Bishop Nelson Perez shared impressions of his first seven months in Cleveland before a lunch crowd of about 200 people at The City Club of Cleveland’s Friday Forum on April 13. His presentation was part of the Local Heroes series.
The bishop’s 30-minute presentation was sprinkled with humor, history, wisdom and advice.
He began by recapping his journey to the priesthood, recalling that as a child, he only attended Catholic school for a few years. However, he was mesmerized by what took place at the altar during Mass and wanted to be a part of it, but wasn’t invited.
Then one day, he followed the priest and servers to the sacristy, dressed and followed them to the altar. “I’ll never forget the look on the priest’s face when he saw me. He said, ‘Who are you?’ And I told him I was one of his altar servers. ‘I guess you are,’ he said, and that’s how I became a bishop,” he said, as the audience laughed.
Bishop Perez was reflective as he recounted some of the famous people who addressed The City Club, including presidents, famous athletes and other key historical figures. “I’m just the bishop of Cleveland. But believe me, when I wake up at 5:30 and look in the mirror, I don’t see the bishop; I just see Nelson and sometimes I look like I should go back to bed,” he quipped.
As he scanned the room, the bishop said he was happy to see so many young people in the audience. “You are our future,” he said. Students from Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin School, St. Martin de Porres and St. Ignatius high schools were in attendance.
He also mentioned the weekend events happing in town, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the Cleveland International Film Festival and Indians and Cavaliers games.
“The people are profoundly warm and welcoming in Cleveland,” he remarked, however, he said he thinks they drive too slow, the (traffic) lights are too long and he wondered why people don’t jaywalk like in New York.
On a more serious note, he said the community is very generous. He mentioned the 400,000 people assisted each year by Catholic Charities, Diocese of Cleveland. “They are served quietly, often under the radar. Most are not Catholic,” he said, “but there are no strings attached, no questions asked. It is charity for the sake of charity and love.”
Catholic comes from a Greek word meaning universal, he said which meshes with the Church’s mission to help those in need.
“Dan (Moulthrop, City Club CEO) told me he’s not Catholic, he’s Jewish. I said so was Jesus. He wasn’t Catholic,” Bishop Perez said.
He said it is an incredible gift to watch the Church unfold in Cleveland. “I came here to become a part of Cleveland, not the other way around,” he added.
He recalled the words of Pope Francis from The Joy of the Gospel in which he urged people to take initiative, be engaged, accompany people, be fruitful and joyful. Jesus uses images of engagement, he said, explaining that we should be like what happens when you add yeast to flour: “It rises, it doesn’t explode.”
He said the Church walking with or accompanying people is a biblical image. “God walks with people in biblical history, in the drama of life. Jesus enters time and history and he walks with us.”
As for being fruitful and joyful, he said our joy should not be rooted in what goes on during the day; we need to accept it, deal with it, learn from it and move on. He used an example from his college days when he didn’t study for a physics exam, but prayed fervently before the test. “I failed, but I learned a lesson: that I needed to study, not to pray.”
He said Pope Francis’ message for us to be missionary evangelists also includes calling people to peace, not violence. The social issues we’re facing today “have plagued man forever,” he said, pointing out that even Martin Luther King Jr., who was known as a prophet of peace, succumbed to an act of violence — but something positive evolved from it.
“That made him more powerful. It unleashed the power of what was in his mind and heart to the world and he became an icon,” Bishop Perez said.
The opioid problem and immigration issues are other examples of things that need society working together and using prayer to help find solutions.
During a half-hour question and answer session, the bishop fielded inquiries dealing with the president’s behavior toward women, the poor and immigrants; issues facing the LGBT community; political statements from Catholic bishops in the United States; how to juggle all the issues facing individuals; how priests can help the faithful change their behavior to be more empathetic with the marginalized, including immigrants; racism; the charismatic movement and being more ecumenical.
He dispensed some sage advice, telling the questioners that we need to rely on our core values, to meet people where they are with respect – while maintaining our core values and to find a balance. “Extremes are never good,” he said. “I also have to realize that not everything is up to me. I do what I can – I do my part,” he said. The bishop also used the analogy of sowing seeds to help illustrate his point.
“A sower sows the seed and then sleeps. Somehow, the seed grows and then it has a life of its own,” he said. Once we realize our role and do what we can, it can be very freeing, he added.
Regarding changing people’s behavior to be more empathetic, he said priests can do that by example – by walking with people. He talked about attending a deportation hearing with a man soon after he got to Cleveland, saying he did what he could to help that man, but going forward, the challenge was made to others in the diocese to see what else could be done. As a result, within 90 days a companion program was developed and launched, with 45 people trained to help immigrants and their families.
He also said the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops keeps watch on issues and regularly issues statements. However, he said they can’t control what the media uses.
As for what he would say to lapsed Catholics, “You never left,” he said. “You need to re-engage and work it out for a sense of peace in your soul.”
Bishop Perez said the Catholic Church is a leader in ecumenical issues. On a local level, he assembled a group of interfaith leaders earlier this year to share ideas and a meal. “We committed to meeting quarterly,” he added.
He also cautioned that people need to be careful not to isolate themselves with modern technology. “We need to be engaged – to break out of ourselves.”