Bishop Earl Fernandes: ‘We Are People of Joy’
Columbus’ 49-year-old shepherd advises, ‘You have to be creative to be holy today.’
Bishop Earl Fernandes, the 49-year-old son of Indian immigrants, is the new bishop of Columbus, Ohio. The Ohio native, previously serving the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, is the first Indian-American to head a U.S. Roman Catholic diocese. He once thought he would be a doctor like his father and brothers, having enrolled at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine before discerning a call to the priesthood.
When did you personally hear that you were selected to be Columbus’ bishop? Were you with anyone when it happened?
I was working in a busy parish in Cincinnati, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and I had worked at the apostolic nunciature for three and a half years from 2016 to 2019. I maintain regular contact with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio. He called, and I thought it was just like a normal call, like we always have. I was walking down the hallway, Monday, March 2, and he said, “Well, where are you?” I said, “Excellency, I’m walking down the hallway and walking into my office.” He said, “Are you alone?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m alone. I just shut the door behind me.” “Are you sitting down?” And then I paused because we would joke that that’s how we asked people to be bishop. All of a sudden, I got this burning sensation in my stomach, and he said, “Pope Francis has nominated you as the next bishop of Columbus.” I swiveled in my chair, and I looked up at the picture of my parents with me after my first Mass, and then I swiveled again and I looked at my crucifix. I said, “Okay, I accept.” Part of it was that I had known how hard it was to find bishops and how hard the staff there works and how many people contribute to that whole process. I didn’t have any good reason not to accept. But then I couldn’t tell anybody because it was a pontifical secret.
Columbus is a pretty big diocese. I mean, 270,000-plus people; it’s the state capital. I knew I had a brother who lived here already and, at that time, six nieces and nephews who were in the city. A lot of former students of mine lived in Columbus, so I was excited to be in my home state. Yet at the same time, all of a sudden, the greatness of the office is hoisted upon you, and I couldn’t tell my staff; I couldn’t tell my assistant priest at the parish.
When I finished the conversation with the nuncio, he said he would call my archbishop; call Bishop [Robert] Brennan, the previous bishop of Columbus; and then we would set the date for publication of the announcement and then for the ordination. We wound up setting April 2, which is the death anniversary of Pope John Paul II. May 31 turned out to be the date for my ordination, which was the feast of the Visitation.
Many people point out your smile and your joy. Have you had this joy your whole life?
I would say so. If you meet Indian people, we have this characteristic smile. But there’s also a joy in knowing that I’m being loved by God. I grew up in a wonderful family. There’s the joy of being called to the priesthood, the joy of consecrating the Blessed Sacrament, and then seeing the Lord upon the altar and him gazing upon me and being able to gaze upon him, and the joy of receiving him into my soul. To be called to be a herald of the Gospel is also a joy to share with others. There’s the gift of faith, which I first received from my parents; I mean all these things fill me with joy. I enjoy seeing young people and seeing them on fire with faith. At the ordination, if you asked me what word comes to my mind, it’s joy; joy walking all around the church, joy in having 35 bishops there and 260 priests, and the joy of the people of Columbus was great; it was palpable. We are people of joy. There is a special joy, of course, in being a priest and bishop, but I would say it’s a very Christian characteristic, as well.
When do you first remember encountering the Lord?
My parents were very devout. As far back as I can remember, we prayed the Rosary daily. And even before we could read and write, we knew the Our Father and Hail Mary. We concluded the Rosary with the Litany of Loreto, the Angelus, and a perpetual novena to the Little Flower, so we prayed regularly.
I remember a girl on the playground had said something I took to be racially charged, and I remember chasing her all over the playground, but instead, when I finally could have caught her, I ran past her and ran into our parish church. I saw the statue of the Virgin, and I just said one Hail Mary slowly, and I felt her closeness to me. I remember my first Communion day, May 4, 1980, as the happiest day of my life. Growing up as a child of immigrants, I always wondered, does God love me as much as he loves the rich kids, or as much as he loves the white kids, or the athletic kids, and the answer to that question fundamentally was: Yes. I knew I was loved through my experience of receiving him in the Eucharist. I tell people the happiest day of my life was my first Communion day, and the second happiest day was when I became a priest, because then I could share the gift that I had received with others.
What advice would you give to young men and women discerning their vocation?
Two things; one is you can’t have your vocation on your own terms. It has to be on God’s terms. My father was a physician, my four brothers were physicians, my mother taught us our prayers and then she prayed that I’d be a good boy, a tall boy and a doctor. People love doctors. They respect doctors. It’s part of the healing art. But you can’t always do what everybody else is telling you to do. You have to have that stillness in your life, the silence in your life, to hear God’s voice and to respond to his call. Many people, of course, don’t respond to the call because there’s too much noise. They don’t even hear the call. Other people do hear the call, but they waver and they hedge their bets and they don’t always trust that it’s in the Lord’s hands. Part of it is saying, “I’m going to generously offer myself to the Lord, and in his hands everything will be okay.” I think that’s the thing. I think that really requires asking, not so much “What do I want to do with my life?” but asking the Lord, “What is it that you are asking of me?” Because what the Lord ultimately wants is for us to be happy, and we only find true happiness and joy in doing God's will.
The second advice John Paul II gave when he was installed as Pope: “Do not be afraid.” Open wide the doors of your heart to Christ. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was installed as Pope, also told young people, “Christ takes nothing from you.” That’s the thing: God enriches and enlarges his gifts.
We, of course, in the Diocese of Columbus have a great need for priests and religious. We’ve had a lot of young women in religious orders come to our diocese lately, but this year, there were no ordinations to the priesthood. Next year, there will only be one. What people in the diocese tell me is that we have 1 million people coming to the Diocese of Columbus in the next 10 years. And those 1 million people need Jesus Christ, in addition to the Catholics who are already here. We can’t just simply preside over a slow death of the diocese, where we manage problems. We actually have to grow the business and have the manpower, so to speak, to be able to provide the sacraments and the Gospel to all those people. And that’s a collective work of priests, deacons and laymen and women, because every vocation is born in the family.
You asked me earlier about my first experience of the Lord, but, actually, I would say it’s the love that I received from my parents. Faith was something very real in my parents’ life. I had no doubts about that.
Are there any saints you have particular devotion to?
Many saints. As I mentioned, St. Thérèse of the Little Flower was patroness of our family. I chose for my confirmation St. Francis Xavier. I admired his missionary spirit. I’ve been very devoted to St. John Vianney. Even when I was a parish priest, I always made extra time to sit in the confessional. I’m devoted to St. Francis de Sales; he was very pivotal in my own discernment in my vocation. St. Francis de Sales also happens to be the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Columbus. I have huge statues of both him and St. John Vianney in my office.
I would add to that list St. Alphonsus Liguori. I was educated by the Redemptorists in Rome, and so I got my license and doctorate in moral theology. St. Alphonsus’ moral theology is rooted in the practical realities of people’s lives and their difficult situations or concrete situations. I believe moral theology has to really address the practicalities of life, but at the same time, he’s also a patron saint of confessors. And he gives pretty good rules for helping people to deal with sin through philosophy.
There’s St. Ignatius of Loyola, to whom I’m very devoted, and I have a connection with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I worked with her sisters in between medical school and while in seminary. They live in such radical poverty, and, of course, they want to generously serve the poor, but with joy, and that also has affected my own smile. Finally, who would not mention John Paul II: He was the pope for most of my childhood and a great evangelist and great leader. He’s very close to the youth, so I hope in many ways to imitate his missionary spirit and his closeness to the youth.
What’s your most unconventional advice for becoming a saint?
I’m not one who would be unconventional, but I would say: Take a risk. Take St. Philip Neri, for example. He is filled with joy, and he had a great sense of humor — he shaved half his beard off — but it got people’s attention. I have a former student of mine who’s now a campus minister at the University of Cincinnati, Father Ethan Moore. This is typical of him, but he showed up at my installation dressed in a black jacket, black shirt and collar, shorts and sandals. He’s a little bit wild, but he catches people’s attention and meets them where they’re at, and he’s willing to take risks. He has big, huge medallions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and he wants 500 of them on the cars in the city of Cincinnati. Now you see people all over the city driving around with these. He wanted to start a Catholic biker gang, and now they all have these leather jackets with the monstrance on the back. These Catholic guys ride around on their motorcycles, evangelizing and having to take some risks.
I encourage the people that I see in Columbus to try to be spiritual entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs have to have a vision. They have to be creative and innovative. I think the same is true with holiness of life. We have to take some risks if we’re going to be a saint, and we have to be willing to risk something of ourselves. So often we want to just play it safe, do everything accordingly, and plan out our whole lives without any risks involved. But if we really want to be a saint, we have to be willing to, like St. Peter, get out of the boat. As long as he’s looking at the Lord, he’s okay. But when he starts wondering about the storms and the waves, he starts to sink, and he cries out to the Lord, and, immediately, the Lord is there — stretches out his hand and saves him. You have to take some risks, and be bold. You have to be creative to be holy today, you have to be willing to risk something, and have some skin in the game.
Why did your parents name you Earl?
It’s completely arbitrary. All my brothers have arbitrary sorts of names. I’m actually Earl Kenneth Mario. My parents were going to name me Maria, thinking I’d be born a girl.
Are you a Buckeye fan?
I am. Back at my ordination I had a lot of fun because another bishop, Bishop Earl Boyea in Lansing, where Michigan and Michigan State are, would always call me the “Other Earl.” He was talking a little trash [in good fun] at the press conference and said, “Hey, let’s get our picture taken. I think we’re the only two bishops named Earl in the whole world.” We talked a lot of trash, and while I was at it, I referred to the team from up north and said, “It’s a team and state whose name cannot be spoken in a sacred place.” Then he saw me at the bishops’ conference, and said, “I’m gonna call you Earl the lesser, and I’ll be Earl the greater.” So I said, “I’ll be Earl the lesser — of two evils.” So yeah, I’m a huge Buckeye fan.
What are you most looking forward to as bishop?
To be honest, preaching the Gospel and being out with the people. When you know that a million people are coming to your diocese, there’s tremendous potential for growth. I think Bishop Brennan did a remarkable job of getting out of the office and getting to be with the people, and he really lifted the morale of a lot of the priests. He laid a good foundation for me. Now, we need to try to capitalize on this enthusiasm and continue to make good use of the people’s goodwill. They’re enthusiastic for the Gospel. For example, we have Catholic Youth Summer Camp at Damascus. Lots of kids go there for a week each summer and get fired up in their faith. We just had 2,500 people at something called “The Rescue Project Live.”
We’re having to do pastoral planning for the diocese, and some people say, “Well, you’re going to have to close churches and merge parishes.” And that’s a defeatist attitude. Pope Francis calls us to sometimes reform structures for the sake of the mission of the Gospel and evangelization. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I’m enthusiastic about the potential in the Diocese of Columbus.
Everybody at the ordination was filled with joy and excitement; it was palpable. I got my undergraduate degree in biology, and I took a lot of chemistry and organic chemistry. In that, we talk about the energy of activation; it’s the energy required to make the reaction go. Sometimes you can reduce the energy of activation so that the reaction goes more easily with a catalyst. I think the catalyst will be the Holy Spirit. I’m open to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in my own life and ministry, but the People of God here in Columbus also are open, and that will make the reaction go.
We have our challenges in Columbus, with vocations and the priest shortages, we’ve got some demographic challenges, but we also have great people. That’s what I see right now: the enthusiasm among our youth. Everything else is in the Lord’s hands.