“We know how to love and we have the ability to create love because we carry Christ within us.”
With those words, senior Maria Le called the community of Magnificat High School to worship on April 11 for an all-school Mass celebrated by Bishop Nelson Perez in the Performing Arts Center. The feast was the memorial of St. Stanislaus, bishop and martyr.
In his homily, Bishop Perez noted that it’s the middle of the Easter season and at the center of our faith is the risen Christ. “We relive and revisit the story of the resurrection, which stands at the middle of who we are as Christians. Jesus told us, ‘I am the resurrection; he who believes in me will never die,’” he said.
Bishop Perez talked about how our concept of love differs from God’s love, explaining that we often use the word indiscriminately, whereas Jesus’ love for us is signified by his death on the cross. He quoted another Scripture passage, “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” illustrating God’s unconditional love for us. “This kind of love always results in life,” he said, challenging the congregation to ask themselves what is the depth of their belief. He asked them to listen to the Scripture readings for the next few weeks.
“What is the risen Christ telling his followers?” he asked. “He poured out his heart to them, telling his disciples he would suffer, die and rise again. But they don’t get it,” he said, adding the Jesus must have been frustrated with the disciples at times. Yet, he was patient and walked with them.
“His unconditional love sustained them,” he said.
After Mass, the bishop greeted students, faculty, staff and guests and posed for photos before taking a brief tour of the school. He ate lunch with a group of student representatives, Moira Clark, Magnificat president, and Sister Helen Jean Novy, HM who is Magnificat’s vice president for mission.
After lunch, the students peppered the bishop with a variety of questions which he answered patiently and candidly.
One asked about when he got the call to the priesthood. His answer was that it took some time, but he realized it after college. As far as the call to be a bishop, “That’s a process that involves everyone but you. You get a phone call – it takes about a minute,” he said. The students were surprised that a candidate for bishop has no input in the process. “You got no forewarning? That’s crazy,” one girl said. The bishop explained that he already said “yes” to the call when he was ordained because he pledged obedience to the Church. “You just don’t know the level at that time,” he added.
Another student asked about the difference in obligations for a priest and a bishop. “In some ways, a bishop is just a priest with a hat and cane. You’re like a pastor, but with a much bigger parish,” he said. “The three obligations of a bishop, according to the Church, are to teach, sanctify and govern. He said a bishop oversees the teaching ministry of the Church to ensure it is authentic. As far as governance, he compared it to a shepherd who leads a flock. “Sometimes, he walks ahead and calls the flock to follow. Sometimes, he walks in the midst of the flock and learns from them. And sometimes, he’s at the back of the flock pushing them. I feel like a pastor again, but my parish – the diocese – is much bigger.”
When asked if he believes that we all have a conscience, Bishop Perez said yes. He added that our conscience is meant to guide us, so it must be well formed. “That’s why you get educated – to form your conscience,” he explained. “The Church says we have an obligation to follow our conscience if it’s well formed and we have an obligation to form our conscience properly.”
Another student was curious about why the bishop puts on and removes his miter and zucchetto frequently during Mass. He explained that the miter is worn when sitting, but is taken off while praying. “The zucchetto is always on, except in the presence of the Eucharist and it’s taken off in the presence of the pope as a sign of respect and reverence,” he said.
When asked about the title of monsignor, Bishop Perez said it’s an honorary title that carries no authority. He said it used to be a recognition of the work a priest did or a position he had. There were three levels, but Pope Francis changed that so there is one level now and it is reserved for priests 65 or older.
“I was made a monsignor, the first level – chaplain to His Holiness – young, at 37,” he said, adding he was elevated to the second level, honorary prelate, 10 years later. But he emphasized it was an honorary title with no additional authority. “I didn’t even get a parking space,” he quipped.
One student asked if the bishop ever has doubts about his faith. His answer was simple: “All the time. You can’t doubt what you don’t believe. Doubt gives you a chance to deepen your belief,” he added. He illustrated his answer by citing the Gospel in which Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead, saying he wouldn’t believe it until he saw him and could put his finger into the holes in his hands and his hand into the wound on his side. “Through that experience, Thomas gained a deeper belief and a deeper faith,” he said.
After an inquiry about his ring, the bishop explained that he received three episcopal insignias when he was ordained a bishop: the miter, crosier, which is symbolic of a shepherd, and an episcopal ring, which is symbolic of his conjugal relationship with the Church. “I’m actually married, but not in a narrow way to one person, but to the whole diocese. People tell me I don’t have any kids, but I beg to differ. I actually do – 700,000 spiritual children,” he said.
He also explained that it takes three bishops to ordain a new bishop: one who is the principal consecrator and two co-consecrators. He shared that he was honored to serve as a co-consecrator for a friend of his who had been a mentor and supervisor during his seminary days. That priest was ordained as a bishop at age 69. “He laid hands on me when I was ordained and I was able to lay hands on him when he was ordained a bishop,” he added.
Regarding his impressions of Cleveland, Bishop Perez said he finds it to be a very friendly city where people are engaging and warm. “You may not notice it because you’re accustomed to it, but outsiders do.” As for the weather, he said he’s still waiting for the snow – but he acknowledged it does get colder in Cleveland.
When asked if he had a favorite parish, the bishop said he likes them all for different reasons. “It is beautiful to see people celebrating their faith on a local level;” he added.
One thing that is a bit daunting is his schedule. Bishop Perez said he has many obligations as the leader of the diocese, with dozens of confirmations, meetings and other events jammed into his calendar. “In some ways, your time isn’t your own anymore,” he said, reflecting on when Jesus told Peter that there would come a time when he would have to go where he didn’t want to go and dress in a way that he didn’t want to dress.
A student asked the bishop if he gets to meet the other bishops. He said yes, there is an Ohio Catholic Conference to which all the bishops in Ohio belong. That group meets a few times a year, as does the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in which he is active.
When asked if there was an experience that stands out for him, Bishop Perez said dealing with people at the moment of death. “You realize things you don’t understand,” he said. He spoke briefly about being seriously injured in a car accident – an experience he shared with two Magnificat students. “It makes you step back and think about what really matters,” he added.
Regarding the role of women in the future of the Church, Bishop Perez said “they play an incredible role in the Church in the present.”
Another student asked where God is with all the suffering in the world. “He is present. I blame people for those things,” he said. “What God created is good. Humans were the pinnacle of creation and they were good, but he told them to stay away from the tree. He gave us freedom and the capacity to use our gifts, but we don’t always use them wisely.”
He said there is a creative tension between the Church and the world, which has existed throughout most of time. He said for God, there is no past, present or future, which is a concept difficult for us to grasp.
The Magnificat community also was celebrating the dedication of a new painting commissioned by the school, “Mary of Magnificat.” The colorful artwork, which features the Blessed Mother against a cosmic background holding a dove, was created by Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath, OSFS of Camden, New Jersey. It hung over the altar during the Mass.
Sister Helen Jean said the painting can be moved and eventually will hang in the school chapel.