Father Paul Rosing, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Stow, said he was giving some thought to retirement prior to Bishop Nelson Perez’s appointment as the 11th Bishop of Cleveland.
“I’m looking forward to a good time with Bishop Perez,” he said, as he introduced the bishop, who addressed the First Friday Club of Greater Akron on Oct. 6.
“Bishop, I’m sure you’ve heard that Cleveland is the best location in the nation, but did you know that Akron is the best part of the best location?’” Father Rosing said.
“Can we say ‘Akron rocks?’” Bishop Perez asked, drawing applause from the sellout crowd that packed the banquet room at Tangier Restaurant. He also acknowledged the large group of students, representing several Akron area elementary and high schools, and posed for photos with them after his address.
Bishop Perez shared a story about staying at Pope Francis’ residence while he was in Rome for some meetings. “The pope was there, walking around. I celebrated Mass with him at St. Peter’s Square. There must have been 30,000 to 40,000 people there and I got to talk to him,” he said. The pope asked what country he was from and Bishop Perez explained that he was Cuban-American. “I told him I was made in Cuba and unpackaged in Miami,” he said, recalling that the pope referred to him as “the Cuban one.”
The bishop also noted that God might have been sending him a sign of his impending assignment to Cleveland, “but I didn’t pick up on it.” He said several months ago, Father Joseph Kraker, a retired priest and longtime pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Akron, introduced himself after attending a Mass celebrated by Bishop Perez at a parish in the Diocese of Rockville Center, New York, where the bishop was an auxiliary prior to his appointment to Cleveland. Father Kraker was in New York for a wedding.
“Pay attention to signs,” Bishop Perez quipped.
He also acknowledged the priests, deacons and religious sisters in the crowd and thanked them for all they do.
And he reaffirmed a statement made in his installation homily: “I was sent here to be a part of you, not the other way around. Eventually, I’ll be nothing but a picture on the wall,” he said.
“Someone asked if I’d be vising all the parishes. I said yes, but there are 185 parishes and 52 weeks in the year, so do the math,” he quipped. However, the bishop is celebrating Masses and greeting the faithful at 10 district receptions throughout the diocese, with the Summit County liturgy scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 24 at Holy Family Parish in Stow.
“We are called as a Church to go back to our roots, to be a Church on a mission, focused outward,” he said, adding that both Pope Francis and Pope St. John Paul II exemplify that philosophy.
“I was blessed several times to see John Paul II as a lay person and as a priest. The last time was in 1998 in Cuba. He was old, he shuffled and mumbled, but he captivated the crowd,” Bishop Perez said. “We need to be a Church that is involved and engaged. The Church doesn’t live in a bubble. The truth is in the Gospels and it sets us free.” He added that Pope Francis urges us “to be fruitful and joyful. The times we live in don’t call for young couch potatoes. We need someone to leave a mark. We must decide our future – you must decide your future.”
During the question and answer session, Bishop Perez was asked his impressions of Cleveland. “Everyone is very warm and welcoming,” he said, in contrast to New York.
Another questioner asked what inspired him to become a priest. “That gets harder to answer,” he said. “My only comparison is to falling in love. Why did you fall in love with one person and not another? It happens deep in your soul. A part of me was compelled to become a priest, but I don’t understand it,” he added. “One day an older woman came to see me and she said, ‘I’ll tell you why you need to be a priest: because I need you.’ And she walked away. Maybe she was an angel.”
He also was asked about his favorite saints. St, John Bosco and Pope St. John Paul II were at the top of the list. “John Paul II lived life intensely; he travelled the world and made the world his stage. He was an actor for Christ and taught us how to become old and sick.”
Another questioner asked about the future of the Church with fewer priests. “We’ll never have enough priests,” Bishop Perez said, adding that deacons, religious sisters and lay people are all called to take on roles as baptized missionary disciples. “We (priests) have our role and you have yours. It’s a blessing in this diocese that you have many trained ecclesial ministers,” he added.
A student questioned what the bishop meant by the term “outward.” He explained that the Church is not just a place of arrival, but also a place of dismissal. “The essence of who we are is being sent. There’s not much liturgy after communion; the priest dismisses you with a prayer, a blessing and tells you to go and share what you’ve seen and heard.
When asked what it takes to be a bishop, he noted that diocesan bishops are not part of the selection process. “There are no interviews. You get a call from the nuncio and he asks if you’re alone,” he said recalling how he was travelling on a freeway in Florida when he got the call announcing his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Rockville Center. “He asked if I could find a place to be alone, so I had my brother pull the car over, I got out and was walking on the side of Interstate 595 when he told me the pope wanted me to be a bishop of Rockville Center. I asked him, ‘Where’s Rockville Center,’” he said. When he got the call about his elevation to Cleveland bishop, he said the nuncio asked if he’d ever been to Cleveland. “I told him I’d never been to Ohio,” Bishop Perez said. “But here I am and I am very grateful to be here.”
Another question was about the first time he met Pope Francis. Bishop Perez said it was in the pit at the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City. “That’s a sacred space,” he said, adding it’s a burial ground for nearly 3,000 people who were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. “He walked around in silence; he respected the place.” He said when Pope Francis meets people, he shakes their hands and looks them straight in the eye “with his penetrating glance.”
At the end of the program, Bishop Perez blessed the crowd, prayed for the Indians and Browns to win on Oct. 8 (neither did) and offered prayers for those killed and wounded in the Las Vegas mass shooting (on Oct. 1) “that we may heal from this act of senseless violence.”