Bishop Nelson Perez wasted no time in getting down to business just hours after returning from a weeklong bishops’ retreat.
He visited St. Edward High School in Lakewood on Jan. 9 for a tour, to celebrate Mass and to chat with a group of students over lunch. He also was interviewed for a brief spot that will be broadcast during an upcoming prayer segment at the school.
Greeting the bishop as he entered the gym were the popular St. Edward Trash Talkers, a percussion group founded in 2003. Members use various types of trash containers as drums. John Goers, Trash Talkers adviser, told the bishop the group will be performing at several Catholic schools during Catholic Schools Week, which begins on Jan. 27. Bishop Perez encountered the group at last year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
James Kubacki, St. Edward High School president, guided the bishop around campus pointing out some of the highlights of the all-boys’ school, which has an enrollment of about 940.
Kubacki also told the bishop about the St. Andre Scholars Program that St. Edward’s introduced this school year for students with developmental disabilities. The program was named after St. Andre Bessette, a Holy Cross Brother who lived in Montreal, Canada in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century. He had poor health and no formal education, but embraced his vocation and his ministry of hospitality.
Joining the tour were James Reed, St. Edward’s principal, and Cari White, campus minister.
After the tour, the bishop and his emcee, Deacon Bruce Battista who taught math at St. Edward’s 1979-1984, prepared for Mass. Assisting with the liturgy was Deacon David Stavarz, who assists at St. Raphael Parish in Bay Village as he continues formation for the priesthood. He also works with St. Edward students who are discerning vocations.
As he often does, Bishop Perez asked the students what made their school special. Their answers included championships (the school gym is lined with banners from dozens of state sports championships), brotherhood and acceptance. The bishop also took a moment to acknowledge the school faculty.
He also shared thoughts about St. Andre, who developed a reputation for his devotion to small tasks at the school where he was assigned. Among his duties were greeting visitors and tending to their needs. Many reported they were healed after praying with the humble brother, who had a devotion to St. Joseph. He built a small chapel to St. Joseph that later was replaced with a larger oratory. Bishop Perez recalled visiting that church, which is the largest shrine in the world dedicated to St. Joseph.
“St. Andre had a lot of heart and he captured the hearts of many,” the bishop said, noting about a million people came to his funeral. “He was not a bright man, but he did his work with heart. He understood that God often does things that have small beginnings,” he said. “Do not underestimate the power of little things or small acts of kindness,” Bishop Perez said.
May will mark the 30th anniversary of the bishop’s ordination. He recalled having doubts about his vocation about a year before his ordination. After giving a vocation talk at a parish, he said a woman greeted him and kissed his hands.
“She told me, ‘I’ll tell you why you’ll become a priest: because I need you.’” Bishop Perez said he never saw the woman again, but her actions erased the doubts about his vocation. “It was like windshield wipers. It was a small gesture with a powerful result. Do not ever underestimate the power of small gestures,” he said, adding, “God works through them in you.”
After Mass, about 20 students representing grades 9-12 ate lunch with the bishop and had a chance to ask him questions.
One student asked what he saw when he looked in the mirror.
“I don’t see what you see. I just see Nelson,” he said.
Another student asked about his confidence, to which the bishop said he is confident of one thing: “that God’s love is guaranteed.”
When asked what he wished someone had told his 15-year-old self, Bishop Perez said that “God is present and true friends will be in our lives through thick and thin.” He said we may have many friends throughout our lives, but only a few will be lifetime friends.
Another student asked about the impact of being bishop and how his family and friends view him.
“They still treat me the same, thankfully,” he said, noting that they keep him grounded. Regarding the impact of his position as bishop, it took some time to get used to that, he said, because he no longer has someone standing behind him. Before there was a priest, pastor, bishop or someone else in authority behind him. “Now it’s me. I answer to the Holy Father, but he’s 4,500 miles away.”
Regarding his faith and how it’s been tested by the clergy abuse scandal, the bishop said his faith has not waivered. “These things are horrific and evil. I am horrified and angry, but I still have my faith because it is grounded in Christ.” He explained the distinction between the two types of church: the church of history that comes and goes with people and the Church that is the mystical body of Christ, which transcends time. “That’s where I strive to be grounded,” he added.
When asked if he had any wedding stories, the bishop mentioned two from his time as a parish priest and pastor. In one instance, he was working with a couple on marriage preparation. During that time, the woman was diagnosed with a brain tumor and her fiancé did not stay with her, but he did attend the funeral.
In the second story, the groom was going to be fitted for his wedding tuxedo when he was so seriously injured in a car accident that doctors did not think he would live. He did, but he underwent numerous surgeries and had a long recovery — with his fiancée at his side daily. After many months, he left the hospital in a wheelchair and the couple asked to be married as soon as possible. The bishop witnessed their wedding and said he later baptized their children. The groom eventually made a full recovery. “She loved him and stayed with him. Their vows were very powerful,” Bishop Perez said.
On a lighter note, when asked about his favorite sports teams, the bishop replied, “The Indians, Cavs and Browns.” But he admitted that on Jan. 6 he was rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL playoffs. (He was ordained and spent many years as a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.) During his years as an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York, Bishop Perez said he was a Mets and Jets fan.
When asked if given the opportunity, would he like to move up in the Church hierarchy, the bishop laughed, explaining, “It doesn’t work that way. I wouldn’t have much choice. I’ve unpacked and I love it here,” he said. When he was named a bishop of Rockville Centre a bishop friend suggested that he not unpack everything because he figured Bishop Perez would only be there about five years — which was prophetic.
He also shared the story of how he learned he was elevated to bishop – a phone call from the apostolic nuncio while he was traveling to visit his ill mother in Florida. Then five years later, he got another call informing him the Holy Father had named him bishop of Cleveland.
A student asked if he had other career plans and the bishop replied, “Lots. Whatever shows were on TV.” He liked “Adam 12” and thought about being a police officer and “Emergency,” which sparked an interest in being a firefighter.
“But I always had a fascination with the priesthood,” he said. After training as a clinical psychologist and working in that career for a time, he pursued his priestly vocation.
Bishop Perez said his pastor told him that he knew he had a calling to the priesthood. “He said he could see it years before. And he attended my installation (as bishop of Cleveland) at age 86,” he added.