Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens, 53, is the Bishop of Crookston, Minnesota. He grew up in Denver, Colorado, the youngest of three children in a devout Catholic family. His father was an aerospace engineer and his mother a school teacher.
He is a graduate of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He was active in the pro-life organization Operation Rescue, and was arrested seven times and jailed for two weeks for physically blocking access to abortion clinics. He was also a missionary with NET ministries and is currently chairman of its board of directors. During his time as a missionary, the future Bishop Cozzens visited the Diocese of Crookston, putting on retreats in parishes and schools; he would return as Bishop of Crookston in 2021.
The bishop has also been active with Companions of Christ, a fraternity of diocesan priests in Saint Paul, and worked for Saint Paul’s Outreach leading college Bible study groups.
He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in 1997. He served as a parochial vicar, earned advanced degrees in Rome and taught at Saint Paul Seminary, where he had been a student. He was ordained an auxiliary bishop in 2013, during a time when the archdiocese was undergoing a crisis related to the handling of clergy sex abuse of minors cases.
Among his other activities, he is chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis and will lead a three-year National Eucharistic Revival that will kick off the Feast of Corpus Christi in June 19, 2022.
CWR: Can you tell us about your upbringing?
Bishop Cozzens: One of the significant stories I share is regarding my birth. When my mother was 20 weeks pregnant with me, her water broke. Her doctor wanted to induce labor and abort me, saying that tests showed I would be a severely deformed child—a “freak” was the word he used.
Thank goodness my parents were devout Catholics and asked for a new doctor. The second doctor told my mother that if she spent the next 20 weeks in bed there was a good chance I’d come out healthy, and that is what happened. I was born with severe allergies, which I still have, but otherwise I have no health defects.
My parents’ insurance didn’t cover the cost of the treatment, but a funny thing happened. My mother’s second doctor made a bet with the first doctor that I would come out healthy. The loser would cover the cost of the medical treatment. So, as it turned out, the first doctor ended up paying the costs related to my birth.
Because I had severe asthma, my family moved from Connecticut to Colorado, where there was an asthma research center and a better climate for an asthmatic. …
In first grade, a priest came to my classroom. He was an off-the-boat Irish Monsignor. He invited me into the hallway, where I had my first confession. I also had my first communion a year early. He was turning age 70 and retiring, and wanted me to serve Mass for him.
He stayed close to my family, and it wasn’t long before I wanted to be a priest like Monsignor. He was a great example to me. He had a house in the mountains near Lake Granby, where he enjoyed his retirement.
He was the archbishop’s troubleshooter. He’d work nine months of the year. If there was a problem in the archdiocese, the archbishop would send him in to calm things down. Then during three summer months, he’d fish. I and another young man would serve Mass for him and fish every day; I went away from that relationship wanting to be a priest. He was a very holy man.
After I was born, my mother was unable to have more children, so my parents became foster parents. … We’d welcome troubled kids. One of these young people returned and was adopted by us when he was 15. His name is Serge, an African-American. Today, he’s an attorney in Denver with two sons.
CWR: You were active in the pro-life movement. Was that motivated by the realization that if you had had other parents, you might have been aborted?
Bishop Cozzens: That’s certainly part of it. My parents would talk to me about their pro-life convictions by reminding me, “The doctor told us to abort you!” They’d also say that God spared my life because He had plans for it, so I grew up with a strong sense of vocation.
It was while I was attending Benedictine College that I had a good friend who was a freshman who had been involved in Operation Rescue and had convinced me to participate. I was arrested seven times, and when you get arrested that much, you end up in jail. Twice I did a week in jail. In fact, my senior year of college, I had to finish my finals early so I could do my time in jail.
CWR: If you could go back in time, would you do it again?
Bishop Cozzens: Absolutely. However, there are now prudential questions involved. During the Clinton Administration the law changed to make trespassing at an abortion clinic a federal crime with a minimum of six months in jail. So, prudentially, there are other ways we can save lives without getting arrested. In those days it made sense as the penalties were not as high.
CWR: The U.S. Supreme Court will soon announce its decision in the Dobbs vs. Jackson case, which could mean the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision. Are you following this case?
Bishop Cozzens: Very much so. We need to pray and make sacrifices so that the high court will do the right thing.
CWR: What is NET Ministries is and how did you get involved in it?
Bishop Cozzens: NET is a Catholic youth ministry in which young people are invited to spend a year or two of their lives being a missionary to other young people. They might work in parishes or schools, or travel and put on retreats for junior high and high school students.
I am an extreme proponent of this kind of evangelization activity; I think every Catholic young person should spend a year or two doing missionary work. It gives many people the opportunity to hear the Gospel, and it changes the missionary for the better. He or she receives a good formation and practice in sharing their faith, which they can use elsewhere. I think it is one of the best things a young person can do.
In my case as a young person, my sister was involved in NET Ministries, which got me involved, and it spurred a deeper conversion on my part. I didn’t have any good role models in the faith among the young people I knew at the time; I attended NET Ministries events, met the missionaries and saw how I was supposed to be living. That summer I became involved in St. Paul’s Outreach, going to Mass daily and praying, so that when I went back to college after my junior year I was really serious about my faith.
CWR: What was your reaction when you were named a bishop?
Bishop Cozzens: Let me put things into context. It was September 23, 2013, when the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis was featured in the lead story in the news. Our chancellor photocopied some archdiocesan files and resigned, taking those files to Minneapolis public radio. They told the story of how the archdiocese had mishandled some priest sexual abuse of minors cases. The first story came out on September 23, about a priest who had been arrested in 2012 for abusing three boys; he is still in prison. The next story came out about a priest who had child pornography on his computer, an allegation later proven false.
The archdiocese was on the front pages of the newspapers for eight days, and there was a sense among the priests that the archdiocese was on fire. In the midst of this I get a call telling me that I’m now an auxiliary bishop. As a bishop, I was born amidst a crisis.
The next two years saw the archdiocese go bankrupt and criminally charged, and two of its bishops resign. The time of my appointment was one of anxiety, with the sense that we’re going into a really bad situation. And, I had never done any work in the chancery, nor had I been in a leadership role with the chancery. I didn’t know what I was walking into. I ended up being in the center of an attempt to rebuild the archdiocese and its trust among the people.
That was a very difficult process. I was the spokesman of the archdiocese to the press, as the archbishop didn’t have credibility among them. We did a file review, came across some issues with a few of our fellow priests, and we had to handle many of the legal issues the archdiocese was going through. I had a great team of people around me working on these issues, and we brought in some good people.
This crisis in the archdiocese began in 2013, and then culminated when we were criminally charged in June of 2015. The corporation was charged criminally, which is unusual, because prosecutors could not find anything with which to charge an individual. This led to the resignation of our archbishop and auxiliary bishop.
Over the next year, we worked with the county attorney, agreeing to a set of protocols and civil settlements, with them checking back regularly to see that we were doing what we agreed to do.
CWR: How did the archdiocese come to this situation?
Bishop Cozzens: There were several things I learned. First, it is important to involve qualified lay people. In the past, too many clerics … I like to say too few people with too much information … were making decisions impacting people. Now we use a lay review board and lay experts to help us deal with these questions. Previously, decisions were handled on an ad hoc basis by a few clerics who sometimes made bad judgments.
Second, we need to treat law and civil enforcement not as enemies, but as people who have the same goals as we do. Previously, leadership might think we’ll fight these issues on constitutional grounds, and we’ll win before the Supreme Court, which they might have. We decided that the county attorney’s office and us wanted the same things, and that we can work with them to attain those ends.
Third, we’ve learned that transparency is important. Whatever decisions you make behind closed doors will eventually come out. When we have bad news, we have to rip the Band-Aid off; it is better to have us deliver the bad news than to have someone else do it.
And finally, it is important to establish a process for dealing with these kinds of cases, and then to follow it well. If a priest is accused, for example, he goes before a review board with a set of lay experts, who do an investigation, and if he is found to be innocent, he can be put back into ministry. But it is important that the process is credible and trusted.
CWR: Has the Catholic Church been unfairly targeted in regards to sex abuse cases?
Bishop Cozzens: The Catholic Church has been targeted, that is true. It is harder to sue the public schools than the Church. Millions of dollars have been made through lawsuits.
But, I’m hesitant to say we’ve been unfairly targeted. It is good that we are held accountable for our poor history in this area. I hope our reform will have a positive effect, strengthening other institutions where there has been abuse, as policies and practices established will be in place across society. Sex abuse of minors is a huge issue in our society, and one with which we have to deal. But today the Catholic Church is one of the safest places you can be with a child.
CWR: For those not familiar with the Diocese of Crookston, how would you describe it?
Bishop Cozzens: We have 14 counties, which include rural farmland and some of the best soil in the country. Our farmers produce sugar beets; in fact, a third of the country’s sugar comes from our area.
We also have beautiful woods and lakes, with some of the best fishing in the country. We’re particularly famous for our ice fishing. We’re the northernmost diocese in the continental U.S., and we’re also a small diocese. We have 35 priests who serve 66 parishes. We have about 12,000 Catholic households, for a total of about 30,000 Catholics overall. As we’re largely rural, the faith has been strong here, and is sometimes more easily maintained than in a large urban center.
As far as vocations, we have six seminarians, with another two entering seminary for us in the upcoming year. That is a good number for a small diocese. We also have young women going to religious life, although since we have no growing religious communities in Crookston, our young women must leave the diocese to join communities. We hope to convince more religious communities to come to the diocese.
As with the archdiocese, we’ve experienced intense scandal in this diocese. Our previous bishop, Bishop Michael Hoeppner, was asked to resign after an investigation under the Vos estis lux mundi norms approved by Pope Francis. He was the first bishop asked to resign after such an investigation.
That scandal has ripped the diocese for the past five years. It was for one particular case relating to the failure to report and investigate a case of child sexual abuse. When it did come out, it wasn’t handled well. [Read Bishop Cozzens’ statement on Bishop Hoppner.]
CWR: What have you done to correct the situation?
Bishop Cozzens: I met with each of our priests in the first few months since I arrived. I wanted to hear from the priests about their painful struggle.
I’ve worked closely with our review board to resolve one main case that was difficult to deal with, as the situation was not cut and dried. We’ve had prayer and listening events around the diocese which give me a real opportunity to hear from our people.
I’ve done my best to approach this issue using the principles I learned from my time with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis: putting victims first, following accountable processes with our review board and to do so with transparency. So far, I believe our people have appreciated what we have done, but the wounds are deep and take a long time to heal.
And, I’ve done my best to proclaim the Gospel, and the Gospel is healing.
CWR: You are the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, spearheading a three-year Eucharistic Revival that will begin in June 2022.
Bishop Cozzens: In the fall of 2019, a Pew study revealed that 70% of Catholics don’t believe in Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. This study motivated the bishops, especially Bishop Robert Barron, to bring forth a proposal for a Eucharistic revival in the U.S.
In January 2020, I was chair-elect, and a part of those conversations. But COVID hit, and the bishops were unable to move forward for a time, but now we are going to move ahead with an effort to revive Eucharistic faith, which we hope will affect the Church at every level.
The three-year process begins June 19, 2022, on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The first year will be a diocesan year, a lifting up of the Eucharistic life of the diocese. We’ll be working to motivate diocesan leaders by training thousands of Eucharistic missionaries who we hope will volunteer to lead in parishes.
The second year will be a parish year, which will include small groups, adoration hours and catechesis around the Mass. We will help equip the faithful to know and love Jesus, and to share that love with others.
The culmination of the revival will be a National Eucharistic Congress to be held in Indianapolis, Indiana July 17 to 21, 2024 which we anticipate will draw 80,000 to 100,000 Catholics. In the past such events were held every five years. We hope the Congress will be an event that marks this generation, like World Youth Day in Denver did for my generation.
Some critics have complained about the $350 cost of attending the conference, but for a four-day conference I think it is in line with other such conferences. We’re also trying to raise significant funding so we can offer scholarships to those unable to afford it. It is not an unreasonable cost; by paying $350 you can come to a place where you are going to be inspired.
I would invite everyone to visit our website for details. Starting in June, you can sign up for a weekly newsletter.
CWR: How can Catholics make the Eucharist a more central part of their lives?
Bishop Cozzens: First, go to daily Mass. I have tried to find a saint who did not go to daily Mass, but I haven’t been able to find one. As Pope St. John Paul II has said, the Eucharist is the secret of my daily life, and it gives meaning and understanding to all of my daily activities. When I live a Eucharist-centered life, I can offer my struggles and difficulties in union with Jesus to the Father, and my daily life can be part of the redemption of the world. St. Paul saw his sufferings as part of the redemption of the world through participation in the Eucharist.
Next, realize that Eucharistic life cannot be lived without adoration. The Mass is not enough. If we can’t go to daily Mass, we should at least have a weekly Holy Hour.
CWR: How has the Eucharist had an impact on your life?
Bishop Cozzens: When I was in seminary, I read Fulton Sheen’s book on the priesthood, The Priest is Not His Own. It was an argument why the priest should make a daily Holy Hour, a practice I’ve attempted to do throughout my priesthood. It has carried me through trials and difficulties, and led me to a deeper faith rather than to discouragement or bitterness. It has been a wonderful source of grow through those difficult times.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
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