A sell-out crowd of more than 200 people jammed into the large dining room at The City Club in downtown Cleveland on Nov. 30 to hear Bishop Nelson Perez address the First Friday Club of Cleveland. The event was streamed live on the diocesan website and can be accessed HERE.
Notre Dame Sister Rita Mary Harwood, secretary for parish life for the Diocese of Cleveland, said one person told her that “this is really a good time. We have a smiling pope and a smiling bishop.”
“He’s someone who cares deeply, responds generously, laughs freely, and as my secretary Paula said this morning, ‘he’s just not stuffy,’” she said, adding the diocese had been praying for a shepherd since January 2017.
“When Bishop Perez got the call asking if he’d ever been to Cleveland, that call was the answer to our prayers,” Sister said.
“She is so kind,” said Bishop Perez. “I am thrilled to be here today at the First Friday Club that meets on Thursday to celebrate faith, fellowship and you.”
He spent about a half hour sharing his thoughts with the audience, touching on Church history, the Scriptures, his life, impressions of Cleveland and what the modern Church needs to do. His address shifted between thought-provoking and humorous remarks that several times generated laughter from the audience.
The bishop mentioned that it was the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. “Look at them (the apostles). They’d have never been hired by today’s standards,” he said, eliciting laughter. “One betrayed him (Jesus), one denied him and the rest ran for the hills. Who stayed? The women.”
With that segue, he recognized the women, priests, religious sisters and deacons in the audience. He also asked students in the crowd to stand and be recognized, as well as diocesan employees.
Bishop Perez shared thoughts on what it means to be an apostle, drawing on the reading from the day’s Mass from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“. . . But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!’ But not everyone has heeded the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what was heard from us?’ Thus faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. But I ask, did they not hear? Certainly they did; for Their voice has gone forth to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world . . . ”
He said Jesus met people where they were, including Matthew, whom he talked to at the tax collector’s table.
“We need to meet people where they are, with the joy of the Gospel,” Bishop Perez said.
“The Church is an interesting community,” he said, recalling how he was informed of his elevation to auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre and his appointment as bishop of Cleveland. “They don’t talk to you; you just get a phone call. And then you’re on the floor and they say you can’t tell anyone yet. Isn’t this a great Church? Then they ask if you’ll accept. What are you going to say?” he asked, as the audience laughed.
He touched on evangelization, noting that Pope St. John XXIII said the Church needed to open itself to the world. “Protestants said it was about time Catholics started evangelizing and I said where do you think your Bible came from?”
Pope St. John Paul II called the world to evangelization, Bishop Perez said, “and then he did it himself. He was all over the world,” he quipped, comparing the late pope to the character Waldo from the “Where’s Waldo” books.
He called Pope emeritus Benedict the Thomas Aquinas of the 21st century. “He’s a major theologian; brilliant and very humble.”
And Pope Francis, he said, calls us to be missionary disciples – to go out into the world.
“We’re told not to talk about two things: religion and politics. But if we didn’t talk about religion, I wouldn’t have a job,” he said, as the audience laughed. “The Holy Father wants us to be a Church on the way, a Church on mission,” he said, echoing his remarks about meeting people where they are with the truth of the Gospel.
“There is joy rooted in an encounter with the Lord. We are never the same after that,” he said.
The bishop said his hope for the Church of Cleveland is to renew its commitment to the apostles and to be focused outward.
During a question and answer period, he talked about his recent election as the next chairman of the Cultural Diversity in the Church Committee for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The largest USCCB committee, it has five subcommittees. He has been serving as chair of the Subcommittee on Hispanic/Latino Catholics. The other subcommittees focus on African-American Catholics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers.
Another questioner asked about how to reach those who don’t attend Mass, especially younger people.
“A change of mentality is needed at the parish level. We have to meet the ‘nones’ (those with no religion), invite them and challenge them at the grassroots level,” he said, adding the best times of his priesthood were when he was a pastor.
Another person asked about his first impressions of Cleveland.
“People are very warm, very faith-filled and generous with their time, talent and treasure. But you drive too slow and you wait for the light to change before you cross the street,” he said, drawing more laughter. “You live here and don’t notice it as much as I do; I’ve only been here for 12 weeks,” he added.
Greg Spielman, club president, thanked the bishop for his presentation and said he felt the First Friday Club was helping with evangelization.
“We’re preparing to celebrate our 60th anniversary next year,” Spielman said. “In my opinion, this club was part of evangelization before it actually began.”
Bishop Perez invited Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Roger Gries to join him in blessing the audience at the end of the program.
For more information on the First Friday Club of Cleveland, including speakers for the first half of 2018, visit firstfridayclubcleveland.org or call 216-589-9852.