Bishop Nelson Perez stands on the sidewalk after mass as cars zip by on East Ninth Street, his left hand on his crosier and a constant smile on his face.
He poses for pictures outside of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist with a group of eighth-graders from Lakewood Catholic Academy as a woman, originally from the Philippines, waits to speak with him.
“How are you doing honey?” he says to an older woman who comes up to him. “Awesome!” he responds when she tells him about her trip to Rome.
“He’s so young,” someone from the crowd says.
“Another great homily from him,” remarks another.
While it’s true that a bishop — no matter who he is — is always a bit of a celebrity in the eight-county area he serves, Perez is a new kind of leader. He’s the son of Cuban immigrants, bilingual and dedicated to the mission of “being in dialogue with the modern world.” He’s in the same pew in the chapel across from his living quarters each morning for an hour of prayer — and is then often out and about for the next 12 to 14 hours visiting schools and parishes and attending meetings.
Everywhere he goes, people want to know the same thing: What’s his plan for the Cleveland Diocese?
“My plan is that I have no plan,” he says. “I think God has a plan though.”
To figure it out, Perez says he needs to meet people and to listen to them and learn from them. “I come in that spirit, just to soak it in, to kind of see Cleveland unwrap itself,” he says. “I didn’t come here with any goals or expectations. I wasn’t given marching orders.”
Perez was ordained in May 1989, at the age of 28, after earning his degree in psychology from Montclair State University in New Jersey and then teaching elementary school in Puerto Rico.
He most recently served as the auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, before being appointed the 11th bishop of the Cleveland Dioceses July 11 and installed Sept. 5.
But Perez began his ministry long before then — in a role to which he appointed himself.
Perez was born in Miami in 1961 to Cuban parents who had fled the government of Fidel Castro almost six months earlier. His earliest memories of church were sitting in the pew with his parents, absolutely mesmerized by what he saw. “I was just fixated on what was going on,” he says.
Because he didn’t attend a Catholic grade school at the time, Perez was not eligible to be an altar server. One day, when he was about 7 years old, Perez took matters into his own hands.
“I went in and put on the altar server stuff,” he says. “I remember it was a white surplice and a red cassock. Then I just showed up at the altar. I remember the priest looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’ ”
Perez was able to keep his position and, in high school, was even granted special permission to serve as a Eucharistic minister before he turned 21. He remembers visiting the sick and realizing that most of what we worry about from day to day isn’t important. “What matters is the love you have for the Lord and for the people God placed along your way,” he says.
Now, it’s Clevelanders who are before Perez. And he is ready to serve.
“I came here to be their shepherd,” he says. “And I’m very grateful to the Lord for the gift and opportunity to do that."
Interesting Fact: Perez is a certified scuba diver and has explored the waters off Florida and in the Caribbean.