‘Help from heaven’: Cozzens to lean on God, the Gospel, and experience in Crookston

News: Church in the U.S.

What is a bishop supposed to say to Catholics in a diocese scarred by scandal and left with reason to doubt their episcopal leaders? Bishop Andrew Cozzens offered an answer Monday, during his first press conference since being named to lead the embattled Diocese of Crookston, Minnesota.

“We do live in challenging times,” Cozzens told the local faithful during his first press conference Oct. 18. “But if you look at history, one of the things you realize is that God works most powerfully in the times that are most challenging.”

“The main thing I would say is: Jesus Christ is Lord. And he is Lord of our time and he is Lord of every time. Really, he always answers prayer. And, really, he always desires to work through us.”

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Cozzens went on to quote a letter written by a bishop in Mexico just prior to the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe: “Unless there is help from heaven, everything will be lost,” he quoted the letter as saying. 

“But within the year, there was help from heaven. Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared,” said Cozzens. “That’s how God works when things seem hopeless. So it’s important for us to keep hope that God will in fact continue to work in our midst in little ways and in big ways.”

Cozzens’ appointment was announced by the Vatican on Monday morning, and he will be formally installed as Bishop of Crookston on December 6, inheriting a diocese which has suffered through a long scandal of leadership. 

The diocese has been led by Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, as apostolic administrator since April of this year, after Bishop Michael Hoeppner resigned at the request of Pope Francis. Hoeppner’s departure followed an 18-month long Vatican investigation which began in September 2019, the first time a U.S. bishop was investigated under the aegis of Vos estis lux mundi, a set of norms approved by Pope Francis earlier that year. 

The investigation began with a charge that, in 2015, Hoeppner coerced Ron Vasek, then studying to become a deacon in the diocese, to recant a claim that when he was a teenager, a Crookston priest molested him. Vasek had first told Hoeppner about the abuse in 2011. 

Under the direction of Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda, in February 2020, the investigation of Hoeppner became a far-reaching probe into several abuse and misconduct cases handled by the bishop. 

During his official farewell Mass, Hoeppner said that he was leaving after “the investigation into reports that I, at times, failed to observe applicable norms when presented with allegations of sexual abuse involving clergy of this diocese.” Nevertheless, Hoeppner went on to characterize his time in charge of the diocese as “a real joy and a treat, and we thank Almighty God for it this morning.”

Rebuilding trust and hope among local Catholics loomed large during the press conference on Monday, and also on the resume of the new bishop. During his introductory remarks, Cozzens recalled that dealing with leadership scandals has been a part of his ministry since he was first appointed an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul - Minneapolis in 2013.

“The sexual abuse crisis that broke in the archdiocese, literally it broke eight days before the papal nuncio called to tell me I was the auxiliary bishop of St. Paul - Minneapolis,” said Cozzens. 

“In those days, the image of my prayer [ahead of his appointment being announced], was actually in the [Divine] Office this morning. It was the image of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego [from the Book of Daniel].”

“That was the image of my prayer when I first became a bishop — going into the fiery furnace. But I know who God is, and I know that he will be with me, and he has been so much these past eight years.”

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While the Diocese of Crookston is more known for snow than fiery heat, Cozzens acknowledged that he was again stepping into a new role at “a time of need” for the local Church. 

“I did learn a lot about the sexual abuse crisis; I have probably had to deal with every aspect of that crisis,” he said. “I certainly have had to meet with victims, and I certainly have had the privilege actually of meeting with victims — some of those victims have even trusted me to walk with them as they come to healing. That has been a great part of my ministry in the past eight years and a real joy for me.”

“I have seen how difficult it can be to change the culture of the Church so that we deal with the sexual abuse crisis correctly,” Cozzens said. “Victims are in fact the people we should be most caring for in the crisis, and the Church can actually grow towards health and being part of the solution for this great problem which plagues all of our society.”

“I’m aware of some of the need of healing in the Diocese of Crookston, and I would really like to be a part of that,” he said. “I look forward especially to just listening to people’s experience and hearing what it has been like here in the Diocese of Crookston in the past several years.”

Asked during the press conference what kind of bishop he would be, he responded by pointing to two documents: St. John Paul II’s Teritio millennio and Pope Francis’ Evangelii gaudium, which, he said, provide a blueprint for the Church in this time.

“I believe the Church has to be about the work of the New Evangelization. This is why we exist: to make the love of Jesus Christ known and loved. And we live in challenging times, and it is challenging today to make the Lord’s love known, but that is our mission... and nobody else can do it for us.”

“Nothing goes to waste with God,” Cozzens said. “It’s with that kind of hope and courage that we, through our daily prayer, are able to serve Him faithfully and He does do great things. And we’ll see it here in Crookston, you watch. We will see great things.”