John Carroll University’s Institute of Catholic Studies hosted “An Evening with Bishop Nelson Perez” as the last lecture in its 2017-2018 series on April 8 at the university. The bishop also celebrated the weekly 9 p.m. Mass in St. Francis Chapel after his talk.
Paul Murphy, institute director, provided a brief background of the bishop, who was born of Cuban immigrant parents in Miami, Florida, and raised in New Jersey. He talked about the bishop’s extensive pastoral experience and how he is responsible for scores of parishes as well as being active with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he chairs the Encuentro program that works with Hispanic Catholics.
“He also keeps a sharp eye on administrative needs and has a warm sense of humor,” Murphy said. “He seems to embody Pope Francis’ idea of a Church that goes out. It seems Bishop Perez is out everywhere,” he quipped, noting the hundreds of visits the bishop has made throughout the Diocese of Cleveland in his first six months as its leader.
Bishop Perez shared his discernment journey to the priesthood, explaining how he had hoped to minister in Cuba, his parent’ homeland, after ordination, so he began his priestly formation with the Salesians in Puerto Rico.
Since most of their seminarians were teenagers and the bishop already had a college degree, he would attend morning prayer with them, go off to work and return to the seminary for evening prayer. After a few months, the rector called him into his office and said they wanted to send him to study theology and gave him a choice of five places. They settled on Philadelphia.
“The first time I saw it was when I moved in,” he said.
A few months later, the seminary rector called him to the office.
“I thought I was in trouble,” he quipped. Instead, he learned that Philadelphia’s Cardinal Archbishop John Krol, a Cleveland native and former diocesan auxiliary bishop, asked if he would consider remaining in the archdiocese after ordination since there was a need for Spanish-speaking priests to minister to the growing Hispanic population. “And just like that, I was traded like a baseball player,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“I’m thrilled to be in Cleveland and have been visiting parishes, schools, universities and more. I’m happy to share my thoughts on Church and the Church in Cleveland. As for my plan, I don’t have one. I will listen, watch and learn,” he said, adding that “God is writing straight with crooked lines” as his ministry unfolds and the Church continues its growth.
He talked about how the Church was emerging from the Reformation, but had begun closing in on itself. “Priests ‘said’ Mass and people didn’t understand the language (Latin), so they prayed the rosary.” When the papacy of Pope St. John XXIII began, he said the Church needed to go back to its roots, “to be not only a Church that goes in, but a Church that goes out.” The pope convened the Second Vatican Council, which was a tumultuous time, he said, but it began the process of “opening the windows of the Church because it had gotten stuffy inside,” Bishop Perez said.
“The Church moves slowly, like a turtle, but there is a wisdom to that,” he added.
The bishop also discussed how evangelism developed from Vatican II. In fact, he was asked to begin an evangelism institute in Philadelphia. “I asked the archbishop what that meant since I had never heard that word in the seminary and he told me it was for me to figure it out,” Bishop Perez said. He purchased a copy of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s exhortation on evangelism. “He talked about how evangelism is the deepest identity of the Church,” the bishop said. “It’s the reason the Church exists.” Because of this emphasis on evangelism, Bishop Perez said a new vibrancy developed in the Church and when the papacy of Pope St. John Paul II began, he introduced it to the world.
“He (Pope John Paul II) was an actor and a writer. He modeled what the Church should look like and he made the world his stage,” the bishop said. He talked about seeing the pope in New York as a teenage and several times later in life. “He showed us what a Church should look like – that it should ‘go out,’” he said, something Bishop Perez took to heart in his ministry.
As a pastor in Philadelphia, he called together a group in his parish and explained that he wanted to visit every household in the parish territory, but that he couldn’t do it alone and needed their help. “I got some pushback and it took a long time,” he said.
“John Carroll is here because people talked about Jesus 2,000 years ago, otherwise, the message would have died with the last apostle,” he said, emphasizing the importance of evangelizing.
The bishop also said he feels Pope emeritus Benedict XVI will be remembered “as the Thomas Aquinas of the century . . . he is a brilliant theologian. I think the Church will remember him as a reformer.” He said by the singular act of retiring, Pope Benedict ushered in a new era in the Church that allowed Pope Francis, who he also characterized as a reformer, to call the Church back to its roots.
“He took two concepts: missionary and disciples, and made them two sides of one coin. He said we are a Church of missionary disciples who must take the initiative, be engaged, accompany people, be fruitful and joyful. I’ve been throwing this around Cleveland like a farmer sowing seeds. It may take a while to catch on,” he said, adding that God takes the first step – the initiative, then like yeast in flour, it rises.
He said the pope talks about a Church that accompanies people, meeting them where they are with the truth of the Gospel, recalling instances in Scriptures where Jesus did that, including with Matthew the tax collector and the woman at the well.
During a brief question session, he told the group not to underestimate the power of God and urged them “don’t be afraid to share your faith.”
After the lecture, he celebrated Mass inside the university’s packed St. Francis Chapel, where he shared thoughts about the resurrection and how what appeared to be the end – with Christ’s death – was actually the beginning of Christianity.
Using the image of the paschal candle being carried down the main aisle of the dark cathedral during the Easter Vigil, Bishop Perez told the congregation, “No matter how dark it gets in my life, there is always a light: Christ.”
He also told them not to be afraid of doubt. “Doubt is a good thing. You can’t doubt what you don’t believe.”
In closing, he said that Jesus returned to his frightened disciples and said “shalom,” which he said is actually a prayer. “It means may you – those who were fragmented by fear and sin — be made whole in the eyes of God. How blessed we are.”