“It’s like a mini United Nations here,” said Bishop Nelson Perez as he surveyed a dozen St. Ignatius High School students who gathered in the school’s board room on Nov. 1 to have breakfast and a conversation with him. Students represented many nationalities, including Hungarian, Irish, Vietnamese, Lebanese and Hispanic.
The students and the bishop, who is approaching his two-month anniversary as the leader of the eight-county Diocese of Cleveland, had a candid conversation for nearly an hour. They were joined by Father Raymond Guiao, SJ St. Ignatius president and a 1982 alumnus, and Christopher Knight, superintendent of Catholic schools.
After breakfast, Father Guiao led the bishop on a short tour of the school, which Bishop Perez said resembled a college campus. There are about 1,500 students at the all-boys Jesuit high school.
In response to a question about being the diocese’s first Hispanic bishop, Bishop Perez said he doesn’t consider himself to be a Hispanic priest or bishop. “I’m a priest for all,” he said, pointing out that Father Guiao is of Philippine heritage while other people are Italian or another nationality. “I am no different, but because of my heritage I am able to serve a significant area of the Catholic Church.” He said about 60 percent of the young people in the Church are of Hispanic or Latin heritage.
He also noted that he was not consulted during the process, explaining that a priest finds out after he has been recommended for a position. He received a call from the papal nuncio who told him the Holy Father wanted him to come to Cleveland as its bishop.
The bishop of each diocese – there are six in Ohio – suggest names. A provincial list is created and maintained for potential openings, he said. When a bishop’s position occurs, the list is examined and a candidate is suggested. “I learned that I had been on a list in (the Archdiocese of) Philadelphia since 2002,” he said, adding that he had no idea at the time. When the bishop of Rockville Center wanted a Latin auxiliary bishop, no one was on the list in that area, so they looked at lists elsewhere in the Northeast and his name came up.
“I was a parish priest in Philadelphia minding my own business, when I got a call from the nuncio and got dropped on Long Island,” he said. He served five years as an auxiliary bishop in Rockville Center before being appointed bishop of Cleveland.
“I miss parish life,” he said, adding that he views the diocese as a large parish with many more employees.
One student asked what he would like to do if he wasn’t a bishop.
“I trained as a clinical psychologist, but I love what I’m doing and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he said.
They also discussed challenges, service to the Church, school and community and opportunities for prayer.
The bishop shared a story about his early years as a priest when he felt pulled in several directions.
“I was a parochial vicar, a chaplain and assistant director of an office. I was pulled in three different directions and I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t know which way to go. One day at Mass, I asked some third-graders how they would know God’s will. One little girl said you just wait and listen. This little girl had the answer. It was like being hit with a cinder block,” he said, “so I waited and listened.”
They also talked about which popes the bishop has met and who he admires.
“I’ve met Pope St. John Paul II a few times, Pope Benedict named me a bishop and I spent a week at Pope Francis’ house in the Vatican,” he said. “John Paul II is one of my heroes. I saw him at Madison Square Garden for World Youth Day and again in 1998 in Cuba. He captivated me. He was different; a light emanated from him. “He live life intensely and showed the world the dignity of getting sick and old. He didn’t hide from the world. He continued to be the same person even though he changed on the outside,” he said.
The students asked how the bishop spends his free time.
“I like music, including soft rock, I play guitar and I like some TV shows like ‘Designated Survivor’ and ‘NCIS.’ But I’m hardly ever home to see them, so I tape them on the DVR,” he said. The bishop said once at an event in New York he found himself sitting next to the president of CBS who asked if there was anything he could do for him. “I told him I’d love to meet Cota de Pablo (the Chilean actress who played Ziva, a former character on NCIS). He said he’d take care of it, but I’m still waiting.”
The bishop, an accomplished diver, also told students he enjoyed diving around Cozumel, Mexico. He has done wall diving, which he said is similar to a free-fall. “It’s a world unto itself,” he said, describing what deep-water divers experience.
Another topic discussed was food. One student asked if the bishop knew how to prepare any Cuban dishes.
“Some,” he said, “but I know Lebanese food.” The bishop said his aunt married a man from Lebanon who immigrated to Cuba “and who made amazing Lebanese food.”
The bishop told the students that the future lies with them. “Your principal and president both went to school here. Who thought that they would lead this school? The seniors will be alumni in a few months and then will go to college. That time will pass even faster,” he told them. “Enjoy this time. Hopefully you’ll only be here for four years,” he quipped.
In contrast, he said the Church “moves slowly, like a turtle. It thinks and moves in centuries. We think in terms of minutes. You see the spirit guiding the Church, but it takes time.” He said the Church has started turning outward in the past 50 years so that it is becoming a place to go from rather than just a place you go to.
“It takes about 200 years to incorporate the work of a council in the Church, so we’re just starting to see the shifts from Vatican II. You will be a part of that,” he told the students.
They also discussed how radical subjectivism is causing problems for society today. “It’s almost like we can create our own reality and that’s a dangerous thing,” Bishop Perez said. He encouraged the students to hold true to their faith and their beliefs.
Mass took place in the school’s Sullivan Gym and was concelebrated by six priests, including Father Tom Fanta, pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Shaker Heights, who is a St. Ignatius alumnus.
The bishop offered reflections on the saints, noting how he was intimidated as a child by some of the statues, especially St. Lucy. “She was holding a tray with two eyes on it,” he recalled. He said during Holy Week covering the statues with purple cloth “only made them more mysterious.”
He related how Jesus, the Blessed Mother, the apostles and the rest of us are all part of the communion of saints. “I always thought that saints were a different breed, but I came to understand their stories and learned that their hearts were enflamed with the love of Jesus. I learned that we are all called to be saints.”
He shared a story from his time as a young priest when students in the parish school were asked to write stories about their favorite saints. He said they talked about several of the well-known saints like Ambrose, Ignatius and Francis, but also mentioned was a woman from the parish who had Down syndrome and was a faithful Mass attendee. She spent much of her time running errands and helping her elderly neighbors. “The kids watched her and in their hearts and minds, she was a saint. She’ll probably never be canonized, but she was a saint to them” He also reminded the students that “if you’re not a saint, you’re a sinner.”
He encouraged the students to be grateful to their parents and teachers for the gift of education and the opportunities they are receiving, reminding them that they should share those gifts.
He also shared some of Pope Francis’ words with the assembly, reminding them that God expects something from us. “The world can be different with you. These times require active players on the field; there is no room for those who sit on the bench. Live life fully and leave a mark. You must decide the future,” he added.
After Mass, Father Guiao presented the bishop with “a bag o’ swag” from St. Ignatius.
Bishop Perez plans to be at Lake Catholic High School next week as he continues visiting high schools in the diocese.