A sold-out crowd “encountered” Bishop Nelson Perez at the Nov. 29 First Friday Club of Cleveland lunch program.
During his annual address, the bishop spoke to more than 500 people in the Orchid Ballroom at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cleveland. The venue change – the group usually meets at The City Club of Cleveland — was necessary to accommodate the crowd. John FitzGerald, First Friday Club president, told the group the program sold out more than a month ago. He thanked the nearly two dozen benefactors who supported the program.
FitzGerald said one table sponsor was unable to attend and decided to make his $500 sponsorship a donation to the Diocese of Cleveland Vocation Office. Father Mike McCandless, office director, accepted the check.
Before the bishop spoke, FitzGerald invited Notre Dame Sister Allison Marie Gusdanovic, Cleveland Central Catholic High School principal, to make some brief remarks. A CCCHS student offered the opening prayer.
Bishop Perez was introduced by Jerry Schroer Jr., program chairman. FitzGerald thanked Schroer for stepping up to lead the program committee and presented him with a rosary he had received from the Vatican.
Schroer recalled the bishop’s visit to one of his family’s businesses earlier in the year and thanked him for “making our faith come alive.”
Bishop Perez chose “Encounter” as the topic for his annual address, relying on what Pope Francis has charged us to do: be missionary disciples as we encounter people in our daily lives.
“I’m going to ask you to do something for me,” the bishop said. “This could get a little messy, but I want everyone to get up from their tables and go find someone you don’t know. Introduce yourself and share with that person one thing that excites you about your faith.”
After a few minutes, everyone returned to their seats and Bishop Perez congratulated them for doing what the pope has charged us to do: be missionary disciples and hand on our faith.
“That’s an encounter,” he said, referring to the exercise.
Bishop Perez said the pope wants us to truly encounter people, which means more than just lip service. He said encounter is not just seeing, but looking; not just hearing, but listening; not just passing by, but stopping; not just saying “what a shame,” but being moved, showing compassion and drawing near to touch someone.
He reminded the group that in less than a month, we will celebrate Christmas. “God so loved the world that he encountered humanity” by taking on flesh and living among us. He said that thought was considered scandalous at the time – that God would walk among men.
The bishop also said he’s been asked several times how he personally deals with all that is going on in the Church.
“My answer is that it depends on where you’re rooted or grounded,” he said, explaining the difference between Church with a capital “c” and lowercase church.
“Part of the Church is transitory,” he said, noting that we will not be here in 150 years, but others will be – which is the ever-changing part of the Church, the lowercase church. “But the Church will carry on with others in the future. It’s the mystical body of Christ that transcends time and history.”
He said the pope wants us to create a culture of encounter, not to live isolated lives. “What you just did is what it means to enrich the faith of others and to pass it on,” he said. Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel” encyclical is “a blueprint of the faith life of the Church for the next 30 years. You cannot give what you do not have.”
The bishop talked about how excited the disciples were after encountering the risen Lord. “They couldn’t stop talking about it,” he said, even when threatened with suffering and death. “That encounter changed them forever,” he said, adding that Pope Francis wants us also to have a personal encounter with the saving love of Christ – the primary reason for evangelization.
“We’ve all experienced love. We know what it’s like to love someone. You can’t stop talking about the person. That’s how the early Christians felt about Jesus,” Bishop Perez said. And that same feeling is what we should have after encountering Christ.
The pope said “we should share that love on a person-to-person basis. It should be a daily responsibility for us to bring the Gospel to people we meet – neighbors or strangers. We should be constantly ready to bring the love of Christ to others,” he added.
Bishop Perez recalled two recent encounters he had – one on a plane and one at the lunch program.
When a fellow passenger asked him if he was a priest, the bishop said he feared that encounter might not go well, but it ended up to be a deep conversation with a stranger. “I’ll probably never see that woman again and I don’t remember her name,” he said, but he does remember the encounter.
The second was with a young father at the lunch program. The man told the bishop he was sharing his faith with his 4-year-old son as his parents had done with him. Bishop Perez said that was an example of someone with a faithful heart passing on the gift of his faith and building it up within his son.
“To pass on the faith you don’t have to say much; sometimes it’s just being in the presence of others,” he said.
“Remember this: passionately, practically and personally. That’s what we need to do to pass on the faith one person at a time,” the bishop added.
Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Roger Gries, First Friday Club spiritual moderator, offered brief closing remarks and a final blessing.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we all had an encounter at Mass?” he asked, suggesting that we open ourselves and introduce ourselves to those we don’t know at Mass.
FitzGerald also introduced the other members of the club’s leadership team: John Diemer, vice president and incoming 2019 president; Marian Rubin, secretary; and Tom Finucane, treasurer. Immediate past president is Greg Spielman.
The club’s next meeting is Jan. 3, 2019, when Chuck Kyle and Mike McLaughlin, St. Ignatius High School teachers and coaches, will speak. Brooke Taylor, author and former radio personality, will speak on Jan. 3. Michael Johnson, John Carroll University president, will address the club on Feb. 28; Bob DiBiasio, Cleveland Indians senior vice president of public affairs, will be the April 4 speaker and Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, Ontario, Canada, will be the May 2 speaker.
The First Friday Club meets at 11:30 a.m. at The City Club of Cleveland, 850 Euclid Ave. For more information, visit firstfridayclubcleveland.org.