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 the Roman Catholic priesthood. Some of his fellow clerics are calling it a masterpiece.

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

"This is the most honest assessment of the American priesthood I have read in years," said Paul Wilkes, author of "The Good Enough Catholic."

In careful, candid chapters, Cozzens considers the increasingly homosexual cast of the priesthood. He looks at the exodus of about 20,000 American men from its ranks in the last 30 years. Some were his good 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 watching friends divorce, Cozzens had his own vocation tested by these departures.

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

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

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

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

He describes an encounter with a woman who grabbed a pamphlet about the 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 damn priest,'" Cozzens recalled.

"Catholics, in stark contrast to parents of previous generations, are no longer likely to see priesthood and religious life as a healthy way 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 growing perception--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 percent of priests and 55.1 percent of seminarians were gay. He recollects a high-ranking, religious-order priest stating publicly at a conference on AIDS that 80 percent of his large East Coast order was gay.

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

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

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

Gays can be a destabilizing element for straight men in seminaries trying to discern their vocation, he said. Cozzens recalled that one recent, gifted candidate turned down the priestly life once he discovered 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 a conference 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 these elements is not present, a priest can become strange, squirrelly."

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

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

"I don't think we in the church have asked ourselves what is God's spirit saying to us through these most recent crises, the sexual misconduct with minors and the large numbers of priests, men of goodness and faith, who have stepped away from their calling. This book is an invitation to reflection."

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