COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The new Bishop-elect for the Catholic Diocese of Columbus will be installed on May 31.
At only 49-years-old, Father Earl Fernandes, currently a parish priest in Cincinnati, has, in many ways, been preparing for his new role for a lifetime.
“It is very exciting to be coming to Columbus, but at the same time, it’s terrifying,” Fernandes said.
Terrifying, and historic. He is the first person of color to be bishop in central Ohio, the first Indian American bishop in the United States. His parents and two older brothers immigrated from India and settled in Toledo.
“They came in 1970 and then, in three more years, had three more boys – (19)71, (19)72 and (19)73, so we are a family of five boys,” Fernandes said. “All boys, so my mother already did her purgatory.”
The mother, who taught them all to pray.
“Pray that you be a good boy, a tall boy, and a doctor,” Fernandes said. “My father was a doctor, and in fact, three of my four brothers are doctors. The fourth one is a magistrate and so we say, ‘A doctor, a lawyer, and a priest walk into a bar,’ but we are just telling a family story.”
Fernandes also went to medical school but could not escape the calling he felt since childhood – that he was meant to be a priest. He earned a doctorate in theology studying at the Vatican, has taught high school, was an academic dean at a seminary, served at the Vatican embassy in Washington D.C., was a parish priest, and is now ready to lead 278,000 Catholics in 23 Ohio counties.
“I love being from the Midwest and from Ohio, the land of presidents, so to speak, and there is kinds of goodness in the Midwest, and at the same time, I also have a great appreciation for the church in the United States and the church in the world,” he said.
He knows there are challenges and opportunities as bishop.
“Columbus is going to experience tremendous grown with Intel and so on,” Fernandes said. “Do we need to build more churches? Schools? How are we going to form these individuals? Do we have the priests in the right place?
There is a shortage of priests, and young people are leaving the church which has a reputation tarnished by priest sex abuse scandals.
“I was ordained in 2002, so all 20 years of my priestly life have been lived in the shadow of this,” Fernandes said. “At the same time, I have to go out and preach the gospel. We have good news to share.”
He said the church must accept responsibility, help the victims, and screen seminarians.
“Do people sometimes slip through the cracks? Yes, and that is devastating,” Fernandes said. “It is my hope that that will not happen here in the diocese of Columbus, but I, as the leader of this diocese, will have absolutely no tolerance for it whatsoever.”
He pledges to lead the diocese with prudence, with faith, and by sharing God’s joy.
“If you can smile, and I tend to smile a lot, a smile goes a long way,” he said.
See more of Colleen Marshal’s discussion with Father Fernandes this Sunday on the Spectrum, at 10 a.m. on NBC4.