ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Bishop Andrew Cozzens’ phone rang Oct. 1 with the news that he’d been nominated to become an auxiliary bishop for the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, he sensed it was also a call for him to give himself more fully to God.
And since it was St. Therese of Lisieux’s feast day, he felt he should have her confidence that Christ and his Blessed Mother would guide him in this somewhat daunting new endeavor.
At 45, he is the second-youngest U.S. bishop, after Detroit Auxiliary Bishop José Arturo Cepeda Escobedo, and Bishop Cozzens brings to the episcopacy his own pro-life story, youth evangelization experience, a love of the Eucharist and priesthood — which he taught as a seminary professor — and a desire that others would know the joy of the Lord and the healing of his Sacred Heart.
Becoming a bishop “feels both exciting and overwhelming, and it also feels like being carried by the Lord in a new way,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been plucked out of the seminary and placed upon a hill — and I’m seen by everybody — but feel very much called to reflect the life of Jesus in that.”
Bishop Cozzens’ entry into the St. Paul-Minneapolis episcopacy is particularly visible due to significant challenges facing the archdiocese. After several months of vigorous government and media scrutiny of priests accused of sexual misconduct and the local Church hierarchy’s handling of these cases, Archbishop John Nienstedt voluntarily stepped aside on Dec. 17, after he himself was accused of inappropriate contact with a minor.
While the archdiocese’s more senior auxiliary bishop, Lee Piche, is covering all the archbishop’s public duties as the matter is investigated, Bishop Cozzens’ first weeks as a bishop have been especially eventful.
In his remarks following his Dec. 9 ordination, Bishop Cozzens emphasized that such sins of the Church’s members and its clergy are terrible and gravely wrong, and they are inexcusable and must be dealt with in a right manner. But he stressed that the Church herself is holy because she is united with Christ and is our source of holiness, despite the sinfulness of some of her members.
Called to Seek Holiness
Especially at a time when some Church members have failed, all members must seek holiness to show forth the Church’s true nature, Bishop Cozzens said. “I will be part of trying to make right some of the mistakes that were made and make sure that we provide safe environments for all the people of the Church, especially our children,” he said.
“I will be part of that effort, and I will also be part of reminding the whole Church — and firstly myself — that we’re called to holiness, and holiness comes from surrendering our lives more and more to the love of God so that we can live that love.”
Bishop Cozzens’ own call to holiness and realization that God had a plan for him came early, as he grew up in Denver understanding that his own life was a gift from the Lord.
When his mother was five months pregnant, she went into labor, and the attending physician strongly advised her to abort him, believing he would be a “freak.” Mrs. Cozzens responded by switching doctors.
The young bishop was not born with the defects the doctor had predicted, but with severe allergies and asthma.
He realized as a young altar server that he loved the Eucharist — and wanted to become a priest.
His parents’ witness of showing him God’s love enabled him to make a gift of his life and vocation. “Unless I had experienced that, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he said. “It just confirmed in me the importance of protecting the family, so that people can come in the family to experience what true love is, which is self-giving love.”
Because his own life had once been in danger, Bishop Cozzens has had a desire to help other young people and mothers facing life issues.
As a student at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., he and a friend started a pro-life group.
During two summers in college, he learned about his faith and how to evangelize, as he lived in student households in St. Paul, Minn., which were part of St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO). Later, he evangelized college students as a full-time missionary for SPO, a West St.-Paul, Minn.-based ministry that invites college students to Christian discipleship within the Catholic Church.
A year later, Bishop Cozzens did more evangelization work with teens on youth retreats, as he traveled with a team of young adults around the country with National Evangelization Teams (NET) Ministries, also based in West St. Paul, Minn.
Through his exposure to SPO and NET, Bishop Cozzens started the practice of daily prayer, learned the value of Christian community and experienced the joy of evangelization. “I learned that every Christian is called to be an evangelist,” he said. “To be a Christian I have to be ready to share my faith, and I have to look for opportunities to do that in both formal and informal ways.”
In his priesthood, he’s found support and friendship through the Companions of Christ, a fraternity of 17 diocesan priests and five seminarians in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, of which he is a founding member.
“I’m very grateful to the Companions of Christ and the way they taught me about the importance of brotherhood in trying to follow Christ,” Bishop Cozzens said. “And also for the way they love me in my weakness. That’s one of the beautiful things about friendship.”
When we admit our nothingness and internal poverty before God, we can receive true joy from him. That joy is an important part of evangelization, he said, citing Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
“Joy is the authentic sign of the presence of God,” Bishop Cozzens said. “The Christian who’s not joyful doesn’t know the presence of God. Part of the healing that the world needs is an experience of true joy, because people are looking for happiness, and they’re trying to find it in material things.”
Catholic youth need formation, he said. “They need to learn the good habits and discipline which will allow them to flourish in the Christian life, and they need to have their minds and hearts formed so that they can understand and embrace fully the Gospel teaching that comes to us from the Church.”
Wounded spiritually and emotionally by the culture, many youth need healing in addition to formation, which takes time, he added.
In part because they have the joy of being poor in spirit, Bishop Cozzens has a special love for Spanish-speaking Catholics. Fluent in Spanish, he served as an associate pastor at Divine Mercy parish in Faribault, Minn., which has a Latino congregation.
“I love working with them because I find their hearts are wide open to receive the love of Jesus and because many of them have suffered and struggled to come to our archdiocese, and they still live under great suffering because of [some of] their immigration status.”
Through the Blessed Mother, Bishop Cozzens said he has experienced God’s compassionate mercy. “I understood through her what it means to be loved as a son is loved by his mother and that compassionate mercy is a beautiful expression of the compassionate mercy of our loving Father.”
He expressed his devotion to Mary during his ordination, held on this year’s feast of the Immaculate Conception. On that feast day, he renewed his consecration to Jesus through Mary according to the teaching of St. Louis de Montfort, which involves a 33-day preparation with prayers and readings that he discovered from reading Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Marian writings.
Bishop Cozzens said he prays for Our Lady’s guidance as he serves her Son’s Church as a bishop.
“My prayer is: ‘Mary, don’t let go of my hand,’ and I sense that she’s not going to,” he said. “She’s going to keep holding my hand as I try to follow Jesus as a bishop.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.