An Interview With Bishop Earl K. Fernandes of the Diocese of Columbus

Serving in the Diocese of Columbus and as a Board Director with Cross Catholic Outreach, Bishop Earl K. Fernandes discusses what can we can learn from the lives of the saints, the impact of the Box of Joy® ministry and much more. 

Cross Catholic Outreach: Bishop Fernandes, thank you for welcoming us to the Diocese of Columbus. We’re blessed that you’re one of seven Catholic bishops on the Board of Directors for Cross Catholic. I wanted to ask you to think back to the first time you heard about Cross Catholic.  And then how did you come to serve on the board?

Bishop Fernandes: The first time I heard about Cross Catholic Outreach, I was pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Cincinnati. We happen to have about 3,000 families and 1,160 kids in the elementary school. And one of our teachers proposed that during Advent, during the preparation for Advent, the school students do boxes of joy.

So, we decided, let’s promote it. But, why just school students? Let’s involve the students in public schools. Let’s involve the whole parish in doing boxes of joy. And I was very impressed by how Cross Catholic Outreach actually engaged families. I think that’s why Box of Joy continues to grow.

It engages children. It makes them more aware of the situation of children around the world of dire conditions of poverty and malnutrition. And then it says, I’m not going to let things stand as they are. And people learn how to sacrifice, how to contribute and how to be aware of others around the world.

Therefore, to develop the virtue of solidarity. And I think it was true for children, but I think it’s also true for the wider parish. So, that’s when I first heard about Box of Joy and Cross Catholic Outreach, but then they also offered to have a priest come to the parish and preach at all the weekend masses.

At that time, I was in a big parish of 3000 families, but I was up all by myself. And so Father Francesco was sent and he himself was a joyful preacher and he really engaged again people with his stories, with the awareness of what’s happening in the Church around the world. And I think this also helps us to appreciate our own sense of catholicity and universality of the Church.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Is Box of Joy a great teaching moment for children?

Bishop Fernandes: Absolutely. But not just children. I would say also their parents. Why? Why is my child so excited about this? What? What’s moving my child’s heart to be passionate and to see another child in need? I think it engages families as a whole.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Here in the Diocese of Columbus, your cathedral is named after St. Joseph, the patron saint of the universal Church. What can he teach us about caring for others? And what is his example for us in terms of relating to the poor?

Bishop Fernandes: I think Joseph and Mary and the child Jesus were poor. The family was poor yet holy. And St. Joseph was the foster father of our Lord. He worked with his hands. He was a carpenter. He had his plans, perhaps, about how his life would turn out, the house he was going to build for Mary, where they would live, what they would do, how he would provide. And God changed those plans.

He knew he had to guard the Redeemer and his Holy Mother. He sent himself to work. But at a certain point, the Holy Family had to flee into Egypt. He had to leave what he knew, the culture and the language that he knew, and go and flee to Egypt. He worked there, and then he came back when it was safe.

Imagine how he must have struggled, thinking, how am I going to provide for my family? The same when he went down and Jesus was about to be born and there was no room for them at the inn. They were in a condition of great poverty, and St. Joseph always kept searching to provide. He’s a great provider and protector for families and yet he also teaches us about the simplicity of life. There is a book by Jan Dobraczynski called The Shadow of the Father and St. Joseph is portrayed as the shadow of the Heavenly Father, but always looking over the Christ child. And it’s a fictional account of the life of St. Joseph, but he’s also a man who knew the value of work.

He also understood the value of poverty, but he was content to be poor because he had what he truly needed right in front of him in the Christ child. I think that’s also something that St. Joseph can teach us about. We don’t need to acquire more and more possessions. We need to be more. He could have been relegated to history as a simple carpenter and faded away.

Instead, he said yes to God. He would, the scripture say he was a just man. And I think this is also important for us to consider because justice means giving another person his or her due. And certainly, he gave God his due, but also provided for Mary and the child, Jesus. “He was a just man” means that he in a right relationship with God, immersed in the things of God.

He hears the voice of an angel in a dream. Because he’s aware of the things that matter most, and he can be attentive and respond. He’s a just man. He doesn’t want to have Mary stoned. He wants to divorce her quietly. At least he shows mercy. Justice and mercy go hand in hand. We see them embodied in St. Joseph, and yet we also see an openness to God’s will. Just as Mary said, let it be done to me according to your Word. Without speaking, St. Joseph essentially says the same thing. Immediately after hearing the angel’s message, he takes Mary as his wife and so that the prophecy can be fulfilled, and Jesus can be born of the house of David. Joseph teaches us about the need to accept our responsibilities, but also to be men and women who work for justice. Pope Paul VI is reported to have said, if you want peace, work for justice. That means really committing ourselves to giving another person his or her due and his or her due in terms of what human dignity demands.

I believe St. Joseph, if he were alive today, would set the example for us teaching us to treat the human person with care and respect to provide for the deepest needs of the human person, including the spiritual needs and to continue to strive for justice so that we might not only have a more just world, but a peace-filled world.

Cross Catholic Outreach: The patron saint of your diocese is St. Francis de Sales. He was known as a friend to the poor. In one of his writings, he said that charity over penance was a means of progressing in the spiritual life. Elaborate on that a little bit.

Bishop Fernandes: St. Francis de Sales is a patron saint, not only in the Diocese of Columbus but also in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, where I was ordained. The original cathedral in the Diocese of Toledo, where I was raised, was named after St. Francis de Sales, and I was educated by the oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He would often say, live Jesus. What does it mean to live Jesus in our hearts? When Jesus heart was full of charity, St. Francis de Sales lived at the time of the counter-reformation.

And at a time when sometimes Jansenism was beginning to emerge, people began to see corruption in the Church and in the world to doubt the abilities of human reason. And they emphasized penance and even God’s justice more than his mercy or charity. The type of severity had entered the Church which people were turned off by.

St. Francis de Sales was known as the gentleman saint. He would write letters and brought many people back to the Catholic faith. And at the same time as a gentleman saint, being someone of noble birth, he also knew how to be concerned with the poor and again, not just the materially poor, but even the spiritually poor.

He’s written beautiful works, both the Treatise on the Love of God and especially the Introduction to the Devout Life. In the Introduction to the Devout Life, he talks about being wholly right where God is, and so in that sense, each person, whether wealthy or poor, whether you’re a soldier or a doctor or a teacher, is called to be holy, and that means to commune with God.

God is just, and justice and mercy go hand in hand. Yet, still greater than justice is charity. It is that supreme virtue, and even St. Paul, when he speaks of it, “The three virtues are faith, hope, and charity, but the greatest of these is charity.” And this charity never fails.

St. Francis de Sales teaches us to presume the best and to always have our hearts burning with love for our neighbor. In this way, we can persuade people to come back to the church, to come back to faith, and to see the beauty of our faith.  As Catholics, we look to the saints to be models for us to live our lives in accord with.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Is there another saint that inspires you as it relates to the poor?

Bishop Fernandes: There’s so many, even in my own lifetime. I would say Mother Teresa of Calcutta. My family is originally from India, so we know her great work there in the work of the Missionaries of Charity. We’re all called to be missionaries of God’s love. When I was discerning my vocation in Rome, I was in a house of spiritual discernment. Every Sunday, I would go to San Gregorio, where St. Gregory the Great had been a monk, and Mother Teresa’s sisters cared for the elderly poor.

I would go with an Irish sister, Sister Patrick, and we would go to the gypsy camps and teach catechism to gypsy children in Italian. And it was a true work of charity because the gypsies had no one. Mother Teresa would talk about poverty, but not just material poverty, she would talk about the terrible poverty of loneliness.

There are so many people in our world who are abandoned and alone, despite our connectivity because of technology.  Her sisters also live in radical poverty. They live in a radical poverty with joyful charity. Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity learn to see Christ in the poorest of the poor.

This is what drove her day in day out. And she herself, in her book Come Be My Light, spoke of 50 years of spiritual darkness and dryness. And yet she always had a joyful smile. She persevered in her good resolutions to be faithful to Christ and to see Christ in the poorest of the poor. She was committed to Eucharistic adoration.

She would tell her sisters, look, if you can’t spend an hour with the Lord, then just stay home because you can’t then spend the whole day serving the poor. You will not be able to recognize him. So, Mother Teresa really was a living icon, a real apostle of charity as St. Vincent de Paul had been in his time at the time of the counter-reformation.

Cross Catholic Outreach: We just passed the one-year anniversary of the death of Pope Benedict, a great theologian. One of his gifts to the Church was his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, and he talked about the importance of integral human development. Share with us your understanding of what integral human development is and how that principle is present in the work of Cross Catholic Outreach.

Bishop Fernandes: In many ways, sometimes we think, I just want to help the poor. And sometimes people want to help the poor merely, materially. Or sometimes we can hear, think of interval, we can hear of human development and think, well, we want to have authentic human flourishing.

Sometimes we can think of development in terms of economic development alone or technological development. But none of these things satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Even today, we speak of ecology. Pope Benedict would speak not just of integral human development, but integral human ecology, considering the whole person in the larger environment, but also the deepest spiritual needs of the person.

He would say he who does not give God gives too little. And I think this is the approach of Cross Catholic Outreach. Surely, they help with the with missionary efforts and proclaiming the Gospel and they build homes and houses and help feed people. But they also proposed Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the heart’s deepest longs, longs which every person has for the true, the good and the beautiful.

So, we also have to meet not only the material needs of the person, but the spiritual needs of the person. We need to have a sustainable economic plan and a plan for development so that we don’t create new cultures of dependency. Integral human development would also mean respecting a person’s culture, ennobling it with the Gospel truths.

But at the same time, not creating what Pope Francis would call and what Pope Benedict also saw, a new form of colonialism, destroying those cultures or making them dependent completely upon Western values and economic flourishing. Rather, many of these cultures in which Cross Catholic Outreach is present, they’re imbued with a type of religiosity.

We can’t forget our cultural roots, and we also want to see that all people can thrive, that they can be educated. And this type of education is not just a technical education. It’s also a formation of the heart.

Caritas in Veritate also warns about the overuse of technology because we also need to communicate one person to another, we need to gaze upon another person with love and mercy and show them by word, by deed, by a glance that we in fact do care.

Pope Benedict also kind of warns in Caritas in Veritate about how we can sometimes have very good and intelligent people. I say good and intelligent people, meaning good, modifying, intelligent, we have very intelligent people. But he says, why did the economic crisis of 2008 happen? It wasn’t because people were stupid. It wasn’t because they didn’t understand how the economy worked. It’s because their hearts weren’t formed, right? They weren’t formed in virtues of justice and charity. They were basically looking for an increase in profits.  Hence, part of the role of the Church and of Catholic social doctrine is to form not just intelligent people, but to form the heart.

St. Bonaventure says that wisdom is knowledge infused with charity. And I think that’s one of the things Pope Benedict was really concerned about, leaving something to the next generation. We can’t just be concerned about profits or about taking the resources from the earth, but we need to be thinking about sustaining peoples and cultures long run.

And of course, what helps support peoples and cultures ultimately is rooted in our faith in God.  We often hear that young people are the future of our society, right? They’re tomorrow’s leaders. Both in the society and in the Church.

Cross Catholic Outreach: I know you were at this conference called Seek where there was around 20,000 young people. Are you excited for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States?

Bishop Fernandes: I am, but I would offer a corrective. Sometimes we say young people are the future of the Church, but young people are the Church now. When Pope Benedict was installed as Pope he said the Church is young. We think about the churches in Africa or in Asia, and the Church is really young here in the United States.

You see 20,000 people college-age. They’re not just the future of the Church. They’re present. They’re members of our parishes, our communities, college campuses, and they do peer-to-peer evangelization. And this gets me excited. All is not lost! These people are also going to be the fathers and mothers of the next generation who are going to be called upon to hand on the faith.

They’re going to be called to evangelize in the workplace, in the marketplace. They’re going to be called to evangelize their neighbors. What I see us doing now is equipping them more and more, helping them to grow to, as St. Paul might say, full stature in Christ in order to be able to propose Christ anew.

I find that young people are very open, and we find this even in Catholic elementary schools. They are very open to the gift of faith. And sometimes it’s their parents, or even their parents’ parents, who are no longer practicing and so, they’re reappreciating the tradition and they’re finding joy in it.

They’re willing to say, okay, well, not everyone lives this way, but this is how I choose to live, and this is what I’m going to propose to those around me, and so to see them imbued with that faith to see them excited about our faith gives me hope. It’s sort of like, I spent a lot of time studying chemistry and sometimes to make a reaction you have what they call an energy of activation. Sometimes, it’s very hard to make the reaction go, but sometimes, you can add a catalyst, and it’ll reduce the amount of energy needed to make the whole reaction go. I see these young people filled with the Holy Spirit as a catalyst for the growth of our Church in the United States. That’s very exciting to me.

Cross Catholic Outreach: About two hours from where we are today is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation. I know you have a great personal devotion. Tell us about this title of Our Lady.

Bishop Fernandes: When I was a child, my parents and brothers were immigrants. Within three years of arriving, they had three more boys who were five boys in a family.

My parents took us regularly to this shrine, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation. We made a pilgrimage there every summer. We’d go for the Mass, and we’d go across the street to the shrine cafeteria, have a little bit of lunch and then there would be a rosary procession with the statue of Our Lady of Consolation down to the outdoor shrine.

Then there would also be exposition and benediction and then prayers afterward with the relics of Saint Anthony. In the shrine, there’s a beautiful statue of Our Lady brought back from Luxembourg. There have been many healing miracles associated with it. In the undercroft of the Church, you see people have left their crutches behind or if they were blind, they’ve left and could then see after praying to Our Lady of Consolation. They would leave mementos of miraculous healings and cures.

My father was a physician. He spent his whole life healing people, and three of my four brothers are physicians. So, there’s always been a kind of a great love for the sick and a desire for healing. Sometimes we have physical healing, sometimes we have spiritual healing, and sometimes we don’t know where to turn.

My parents have gone to the reward now, but when they were very sick and ill, and I had no place to go, I stopped there to pray before the statue of Our Lady. When I was nominated as bishop, I went to tell my mother the day before, and then I was in route here to Columbus; I stopped at the shrine to pray.

When my sister-in-law’s sister was diagnosed with cancer, I stopped not just to pray for myself, needing consolation from our Lord and Our Lady, but to pray for her, and I lit a candle. And God be praised, her cancer is gone.

Miracles like this happen all the time. You see the faith and devotion of the people to Our Lady of Consolation. People lose a loved one. They don’t know where to turn. Yet Mary knew what it was like to lose St. Joseph as a spouse. She also knew what it was like to lose her beloved son. Opposite, in the upper basilica, on one side altar, you have the shrine of Our Lady of Consolation herself.

It’s a place of pilgrimage. It’s about all of us being on a journey. But where we hope to go ultimately is heaven where Mary has preceded us. Sometimes they have healing services and anointing of the sick there. I’ve seen it all over my 51 years of life. At that shrine, it’s a beautiful place of pilgrimage to encounter Our Lady, who shows us constantly her beloved son, who is the source of our consolation.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Bishop Fernandes, thank you for your wonderful hospitality today. And on behalf of everybody at Cross Catholic Outreach, thank you for your service on our Board of Directors.

Bishop Fernandes: Thank you so much. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to serve on the Board of Directors of Cross Catholic Outreach.

Box of Joy is a ministry of Cross Catholic Outreach.

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