Hundreds of people packed into the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Sept. 4 for Solemn Vespers, also known as Evening Prayer, which is a regular part of the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayer of the Church. The liturgy was a prelude to the formal installation Mass for Bishop-designate Nelson Thomas, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sept. 5 at the cathedral.
The event was streamed live on the diocesan website and was carried live on Telecare TV, as well as on the diocesan YouTube channel and Facebook page. Father Ralph Wiatrowski, pastor of St. Barnabas Parish in Northfield, provided commentary for the broadcast.
Before the liturgy began, Bishop Perez made a quick tour through the cathedral greeting family, friends and several others before returning to the rectory for a few minutes and some short meetings with representatives from the diocese.
Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas, Apostolic Administrator for the Diocese of Cleveland, presided at vespers.
Bishop Perez waited in the cathedral vestibule until Bishop Thomas reached the doors and he invited him inside. Father Sean Ralph, cathedral administrator, presented a crucifix from the cathedral for Bishop Perez to kiss. He then sprinkled holy water on those near him.
Bishop Thomas told Bishop Perez that the cathedral holds God’s altar. “It is a place of communion where God’s people are fed . . . it is a place where your people will come together with you,” he said.
Vespers proceeded with the hymns, psalms, readings and responsory of the day before Bishop Perez delivered the homily.
He remarked that there was “a nine-month gestation period in which the Church gave birth to a new bishop.” He also introduced several clergy friends in attendance, including some bishops from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, where he has served as an auxiliary bishop for the past five years, and thanked those who were present.
For the priests of Cleveland, the new bishop said he “can’t wait to meet you, to walk with you and to share our priesthood together – the greatest gift God has given us.”
He credited the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where he was ordained in 1989, for “teaching me to be a priest.” He said the Diocese of Rockville Centre “began the process of teaching me to be a bishop,” noting it has been handed off to the Cleveland Diocese. Bishop Perez also thanked members of the installation committee who worked for many weeks to plan the events, as well as Father Don Oleksiak, delegate to the Apostolic Administrator, for his efforts during the past nine months since Bishop Richard Lennon’s retirement for health reasons and Bishop Thomas’ appointment to oversee the diocese until a new bishop was named.
“But this is not my celebration,” Bishop Perez said. “This is our celebration; it is a celebration of the Church.” He quipped that he felt like a bride standing in the back of the cathedral behind the closed doors. “They wouldn’t let me peek in. Then when the doors opened, I was like a bride but I wasn’t dressed in white.”
Bishop Perez questioned how miracles happen, noting they are “rooted in our encounter with Jesus Christ because of our encounters with the risen Lord.” He said at some point in our lives, we had an encounter with Christ “and we need to go back to that original encounter where we first felt powerfully God’s mercy.” He said sometimes life gets in the way, so we need to “drink from the wellspring of that encounter with Christ because you will not be disappointed.”
“No one is excluded from the joy of the Lord,” he said.
Bishop Perez said miracles happen when we come together as people of faith and communion. He mentioned how he was traveling to Cleveland for the announcement of his appointment when a flight was delayed for several hours, so he downloaded a copy of the diocesan magazine, Northeast Ohio Catholic, and read the story of Sierra and Sophia Barr, sisters who were seriously injured in a car crash. The story resonated with him because he was seriously injured in a 31-car crash six months after he arrived in Rockville Centre.
“I was the second car hit by a tractor-trailer. The woman ahead of me was killed,” he recalled. Bishop Perez said he was in ICU for two weeks and had many visitors. “I think I must have been anointed about 20 times a day,” he said, adding, “it couldn’t hurt.” He also recalled that his brother, Louis, who was at vespers, spent weeks with him at the hospital.
Bishop Perez said he told Bishop Thomas that he wanted to meet the Barr family and wanted to invite them to the liturgy.
“Their mom, Tina, said she called the priest and asked for the prayer warriors. People rallied around them and here they are – a sign of what happens when people come together,” he said, alluding to a miracle. “Life happens. Thank you, Tina, Sierra and Sophia for teaching us that.”
The bishop said he met with the Barrs for a few minutes before vespers and learned about a project the sisters are doing that involves painting words like kindness and charity on rocks they are hiding in the Cleveland Metroparks. Their accident occurred when they hit a boulder while they were driving in the Metroparks last summer. Those who find the painted rocks are asked to take a photo and then to do an act of kindness.
“So go and find a rock,” Bishop Perez said.
He also reminded those in attendance that we are called to be missionary disciples. “We are a Church on the way, a Church on a mission. We must meet people where they are,” he said, adding that the Holy Father “calls us constantly to be joyful. And the source of our joy is rooted in an encounter with Christ. We are never the same after those encounters,” he said.