." We apparently have a significant contingent among our spiritual leaders who have not faced their own humanity, with the attendant deficit that many fall victim to, in Robert Jay Lifton’s term, "psychic numbness."
It is not just our imagination as laypeople that too many members of the hierarchy have a strangely androgynous look to them. They have mistakenly surrendered their innate gender-ness on the altar of a celibacy they may or may not have practiced. While we might worship with our parish priests, we’d be embarrassed to introduce them to our non-Catholic friends, or would find ourselves wondering what to talk aboutbesides clerical intramuralsif we invited them over for dinner.
On the other hand, putting the Oedipal litmus test to Jesus and looking over the once and future savior’s shoulder to Mary (who was perhaps as proud as any mother could be to see her son in God’s service), Father Cozzens points to the wedding feast at Cana as a defining moment. Don’t push me, Mary, was the son’s retort. I’m a grown-up now, and I’ll do what I need to do when I see the need to do it. Such independence should serve as inspiration to priests and bishops who bemoan their lot as something akin to being regarded as KFC franchise managers of a pre-packaged faith.
Father Cozzens addresses the shift among seminarians to a more rigid adherence to both what the Vatican directly demands and what they imagine it is demanding. Those priests who fashion such a narrow gatewhich study after study shows is not representative of the American church at largeharbor the "false hope of faith without ambiguity," something this priest of long and distinguished service has obviously set aside as blatantly jejune.
From a story in The Cleveland Plain Dealer I was disappointed to learn that Bishop Anthony Pilla had replied through a spokesperson that he "had not yet found time to read his seminary president’s book." If one of my priestsat that, the rector of my seminaryhad written a book about us, I certainly would have made it a point to read it or confessed in my own voice to that reporter that I was sorry I hadn’t, but would immediately, and would then be happy to talk about it. Say, before your deadline or tomorrow at the latest?
The good bishop of my beloved Clevelandand he is one of our good onesshould not hesitate to finish this painfully honest assessment and read in the closing pages that Donald Cozzens is still a loyaland hopefulpriest. Father Cozzens mayand probably willprovoke a letter from Rome questioning his intentions. But stand fast, Bishop Pilla; your rector has done nothing but say what has needed to be said.
(Irony of ironies, a couple of years back Father Cozzens edited the best-selling book The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest, which bishops bought to give to their priests. Will they be doing the same for this book?)
Let these words tell what is deep within Father Cozzens’ soul as we gaze at the thoughtful, compassionate "Head of Christ," attributed to Rembrant, on the cover:
"Reason for hope lies in the apparent purification and maturation the priesthood has undergone.... With status diminished and reputation questioned, priests have turned with renewed poverty of soul to the sustaining mercy and grace of God...they stand as men without illusions, totally dependent on the strength of the Spirit. In the truth of their circumstances, their humility inspires freedom and courage.... They look, without fear, to the renewal and transformation of the priesthood. Behind the changing face of the priesthood remains the saving face of Jesus the Christ."