Donald COZZENS, Notes from the Underground: The Spiritual Journey of a Secular Priest. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013. pp. 210. $20.00. ISBN: 978-1-62698-006-8. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, University Heights, OH 44118
Donald Cozzens, a priest of the diocese of Cleveland, is well known to Catholic audiences for his previous books. Yet none of his earlier works is as thoroughly honest and courageous as this one. As a “secular” priest, a term previously used to describe any diocesan priest and not one who had abandoned spiritual goals, the author has remained committed to his vocation while wrestling with the normal doubts and questions of all believers. The book takes the form of a journal, for the most part exposing the author’s personal views on several topics. It is part autobiography, part critique of contemporary church structures and practices, part hope. In some ways it recalls Paul Wilkes’ In Due Season, in that it chronicles the map-less and uniquely personal journey to spiritual maturity so characteristic of Catholics whose lives span both the pre-Vatican and post-Vatican church. Rather than use the convention of chapters, Cozzens divides the book into sections: Faith, Communion, Prayer, Power, and Imagination.
Part I on Faith distinguishes faith from belief. Faith is much more than conformity to doctrine or to authoritative moral guidelines. It is the embrace of an adult confidence, rooted in trust in the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world and in what the author calls “blessed communion.” This phrase includes not only the table fellowship of the Eucharist but the communion of friends and fellow travelers—“faithful doubters” who support and challenge each other on their spiritual journey. Cozzens challenges both the reader and the structural church to respond to what he calls the rollback of Vatican II. He calls for a return to “the hope, peace, and joy of the Gospel.”
Part II examines in greater depth the notion of Communion. It locates the presence of God not only in authority or other-worldly beliefs but rather in creation and in the company of friends. Transcendence, connection with the divine, is not beyond us. Rather it is seeded in human intimacy, nourished in encounters of trust and listening. This model reflects a truly Catholic anthropology, one of basic human goodness rather than of suspicion and condemnation. It reflects the direction to which Vatican II pointed. It offers a challenge both to individuals and to the organizational leaders of the church.
Part III considers Prayer. Contrary to other reviewers and readers, I found this section the least personal and therefore the least engaging part of the book. At least I marked fewer passages and pondered the contents less. While the author does share some of his struggles—and successes—with prayer, much of the chapter relies on the insights of others. Cozzens is at his best when his own voice is dominant.
Part IV speaks about Power. “The taste of power . . . has seduced the most honorable of men,” writes Cozzens. He suggests that the power inherent in Catholic authority should be used to hold the faithful in God’s arms, in the story of God’s fidelity, in the repetition of the sacred communion of the Eucharistic banquet. Ecclesial power should be a beacon of light to lead in the journey of faith, rather than the protector of precipitated doctrinal statements or disciplinary guidelines.
The last section of the book deals with Imagination. In the final pages the author quotes the late Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini. The cardinal calls upon the church to recognize its mistakes and to seek radical change: “Why don’t we rouse ourselves? Are we afraid?” Fr. Cozzens has answered the question for himself.
This book will be a comfort to some. It is good to know that there are faithful priests whose hearts ache with love and concern for the church as do their own. The book will disturb others, who see the church as a hierarchical rock of truth without sin or need for reform. It may anger those who believe that priests should not break the silence of their safe underground to speak out for change and charity.
Normally this reviewer avoids what a former spiritual director deemed “pious books.” An exception is in order here. This indeed is a pious book. It is intimate and scholarly. It is critical and candid. But most of all it is hopeful. Perhaps all who read it—and they should be many—will read it with an open heart.