ELYRIA — In a world full of tweets, posts, snaps and the quest to go viral in less than 140 characters, it is easy to lose sight of what love really looks like.
Forget the superficial notions of love — the romantic kind teenagers are just getting the hang of that starts and ends quickly — and instead turn to the Bible, where examples of love are woven throughout scripture and illustrated in ways that speak of what God’s love looks like.
That was the message Cleveland Catholic Bishop Nelson Perez had Monday morning for students at Elyria Catholic High School, where the 11th bishop of Cleveland celebrated Mass with a message of mercy and compassion as acts of love.
“God’s love is unfailing and God’s love is rooted in action,” Perez said, talking for nearly 20 minutes from the story of the people of Nineveh and Jonah, who was sent to Nineveh to minister. “When we love the way God loves, that love is powerful and transformative. It changes hearts and lives,” he said.
Most recently, it was Perez’s actions toward a local family that spoke of his stance on not just mercy and compassion, but also the immigration system, one Perez refers to as “broken.”
The bishop accompanied Pedro Hernandez-Ramirez and his family to a final check-in with immigration officials before the 46-year-old man faced deportation. Perez was not allowed to speak, but he submitted a letter of support to persuade authorities to stay the deportation.
Hernandez-Ramirez left the country and returned to Mexico at the end of last month. However, Perez is continuing his call for comprehensive immigration reform.
Students from Elyria Catholic invited the bishop to their school about a month ago when they were in Cleveland to witness Perez’s installation. Monday, Perez, on the job for about 30 days as the spiritual leader for more than 677,000 Roman Catholics in an eight-county region, took the students up on their invitation. The visit marked Perez’s first visit to a Catholic school in Lorain County.
However, it is not the first time the diocese bishop has visited the school. Retired Bishop Richard Lennon, who stepped down in December after a diagnosis of vascular dementia, also visited the county on a number of occasions.
Perez comes to the Cleveland area from New York, where he served as a bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The Miami-born Cuban-American has a degree in psychology from Montclair State University in New Jersey. He taught elementary school in Puerto Rico before attending seminary. He was ordained as a priest in Philadelphia in 1989.
It was that city, often referred to as the city of Brotherly Love, where Perez told Elyria students he learned the most about love, offering them a glimpse into his early days in ministry. As a priest there, Perez told the story of a woman in his parish named Josephine, who suffered from severe mental illness. She verbally threatened the pastor on a number of occasions, interrupted Mass with incoherent ramblings and insulted the priest every chance she got.
He said he chose kindness toward her as an act of love, often one others in the church could not extend. And when questioned about why he extended favor to a person who deserved it least, Perez said he didn’t want it reflected upon him on judgment day.
“What did Josephine teach me? She taught me that even in her craziness, God had a place for her,” he said. “She taught me how to love when it was not an easy thing to do.”
And Perez’s final parting message for students: Never underestimate the power of the presence of God working in you, through you and despite you.
“And most of the time unbeknownst to you,” he said.
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