Pope Francis on Tuesday named Rockville Centre Auxiliary Bishop Nelson Perez to head the Diocese of Cleveland, promoting Long Island’s first Latino bishop five years after his arrival here.
The appointment was announced in Washington by Archbishop Christophe Pierre — the apostolic nuncio, or pope’s representative, to the United States. Perez, 56, will be installed Sept. 5.
Perez, at a news conference in Cleveland, exhibited the down-to-earth approach and sense of humor that have marked his time on Long Island.
“I am thrilled, absolutely thrilled to be here,” he said. Perez said he had been receiving phone calls, texts and emails since 6 a.m., when the Vatican made public his appointment at noon in Rome.
“They all had this theme: Congratulations, and Cleveland rocks!” Perez said as the crowd at a packed Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist broke into laughter.
Later, a reporter asked Perez, a Cuban-American who has lived in Miami, Philadelphia and New York, which sports teams he supports.
“Right now, I am all Cavaliers, all Indians and all Browns,” Perez said, again bringing down the house.
He said he was “super excited” to learn there are close to 700,000 Catholics in the diocese, and that they are ethnically diverse.
Perez said the papal nuncio informed him 2 1⁄2 weeks ago that the pope had chosen him to lead the Cleveland diocese and that he had to keep it largely secret until Tuesday.
As he departs, Rockville Centre loses its only Latino bishop. There are two other auxiliaries who assist Bishop John Barres with such pastoral duties as confirmations. Pope Francis would select a replacement for Perez if he chooses to fill the spot.
Perez will become the 14th Latino bishop to lead a diocese or archdiocese in the United States, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Cleveland is home to 2.8 million people, about one-quarter of them Catholics.
Perez, who is fluent in Spanish, was born in Miami in 1961 to Cuban parents who fled the government of Fidel Castro. He grew up in the Cuban enclave of West New York, New Jersey.
“As I said to Pope Francis last year in Rome, I was made in Cuba and unpackaged here, for six months later I was born in Miami, Florida,” Perez said Tuesday.
Barres, who was appointed by Francis to lead the Diocese of Rockville Centre and was installed at the end of January, called Perez “a compassionate and loving pastor who as Vicar of Eastern Long Island and Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Rockville Centre shepherded the People of God with both the spirit of the Divine Mercy and the New Evangelization.”
Perez was elevated to auxiliary bishop in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. Bishop Emeritus William Murphy, the diocese’s spiritual leader at the time, said then that he submitted the names of three Latino priests to Benedict for the position. Latinos account for at least 25 percent of the Island’s 1.5 million Catholics, according to Latino Catholic leaders.
“This is great news, although somewhat bittersweet for all of us here on Long Island who have come to love him and appreciate how much he has become a part of us,” Murphy said Tuesday. “At a minimum, Bishop Nelson brought a new consciousness to us regarding the dynamic Latino communities that stretch across Nassau and Suffolk.”
In a statement earlier Tuesday in Cleveland, Perez said, “I was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on May 20, 1989. I certainly never imagined then, that I would one day serve as auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre and now, here today, to begin my service as your bishop.”
Perez has spent half his life in the New York metropolitan area. He graduated from Montclair State College and taught in a Catholic elementary school in Puerto Rico before entering the seminary in Philadelphia.
After his ordination, he served as pastor at St. Williams parish in Philadelphia and St. Agnes parish in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He also served as founding director of the Catholic Institute for Evangelization in Philadelphia, as an adjunct faculty member at LaSalle University and as assistant director of the Office for Hispanic Catholics in Philadelphia.
As a member of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Bishop-designate Perez serves as the chair of the bishop’s Subcommittee for Hispanic Affairs and is a former member of the bishop’s Subcommittee for the Campaign for Human Development, the Diocese of Rockville Centre said in a statement.
“For the last five years, I have been blessed to serve as auxiliary of the Diocese of Rockville Centre,” Perez said. He thanked Murphy, Barres, the diocese’s other auxiliary bishops and the people of the diocese.
“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia taught me to be a priest; you have taught me how to be a bishop,” he said. “While I have so much to learn, you have laid a wonderful foundation in me, and I hold very dear the friendships made with so many caring, dedicated people during these past five years serving the people of Long Island.”
Other Latino bishops in the United States include the archbishops of Los Angeles and San Antonio, and the bishops of San Bernardino, Las Cruces, Fall River, Jacksonville, Brownsville, Monterey, Fresno, Lubbock, Sacramento, Laredo and Austin, said Mary Gautier, the Georgetown center’s senior research associate.
There are 59 bishops of color in the United States, including auxiliary bishops and retired bishops, with 43 of them Hispanic/Latino, she said.
Perez said that as bishop he hopes to delve into “secular” issues, such as urban sprawl, that affect Cleveland, and that he still needs to study the diocese more to fully grasp the greatest challenges it faces.
“God’s ways and thoughts are not ours, but I know and trust that His ways are always better and deeper than our comprehension,” he said in a statement. “I thank God for this awesome, incredible privilege, to embark on this journey with you, the wonderful people of Cleveland.”
Until Perez’s installation in September, Bishop Daniel E. Thomas will continue leading the diocese as its apostolic administrator. Thomas is the bishop of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio. He assumed leadership duties for the Diocese of Cleveland upon the retirement of Bishop Richard Lennon, who was granted early retirement on Dec. 28 because of health concerns.
“Bishop Perez’s great strength, pastoral insight and support of the People of God in our parishes was drawn from his years as a dedicated pastor of parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” Barres said. “He experienced every joy, sorrow and challenge a parish pastor experiences, and our priests understood that he knew them and supported them.”
Barres added that “one special moment with Bishop Perez among many was a bus ride we shared in September 2015 at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. We were on the way to see Pope Francis at St. Charles Seminary when Bishop Perez told me the story of his near-fatal car accident on Long Island as a relatively new auxiliary bishop and the process of his rehabilitation.
“His experience of the Cross brought him an even deeper faith, pastoral compassion and trust in God’s will working in his life. It was one of the most powerful and inspiring personal moments I have ever experienced with a brother bishop.”
Murphy said, “A few years ago, I asked Pope Benedict to provide us with a bishop from the Latino communities to assist me in caring for this growing population on Long Island. I never dreamed we would receive such a gifted and life-giving priest.
“But he never limited himself to one group or one tradition. He embraced us all,” Murphy said. “He is a true example of a missionary disciple. Now he goes to Cleveland, one of the most storied and historical dioceses of the Midwest, with almost 700,000 Catholics. This is a great pastoral challenge. Yet we all know that he has all the resources, human, spiritual and pastoral, to be the pastor the faithful of Cleveland need.”
Perez noted that while he is a Spanish-speaking Cuban-American, he spent the past five years living in a Polish parish in eastern Long Island.
In his statement, he devoted a section to Latinos, saying in Spanish: “Like many of you, my family, immigrants from Cuba, came to this country looking for a better life and a place to fulfill their dreams. I am very aware of the challenges and the concerns that this reality presents for the Latino people, since I have lived it also in my own life.”