Freak becomes a bishop. That’s the quick and easy storyline describing the path Father Andrew Cozzens took to becoming the next auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
But, here’s the strange part — the person who called him this name was a doctor. And, he pinned this label on Father Cozzens, called Drew throughout his childhood, without even seeing him.
In fact, Father Cozzens was still in his mother’s womb.
This takes some explaining, and so it was that his parents, Jack, 75, and Judy, 69, took a good chunk of time on a recent afternoon recalling the circumstances surrounding the birth — and life — of their No. 2 child, a boy who remarked to another doctor when he was just 4 years old that he was going to “do the Lord’s work” someday.
The drama began during Judy’s fifth month of pregnancy. She was teaching part time at a Catholic school in Connecticut. Her stomach hurt, and she figured she was getting the stomach flu that had been going around the school.
“Then, all of a sudden, I realized I’m getting my pains every five minutes, and I realized I was in labor,” she said. “So, Jack met me at the hospital and we went in. I almost lost [the baby], but they stopped the labor.”
She felt relief, but only momentarily. The tension over her son’s condition skyrocketed the following morning when the doctor came in to talk to her about what was happening.
“He said, ‘You’re carrying a deformed fetus, and you need to not continue with the pregnancy’” she said. “And, I said, ‘What do you mean? This is my baby.’ And, he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re carrying a freak, and you shouldn’t continue with this pregnancy.’”
What this pro-abortion doctor didn’t understand, however, was that there was no way this devout Catholic mother would kill her unborn child.
She simply told the doctor: “It’s my baby. And, what God sends us, we’ll take.”
After making her point, the doctor said he would no longer work with her. He did, however, find a replacement, who turned out to be kinder and more hopeful about her pregnancy.
In fact, the new doctor believed there was nothing wrong with her child and made a bet with the other doctor that she would deliver a healthy and normal child. At stake was the cost of delivery beyond what the family’s health insurance would cover — about $1,200.
The doctor pushing Judy to abort lost the bet, and Andrew was born on Aug. 3, 1968. His only problem was eczema all over his body.
Or so they thought. Not long after he was born, he developed a serious stomach problem. Turns out, he had severe allergies that required him to be fed a special formula every two hours round the clock. That was his sustenance for more than two years.
He also developed asthma, which he still has today. Between the allergies and the asthma, Jack and Judy had their hands full. But that did not stop their son from hearing God’s call to priesthood at a young age.
In fact, during one hospital stay in Denver when he was 4, after being placed in an iron lung, he turned to the doctor who had agreed to stay in his room overnight and said, “You can go back to bed. I’ll be OK. I’m going to grow up and do the Lord’s work.”
This may have been Drew’s first act of ministry. The doctor later told Jack and Judy that he was going through a painful divorce and had lost his faith in God. He went on to tell them that he believed Drew had been sent to him by the Lord.
As amazing as this anecdote was, it did not surprise Jack and Judy that their son was showing early signs of a calling to religious life. To understand why, it’s necessary to go back to the fall of 1964.
Judy, a Montana native, was attending a Catholic college in her home state named the College of Great Falls (now called University of Great Falls). She agreed to go on a blind date with Jack on Sept. 26. Just four weeks later, he proposed. He took her into the chapel on campus before one of their dates.
“After a couple of prayers, I proposed there in the chapel,” Jack said. “And, she said yes immediately. . . . As I slipped the ring on her finger, the instant it touched her finger, the bells in the chapel started to ring. I looked at my watch and it was 6:23. There was no reason to ring bells at 6:23. So, we felt pretty good about that.”
Said Judy: “We never knew why the bells rang, but Jack always thinks it’s because we were going to have a son who’s a priest.”
Can’t argue with church bells ringing. And, Jack and Judy couldn’t argue with a boy who looked for opportunities to practice the kind of ministry performed by a priest.
Like the time he went to a nursing home with his mother when he was 5.
“I was doing some work in the nursing home,” Judy said. “And he said, ‘Well, I’ve got to practice being nice to the old people so I know how to do this [as a priest].’ And, he would go around and hold their hands and talk to them.”
Drew’s inclination toward priesthood was cemented by time spent with a priest in Denver, where the family moved when he was 4 so they could be close to a nationally-renowned research hospital that specialized in the treatment of asthma in children.
Msgr. Thomas Barry befriended young Drew and even moved up his first Communion date so he could serve Mass for the monsignor before he reached the mandatory retirement age of 72.
“He passed away when Drew was studying in Rome in 2004,” Judy said. “But, Drew came back and did his funeral, and they had a beautiful relationship all through Drew’s years of growing up. Drew would often go up and go fishing with Monsignor. . . . Monsignor told him lots of stories while out fishing. He learned a lot of catechism in the boat.”
He also learned about rock climbing and even scaled the Grand Teton in Wyoming with his older sister Helen and foster brother Sergei, who joined the family when he was 15. The trip came in August 1982, and Jack, a rock climber himself, came up with the idea and taught the kids how to do it.
It was a bonding experience for the whole family. Judy had actually trained so she could go, too, but got hurt on the final practice and had to bow out. Jack and Judy ended up chartering a plane so they could fly over the mountain and see the kids when they were at the top.
Sergei is a lawyer today and hopes to come to the bishop ordination in December. Judy said he is the first member of his biological family to graduate from college.
Although the Cozzens weren’t able to formally adopt him, they were able to enjoy lots of time with Sergei, an African-American teenager from the inner city. And, the experience was valuable for Drew and the other members of the family.
After spending a few weekends with Sergei shortly after meeting him, they set to work trying to find a relative who could adopt him. Then, their son spoke up.
“Ten-year-old Drew says one night at the dinner table, ‘I don’t understand what the problem is,’” Judy said. “Serg needs a home and we have one.”
The bishop-elect has been spending the last few years teaching at the St. Paul Seminary. As much as his parents would like him to stay there, so that he can be near their Edina home, they know — and have known — that the higher calling of bishop may eventually take him elsewhere.
“I think that we thought he might be a bishop someday,” Judy said. “But, I must say that I certainly didn’t expect it at this time. I thought we had at least another five years, that he would be well into his 50s before he was named a bishop.
“At first, I had a lot of tears [at the announcement of her son’s appointment]. But, you know what? He’s a good, holy priest. He’s a humble man and he’s a strong soldier. He’s prepared. He’s ready.”
LifeNews Note: This column originally appeared in the Catholic Spirit newspaper and is reprinted with permission. Photo Credit: Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit