CLEVELAND (RNS)--With a frank, scholarly new book, the Rev. Donald B.Cozzens draws on 35 years as a priest to explore the beset soul of theRoman Catholic priesthood. Some of his fellow clerics are calling it amasterpiece.

Cozzens, 60, has spent his life as a priests' priest, serving asvicar to all 500 diocesan priests in northeast Ohio. Now he heads St.Mary Seminary here. With this slim book, The Changing Face of thePriesthood, Cozzens has broken a threshold.

"This is the most honest assessment of the American priesthood Ihave read in years," said Paul Wilkes, author of "The Good EnoughCatholic."

In careful, candid chapters, Cozzens considers the increasinglyhomosexual cast of the priesthood. He looks at the exodus of about20,000 American men from its ranks in the last 30 years. Some were hisgood friends. Among the 21 priests ordained alongside Cozzens in 1965,more than half have set aside their vows.

As vicar, it fell to Cozzens to conduct dozens of exit interviews.Not one man said he had lost his faith. Like a married person watchingfriends divorce, Cozzens had his own vocation tested by thesedepartures.

"If my soul has a contemplative side to it, it has taught me to bepatient, through a dark night experience or the anxiety of feeling thepriesthood was not my truth," Cozzens said, with a frankness his friendsname as a hallmark of his character. "I did a number of things. I turnedto my journal. I drew from the lessons of the contemplatives, readingthe spiritual classics. And I talked with friends I could be honestwith. I had the luxury to talk to people who knew my soul as well as Idid.

"And it became something, that, by the grace of God, passed."

Cozzens, with a doctorate in psychology, looks at the priesthood inFreudian and Jungian terms. He writes about the spiritual and moralmaturity a priest needs to avoid twin perils: becoming a weak sycophantto church authority or developing into an angry maverick.

He assesses why, in recent years, the priesthood and churchauthority have fallen on hard times.

He describes an encounter with a woman who grabbed a pamphlet aboutthe vocation out of her son's hand after Sunday Mass. "Throwing it down,she said with a voice of steel, `No son of mine is going to be a damnpriest,'" Cozzens recalled.

"Catholics, in stark contrast to parents of previous generations,are no longer likely to see priesthood and religious life as a healthyway of life for their children," he writes.

One reason is what Cozzens, who is not homosexual, calls "the gay crisis."

"At issue at the beginning of the 21st century is the growingperception--one seldom contested by those who know the priesthood well--the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession," Cozzens writes.

He cites sociologist James G. Wolf's 1989 assessment that 48.5 percentof priests and 55.1 percent of seminarians were gay. He recollects ahigh-ranking, religious-order priest stating publicly at a conference onAIDS that 80 percent of his large East Coast order was gay.

"There is at least one Midwest congregation of religious men that Iknow of which holds a gay caucus when their members meet in assembly,"Cozzens writes.

Cozzens touches on Yale historian John Boswell's contention thatholy orders have been honorable sanctuary for gay men for centuries."They tend to be men who are nurturing, intelligent, talented andsensitive--qualities especially suited to ministry," Cozzens observes.

Yet they are caught in the paradox of preaching church teaching thathomosexuality is "intrinsically disordered," he notes.

Gays can be a destabilizing element for straight men in seminariestrying to discern their vocation, he said. Cozzens recalled that onerecent, gifted candidate turned down the priestly life once hediscovered the homosexual leaning of many of the men around him.

Celibacy, too, is explored in a nuanced manner in Cozzens' book.

"Celibacy is dangerous, like all good things," he said, sitting at aconference table in his office at St. Mary Seminary, where he is rector,president and professor. "It requires exceptional maturity, strong,honest friendship and a deep, real spiritual life. If one of theseelements is not present, a priest can become strange, squirrelly."

Nonetheless, it bears remembering that a large proportion of peopleare not married: all children, many elderly, the widowed, divorced andhappily single, Cozzens said. No one should regard them as oddities.

"I had to write this book," Cozzens said simply. "Parts of it havebeen percolating in my soul since my days (teaching) at UrsulineCollege.

"I don't think we in the church have asked ourselves what is God'sspirit saying to us through these most recent crises, the sexualmisconduct with minors and the large numbers of priests, men of goodnessand faith, who have stepped away from their calling.

This book is aninvitation to reflection."