Paddy Ferry: Remembering Donald Cozzens

I was genuinely saddened this time last year when I learned of the death of Donald Cozzens.

Fr. Donald Cozzens was an American priest, author and lecturer who died in December 2021. He was the author of many books, including The Changing Face of the Priesthood (2000), Freeing Celibacy (2006), and Notes from the Underground (2012).

I had read Freeing Celibacy prior to my reading The Changing Face of the Priesthood though the latter had, in fact, been published some six years before the former.

The last book of Fr. Donald which I read was Notes from the Underground which was a present from my dear friend, Fr. Hugh Purcell who, sadly, had also gone to his eternal reward, in Hugh’s case, well before his time.

Notes From the Underground was written just before the end of what he regarded as the dark days of the Wojtyla/Ratzinger era. In the twilight of the papacy of Benedict XVI, Fr. Donald wrote that he felt like he belonged to an underground church.

So, I looked forward to his next book following the arrival of Pope Francis.

However, following his death I realised that he did not write a follow up to Notes from the Underground though he did write novels towards the end of his life.

So, I was pleased to read the theologian Edward Hahnenberg, a friend and former student of Donald, recalling being with Donald when Francis, a humble and unpretentious man, arrived on the world stage on the evening of March 13th 2013 and greeted the crowds from the balcony of St. Peter’s with the simple words ‘Buona sera’.

Edward said that ‘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’. This was before jumping into the minibus back to his digs with some of the other cardinals who elected him Pope. And, before ringing his news agent next morning in Buenos Aires to cancel his paper.

Before I had read any of the books written by Donald Cozzens I was intrigued by an article written about him. It described how he was one of the first to take a serious interest in, and to research the incidence of homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood.

One evening, as President/Rector of St. Mary’s Seminary in Ohio, as he observed a new batch of first year seminarians arrive, he realised that many of them were young, gay men. He shared his observation with fellow seminary rectors in the US who reported a similar trend. And, so, his research began. He would later admit to a certain anxiety as he started his reflection on homosexuality and the priesthood. However, he continued.

Following the first part of his work in the US he concluded that approximately 40 per cent of priests were gay. After similar research in Europe, he concluded that the figure was nearer 60%. Finally, following similar work by the late Richard Sipe, they concluded that 75-80% priests in Europe and North America – the US and Canada – are homosexual.

None of this should be a problem for most people. However, what many do find to be a major problem is the fact that our institutional church still insults and denigrates boys and girls and men and women who are homosexual by referring to them as “intrinsically disordered” and “having more or less a strong tendency towards an intrinsic moral evil”. I was shocked when I read Fr. James Alison describe how you will find the most bitter homophobes in the priesthood among some of those priests who are themselves gay. I was also disturbed to read before a recent AGM of the ACP – Irish Priests’ Association that some of our bishops in Ireland mistreat some of their priests who are homosexual.

The Changing Face of the Priesthood is undoubtedly Donald’s masterpiece. Richard McBrien maintained that what is original about the book is the honesty, competence and balance with which he describes and analyses the crisis in today’s priesthood.

In The Changing Face of the Priesthood, he uses all of chapter 2, ‘Guarding One’s Integrity’, to emphasize the absolute importance of personal integrity. If you haven’t got that you’ve got nothing.

In part 3 of the book, chapter 7, ‘Considering Orientation’ begins with a quotation from Thomas Merton. “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything” and he quotes Cardinal Basil Hume who said: “To love another, whether of the same sex or a different sex is to have entered the area of the richest human experience.”

Donald Cozzens made a major contribution to our understanding of the Catholic priesthood today.

God rest him.

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One Comment

  1. Chris McDonnell says:

    A strong voice in turbulent times
    Donald Cozzens
    17 May 1939-9 December 2021
    Chris McDonnell First published in La Croix International December 2021

    We heard this week of the passing of the American priest, teacher and writer, Donald Cozzens. His journey came to a conclusion, a few days back, on December 9th. His has been a significant voice in recent years, always faithful to the Church that was his home yet critical of structures that got in the way of mission. He called out clericalism in no uncertain terms, seeking a more honest vision of priesthood that served the pastoral needs of the people.

    His seminal book “The changing face of the priesthood” was first published some twenty one years ago in 2000. It set the tone for his writing in subsequent years, with “Freeing celibacy” and “Notes from the underground” developing his themes. Needless to say his thoughtful criticism received a mixed response from those to whom it was addressed.

    His central themes sought to help others address the urgent challenges facing the Church and in particular the priestly vocation in the 21st Century. He did so with unswerving courage and charity; for his perceptive writing we owe Don a debt of gratitude.

    Born in 1939, he was ordained to the priesthood for the Cleveland Ohio diocese in 1965. He was to serve as a parish priest for nine years before beginning his teaching career. During the Eighties he taught at the Ursuline College in Cleveland as associate professor of psychology and religious studies until 1989 when he was named as Vicar for clergy and religious in the Cleveland diocese.

    He undertook various diocesan responsibilities concluding in June 2001 with his appointment to the faculty of John Carroll University. There he served as visiting professor of religious studies and writer in residence until his recent retirement.

    I came to know Don through e-mail when I wrote to thank him for writing “Notes from the underground” It was the start of a correspondence that we maintained over subsequent years. I shared articles and poetry with him to which he always responded with critical encouragement. When his recent novel-The Cardinal’s Assassin-was published he invited me to write one of the cover endorsements of the book which I was more than pleased to do.

    Our friendships and passing acquaintances in this life are many and varied. Living in the UK, I was never able to talk with Don face to face but I valued greatly our written exchanges. His was a singular voice of one crying in the wilderness, ever anxious to prepare the way of the Lord. A quick search of You Tube will offer talks and interviews that offer further insight into the thought of this perceptive, humorous priest who served his Church with prayerful honesty and courage over many years. His books are available through Amazon

    His death came on December 9th, one day before the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s in 1968. May he now rest in the peace of the Lord in whose service he lived his life as a priest and teacher.

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