“Tell me what’s great about this school,” Bishop Nelson Perez asked students at Cleveland Central Catholic High School on Oct. 24 as he celebrated an all-school Mass at the nearby Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.
Students’ answers included: “positive peer pressure, everyone wants you to succeed, family-like atmosphere, the uniform, music, activities and lunch.”
The bishop thanked the CCCHS community for its warm welcome and recognized the teachers and staff for their hard work in educating and providing positive role models for the students. His visit to CCCHS came just seven weeks after his installation as the 11th bishop of Cleveland. He said he intends to visit each of the 20 high schools in the diocese; CCCHS was the fifth stop.
“I’ve been told that this school is one of our (diocesan) jewels,” he said. The bishop also quipped that he owns the school, since diocesan property is in his name.
He told the approximately 600 students gathered in the church that some people are like magnets, drawing others to themselves. “You know who they are. They bring smiles to your face. They light up a room when they enter. Others may push people away,” he said.
“The Gospel calls us to be like good news. What kind of news are we when we show up? Do we bring smiles or something else? Some people are called to follow Christ, to be good news, to show his love, care and compassion,” the bishop said.
He shared a story about attending World Youth Day and seeing Pope St. John Paul II. “He was an amazing man of God. He started World Youth Day,” the bishop told the assembly, adding that the crowd grew each time. The event, which started in 1985, takes place every three years and moves around the world.
At the most recent World Youth day in 2016 in Krakow, Poland, Bishop Perez said the young people literally took over the city, with more than 2.5 million coming to see Pope Francis and to celebrate their faith. He told the CCCHS students what Pope Francis said: That God expects something from them. “He comes to break open everything that keeps you closed in. With you, the world can be different,” he said. “But, unless you offer the best of yourself, the world will not change.”
He said that Pope Francis told the WYD crowd that God wants to “turn our hands into signs of reconciliation; he wants to build with your hands, to make the world a better place. So what is your response?”
Bishop Perez also reiterated a mantra he has shared during every high school visit: “Never, never, never underestimate the power of God working in you, through you and despite you – never. Always remember that.” He also encouraged the students to “squeeze out all you can from your high school years, because they only happen once.”
After Mass, Sister Allison Marie Gusdanovic, SND, CCCHS principal, and Lanny Hollis, associate principal, presented the bishop with a CCCHS pin, which is a tradition for each new student at the beginning of the school year. He also received a picture of the school and a special Link Crew T-shirt with a superhero logo.
The bishop took time to greet students and faculty members as they left the church before heading back to the school building, where he was given a tour. He also had lunch with several student representatives, faculty and staff members.
During lunch the students shared their stories with Bishop Perez. Many talked of the struggles they’ve had at home, personally and academically and how the support offered at CCCHS has helped them overcome their difficulties. One girl talked about the time she spent in a refugee camp before coming to the United States and eventually to CCCHS. Another talked about overcoming extreme shyness. All credited the faculty, staff and their peers for helping them through their difficulties.
The bishop turned the table, allowing students to ask him questions. They peppered him with inquiries about things like which diocese would he choose if he was able to pick one. “Cleveland, of course,” he said smiling.
Another asked him about the scariest part of becoming a priest, to which the bishop replied, “Taking on a lifestyle very different than that of everyone else around you. I studied clinical psychology and thought I was on my way to marriage, a family and a career like everyone around me,” he said, recalling that at times it was a struggle to discern his vocation while all these other things were around him. “It was a struggle to take on a path so different than those around me,” he said.
He empathized with the students who either experienced refugee camps or whose family members did. “My family escaped Cuba and went to a refugee camp in Miami that was run by Caritas,” he said. “They left Cuba on the premise of taking a vacation. They left their house and life and never went back.” He said his father had been a banker in Cuba and some of his clients advised him to leave because of the deteriorating political situation. Some even helped to set up the vacation ruse.
He shared the difficulties his family had in adapting to American culture, including one time in Catholic elementary school when students in his class were asked to dress up as their patron saints for All Saints Day.
“I didn’t have a patron saint, so the teacher asked what my middle name was. I told her ‘Jesus,’ and she said, ‘well he’s not a saint.’” When he got home, he tried to explain to his mother about the saint costume and she didn’t understand. He said she bought a tiger costume for him, which he wore to school and for which he got into trouble. The bishop said he also did not look the teacher in the eye when she scolded him, since it was considered disrespectful in Cuban culture to do so. That also landed him in trouble.
Years later, after he became a bishop, he went back to that parish and the nun who had scolded him was still there. “I didn’t remember her, but when she told the story I did,” he said.
One student asked if he drives. “Yes, but not as much as I’d like to,” he quipped, noting that often someone drives him to his events.
Regarding social media, the bishop told the students it’s a vehicle and can help spread the news, but it isn’t always a good thing. However, he does enjoy using it to connect with his nephew who is studying in France.
He also encouraged the students to take full advantage of their Catholic education and the caring atmosphere at CCCHS. Bishop Perez said he attended a large public high school that had no sense of community, no sense of belonging. “I love the way you interact with the other students. I wish I had that when I was in high school,” he said. “My graduating class was as big as your whole school.” He also recalled going back to his old high school neighborhood to visit a friend about 13 years after graduating, when he was a priest.
“I saw some guys from high school and we started talking to catch up. I learned that some of the kids in my school had overdosed, some had gone to jail, etc. Not much had changed for those guys. They were still playing on the basketball court where they used to go when they cut class. They were still there, where they were when they were ‘somebody’ – on the basketball court,” he said.
Someone asked if he believed in coincidence. “No, I believe God has a plan. He puts us someplace for a reason. There is no coincidence, it’s providence.”
He also shared with the students that his parents gave him their wedding rings and asked that he have them attached to the bottom of his paten so he would always remember where he came from.
The bishop received additional gifts from the school after lunch, including a CCCHS sweatshirt and T-shirt, a package of candy buckeyes, “because Ohio is the buckeye state,” Sister Allison said, and a piggy bank.
“We give piggy banks to all students when they tour the school because we tell them that CCCHS invests in its students,” Sister said.