Bishop Nelson Perez touched on a variety of topics during his Feb. 2 address to the First Friday Forum of Lorain County, including his recent trip to the Holy Land, the development of evangelism in the Catholic Church, the role of missionary disciples and more.
During a question and answer session following his remarks, he addressed several other issues, including discovering his vocation, the Super Bowl score, staffing parishes as the number of priests declines and the role of women in the Church today.
In his presentation, which was attended by 300 people at Lorain County Community College’s Spitzer Conference Center, he talked about visiting the Holy Land, where so many religions have a presence. He recalled being awakened at 5 a.m. daily by a Muslim call to prayer from a minaret.
When visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he said “in the midst of that chaotic environment, you get a sense that something cosmic happened there.” He also talked about the throngs of people who reach out to touch the stone at the burial site of Jesus.
Bishop Perez connected the history of the Holy Land, where Jesus walked, lived, suffered and died, with our faith today. The message of salvation travelled down to us through the disciples, he said.
“The life of a little Jewish boy from Nazareth intersected with our lives,” he said, illustrating the sense of connection we have with the Holy Land. “Whoever you are, whatever you believe as Christians today, travelled to us from back in Jesus’ day.”
After six months in the Diocese of Cleveland, the bishop said people still ask him what plans he has for the diocese. “I don’t have to do much. The Church of Cleveland has been here for 170 years,” he said. “It’s like opening a series of boxes. You open one and there’s another one inside it. I’m seeing Cleveland unfold. I continue to speak about the plan the Church has. This isn’t about me. Someday, I’ll just be a picture on the wall,” he said.
The bishop told the crowd that the Holy Father has given the Church something to think and pray about. “He’s shaking some cages in Rome and shaping our hearts,” he said. Although the Church can move slowly – “it took 300 years to figure out the Nicene Creed,” he quipped — the bishop said the Church is changing.
Fifty years ago, with the Second Vatican Council, he said Pope John XXIII began a series of changes. The bishop said the Church had “closed in on itself. Mass was ‘said’ in Latin and most people didn’t understand it, so they read a book or prayed the rosary. The Church needed some change.”
Pope Paul VI wrote about evangelization, something that most people didn’t understand. “Evangelizing is what Protestants did,” Bishop Perez said. “Pope Paul VI said the Church’s deepest identity is evangelization and we’ve been trying to unpackage what that means ever since.”
Pope John Paul II called the Church to a new evangelization with a renewed enthusiasm to share its message. “He stepped outside the walls of the Vatican . . . he was all over,” the bishop said, recalling when he was a teenager and saw the pope in New York City. “He was like a rock star,” he added.
“He showed the world how to live life intensely,” he said. And at the end of his life, the pope also showed us how to age and die with dignity, he added.
“Pope Benedict had to follow that, but he did it with dignity. He is the Thomas Aquinas of the 21st century. He’s an incredible theologian,” Bishop Perez said.
“And now Pope Francis is calling us to renew our encounter with Christ,” he said. He encouraged everyone to read “Joy of the Gospel,” especially the first paragraph, where all Christians are invited to renew their encounter with Jesus Christ. He said the Lord doesn’t disappoint. “When you take a step toward Jesus, we see he’s already there waiting for us with open arms.”
Although we used to speak of missionaries and disciples in different ways, Bishop Perez said “you can’t be a missionary unless you’re a disciple, and the other way around.”
In the past, the bishop said church “was a place you went to. If the disciples had stayed in that Upper Room, we wouldn’t be here today. Pope Francis is telling us to go out and meet people where they are with the truth of the Gospel.” That message is what our churches, schools and institutions need to follow and to figure out how it applies to them, he added.
During the question session, the bishop said he felt a nudge to the priesthood as a child, recalling how he was fascinated by what took place at the altar. “But I also wanted to be a fireman, a policeman and other things,” he said, laughing.
Regarding the Super Bowl score, Bishop Perez, who was ordained and ministered in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for many years, wouldn’t take sides, but remarked that the Eagles “would score about 24 points.”
When asked what advice he would give children today, his answer was simple. “Learn to be kind to each other.”
Another questioner asked if he would consider assigning people other than priests to be parish administrators in order to keep parishes open as the number of priests declines. The bishop said it is something to look at. He also noted we are fortunate to have about 260 active priests in the diocese and about 80 young men in formation for the priesthood at the diocesan seminary.
Regarding the aging of congregations at churches, he asked parishes to look at themselves. “Look at your parish councils, at the events you have. Are you making space for younger people?”
Another person asked if he was interested in having an auxiliary bishop, to which Bishop Perez said yes. However, he explained that it’s a process. He would indicate an interest to the Holy See and then would have to wait for the process to take place. “I’d love to have maybe eight (auxiliary bishops),” he said, “but ultimately, the Holy Father decides. I just initiate the process.”
The final question dealt with the role of women in the Church today. “I was a pastor twice and the women were the movers and shakers in the parishes – at least in my experience,” he said, adding, “The role of women in the Church today, especially in parishes, is powerful.”