Bishop Nelson Perez found himself speaking from the altar of a church last weekend as he continued to get to know the eight-county Cleveland Catholic Diocese he now leads, when he said it hit him.
“I’m looking out at the people and looking out at the kids that were there and the families and I said 'what a great job I have,'” he thought to himself. “It’s a wonderful life as the movie said right?”
Bishop Perez became the 11th Bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland when he was installed last September and has been slowly making his way to its 185 parishes and more than 100 schools.
“I’ve visited 17 high schools alone already,” said the bishop who is very much a parish priest at heart. "I'm doing right now a parish with a school during the week and sometimes in the last couple of weeks I've been in three to four parishes on the weekend for different things."
As he assesses the diocese he said he’s relying on the input from what he’s calling “think tanks.” Groups of various people that he’s putting together to look at different areas like Catholic education and parish life.
Bishop Perez inherited a diocese that is much leaner and streamlined having gone through the consolidation of parishes under his predecessor Bishop Richard Lennon that saw the diocese go from 224 parishes in 2009 to 185 today.
“That was certainly a painful time,” Perez acknowledges. “Those things are painful, there's no way around that. We all understand and Bishop Lennon did a great job and had a hard time at the same time, because those jobs are thankless jobs.”
As for how he sees the status of the diocese nearly a decade after that and if he feels further consolidation is on the horizon, “we are where we are,” he said.
“We know in our personal lives that we downsize all the time,” he said. “So that's a constant review and a constant reflection. It's not something that I have to do right now but I'm assuming as I get to know the place better and parishes and stuff, that adjustments might need to be done. That's part of the dynamic of life you know."
While the number of Catholics may have dwindled in recent years the number of students in Catholic schools have remained fairly constant over the last five years. The Cleveland Diocesan Catholic School system is the second largest district in the state and the fifth largest private school district in the country.
Though keeping that education affordable to families is always on the mind of the diocese, Bishop Perez said Ohio families have something his parishioners didn’t have in his previous stops.
“Coming from a state in New York where there was no such thing as vouchers and or tax credits, coming from Pennsylvania where there was some relief in terms of tax credits, I have to say having been a pastor with two schools, I wish I had half of what schools in Ohio have right now,” he said.
“So we are blessed in the state of Ohio with a wonderful voucher program that gives the opportunity to lots of children, thousands of them to get a Catholic education, a private education where otherwise they wouldn’t have it.”
In terms of the cost for some families “yes that’s always a challenge, that’s always a challenge, it’s not 1950 anymore.”
Bishop Perez was born in Miami to Cuban immigrants and is the first Latino to serve as a Catholic Bishop in the Midwest. On the day of his installation in September was the day the Trump Administration made their decision public to end DACA, deferred action against childhood arrivals. In his homily that day Perez asked those in attendance to pray for immigrants.
He would also take an active role in speaking out on behalf of an Elyria who was facing deportation, asking Federal officials to let him stay in the U.S. to care for his disabled stepson.
“The church has always been a voice for those who are poor and those who are in need and those that can't help themselves,” Bishop Perez said. “The dignity of the human person and the sacredness of family really need to be protected. There’s something just wrong when we’re not doing that.”
“And I remember that poor family that was separated, I was interviewed at the stairs of the Cathedral and they asked me what do you have to say about that? And I said what I have to say is a question and the question was help me to understand how this was the right thing to do, there has to be another way," he said.
“There’s a lot of politics involved with that, I understand that but the church’s voice is not a political voice, it’s a moral voice, it’s an ethical voice. It’s a voice that shouts for the rights of individuals as human beings.”