Conference of Religious Leadership shares ideas, visions with Bishop Perez, Father Dan Schlegel

Three times per year leadership and representatives of the congregations of religious women serving in the Diocese of Cleveland meet to pray, discuss common issues, share ideas, plan for the future and enjoy fellowship.

The Council of Religious Leadership, also known as CORL, met March 7 at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine in Euclid, where they were hosted by the Sisters of the Most Holy Trinity. They had two special guests: Bishop Nelson Perez and Father Dan Schlegel, vicar for clergy and religious.

The gathering began with prayer and introductions of the congregations in attendance, including the Humility of Mary Sisters, Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of the Most Holy Trinity, Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, Sisters of the Precious Blood, Dominican Sisters of Peace, Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, Congregation of St. Joseph, Sisters of the Incarnate Word and the Ursuline Sisters.

Each congregation’s representative shared a brief overview of the order, including deaths, new professions, updates on building projects, any congregational changes including mergers, motherhouse closings, etc.

Ursuline Sister Susan Durkin mentioned that her congregation was happy to hear that Pope Francis is planning to canonize Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador later this year. The archbishop was murdered as he said Mass on March 24, 1980.

“This is special to us,” she said. On Dec. 2, 1980, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, two Maryknoll sisters and a lay missionary were murdered in El Salvador. The women had been working at the diocesan mission there.

Bishop Perez had an informal discussion time with the sisters, sharing information about his background, his early days in the diocese and his desire to work with all facets of the diocese.

Father Schlegel agreed, saying it is important for priests and sisters to work together. “We are fewer in number. I hope to learn from you how to work together, grieve what was and move forward. It’s a privilege to work with all of you,” he added.

The bishop said he understands how difficult change can be, noting it was difficult to leave 30 years of life in the Philadelphia area to move to New York when he became a bishop. The move to Cleveland wasn’t quite as tough, he said. But he acknowledged that when he was ordained, he promised obedience, “So I really made that decision in 1989.” He said at ordination when a priest promises obedience to the Church, it’s a dramatic moment. “But someday, the impact of that obedience will come crashing down.” On the other hand, “obedience can be a wonderful thing. It can be freeing,” he said.

“This is a two-way street,” he told the sisters. “I’ll do my part, but you have to do yours.”

They discussed a variety of topics, including the modern Church and how court decisions like Roe v. Wade, assisted suicide and same-gender marriage impact society and the Church.

“Five hundred years from now, they may look back on this and say this is radical subjectivism,” the bishop said.

They also discussed Catholic education and the struggles involved. “Catholic education works; it changes lives,” Bishop Perez said, “but we only know one model and it’s not working.” He said it’s important to put everything on the table to develop a new model. To that end, he created a “think tank” of representatives throughout the diocese who have expertise in education. They are being tasked with exploring the alternatives.

Another similar project will get under way to look at parishes in the city and others parishes that are struggling.

“You can’t make chicken salad without chicken,” he said. “You can make something else, but it won’t be chicken salad unless you use chicken.”

Father Schlegel said there is a more concerted effort to communicate better in the diocese, including expanded use of social media like Facebook and Twitter, more press releases and statements on social issues, especially those affecting younger people.

“It’s an intentional effort to engage the media,” the bishop said. “Either you’re in the driver’s seat or you’re not.”

Bishop Perez also started meeting regularly with representatives of other faiths. He said Pope Francis is concerned about the Church being closed in on itself, noting there is a need to reach out to those not attending Mass.

Another topic discussed was ministering to the Spanish-speaking population. The bishop said he is in charge of the national Encuentro and was happy to participate in a local Encuentro session shortly after his installation. He is looking forward to the regional meeting in early June in Detroit and the national sessions in September in Texas.

In the Diocese of Cleveland, seven of 185 parishes identify as primarily Hispanic, but the number is growing, Bishop Perez said. There are strong concentrations of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, as well as other Spanish-speaking nationalities represented throughout the diocese. The sisters and the bishop agreed that parishes like St. Mary in Painesville are seeing larger numbers of Hispanics.

Bishop Perez said Hispanic ministry is evolving. “The way things were done 50 years ago doesn’t apply anymore,” he said, noting it’s not enough to just offer a Mass in Spanish.

“Those people had families and they may not necessarily speak Spanish,” he said, so a liturgy celebrated in Spanish may not appeal to them. He cited Sacred Heart Chapel in Lorain as one example of a parish that is reaching out to this younger, more acclimated population by offering a Spanish Mass in English.

“The music, environment, everything feels like a liturgy in Spanish, but it’s celebrated in English,” he said.

One sister said she thought some Hispanic people might be leaving the church for evangelical congregations.

“That’s not true for the vast majority of Hispanics,” the bishop said. “And if they leave the Church to be evangelical, eventually they’ll leave that, too. They are becoming ‘nones.’ And that’s not like you nuns,” he quipped. “They’re becoming ‘nothings,’ not following any particular faith.”

They also touched on the topic of young Catholics and the opportunities available to them in the diocese. The bishop mentioned he attended a Young Catholic Professionals meeting and was impressed at the number of younger Catholics who were there, as well as the way the organization structures itself with “seasoned” members to help mentor the younger ones. The Coalition of Young Catholics and Theology on Tap are other programs aimed at younger Catholics.

“I also attended a holy hour at St. Francis Parish in Gates Mills recently and was blown away to see 300 young people at a holy hour on a Friday night,” the bishop said. “It’s fascinating that these young people have such a thirst for truth,” he added.

A presentation on an Ursuline College research project dealing with the health, daily functioning and well-being of older women in religious congregations was also discussed, as well as plans for the National Catholic Sisters Week event on March 10 at Magnificat High School in Rocky River.

Sister Rochelle Guertal, OSST who is vicar for religious, provided an update of diocesan news and other announcements were shared before the group enjoyed lunch with Father Schlegel and Bishop Perez.