CLEVELAND — The Rev. Robert Stec, pastor of St. Ambrose Catholic Parish in Brunswick, was as surprised as anyone Tuesday morning when he heard Pope Francis had just appointed a new bishop to the Diocese of Cleveland.
Surprised, but delighted. Stec said he was impressed as he watched the Most Rev. Nelson J. Perez, the Cleveland diocese’s 11th bishop, introduce himself during a press conference at The Cathedral of St. John Evangelist in downtown Cleveland.
“This is a great day for our local church,” Stec said. “You could see and hear the joy and hopefulness of the Gospel as Bishop Perez spoke today about his appointment as our bishop.
“Pope Francis calls us to a joyfulness in living the Gospel as missionary disciples. All of us pray that Bishop Perez will be a wise and gentle shepherd leading us forward and calling us to walk together into a bright and hopeful future.”
Stec said he was struck by Perez’s first words to the diocese: “God is good, and all the time.”
“I’ve lived by that classic spiritual phrase for most of my life,” Stec said. “Today we again see the goodness of God.”
Perez, who was auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, N.Y., before coming to Cleveland, said he never imagined as a young priest that he someday would serve as bishop.
“God’s ways and thoughts are not ours, but I know and trust that His ways are always better and deeper than our own comprehension,” Perez said during the press conference.
“I thank God for this awesome, incredible privilege to embark on this journey with you, the wonderful people of Cleveland. I am absolutely thrilled to be here with you.”
Early in his presentation, Perez strayed from his prepared statement and mentioned that he had been receiving calls and text messages since 6 a.m., which is when Pope Francis announced that he was bishop.
“(The messages) all had this theme: Congratulations, and Cleveland rocks!” Perez said.
Back on script, Perez paid homage to Bishop Richard Lennon, his predecessor in the Cleveland diocese.
“I remember watching the video of the announcement of his early retirement, due to his medical condition, and saying to myself, ‘There is a man of profound humility and courage, embracing his limitations and making a decision out of love for you and for the church,’” Perez said.
“(Lennon) truly still serves the church, and in a particular way, our diocese, through the offering of his prayers and sacrifices. This is certainly a powerful and loving gift that sustains all of us.”
Perez talked of his family, revealing that he was conceived in Cuba, born in Miami and raised in New Jersey. He addressed Cleveland’s Hispanic community with a greeting in Spanish.
“I am so very happy to be here with you, learn from you, grow with you and serve you with pastoral devotion,” Perez said.
He was born June 16, 1961, to David and Emma Perez. He is the brother of the late Dr. David Perez and Louis Martin Perez, according to the diocese.
“I have been so blessed to be raised in a faith-filled family, one that nurtured my faith and ultimately, my vocation to the priesthood,” Perez said. “Without them, I simply would not be here today. I continue to rely on their support and learn from their devotion.”
Perez earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Montclair State University and taught at Colegio la Piedad, a Catholic elementary school in Puerto Rico. Then he enrolled in St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where he earned master’s degrees in divinity and theology.
After he was ordained, Perez served as a parochial vicar at St. Ambrose Parish in Philadelphia. He was also assistant director of the Office of Hispanic Catholics, founding director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization and pastor of St. William Parish in Philadelphia. He then became pastor of St. Agnes Parish in West Chester, Pa.
In 1998, Perez was named chaplain to his holiness, Pope John Paul II, with the title of monsignor. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI named him a Prelate of Honor.
Pope Benedict appointed Perez auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 2012. In that role, Perez was episcopal vicar for the Eastern Vicariate, representing the Diocesan Ordinary and overseeing 66 parishes. He was also episcopal vicar for Hispanic Ministry, overseeing 54 parishes that ministered to the Hispanic community.
Today, Perez is part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he’s a member of the Standing Committee on Cultural Diversity, chairman of the Subcommittee for Hispanic Affairs and lead bishop of V Encuentro for Episcopal Region II.
Bishop-designate Perez will be formerly installed as bishop at a Solemn Mass Sept. 5 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
The diocese is comprised of eight Northeast Ohio counties, including Medina, with a population of 2.8 million. About 24 percent of that population is Catholic, according to the diocese.
Messages may be left for Bob Sandrick at (330) 721-4065.