The Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus has a new bishop — the first person of color in that role and the Catholic Church’s first Indian-American bishop.
On Saturday morning, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had named the Rev. Earl Fernandes, now a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, as the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Columbus.
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“This is the land of opportunity,” Fernandes said. “There is a great deal of pride (in being the first Indian-American bishop).”
The Ohio native is also the first person of color to lead the Columbus Diocese, and the first Indian-American to be named a Catholic Bishop, Deacon Thomas Berg, diocesan chancellor, confirmed.
The fourth of five sons born to Indian immigrants in Toledo, Fernandes remembers celebrating the US bicentennial on July 4, 1976, holding signs with his brothers. His father, who memorized the Constitution before taking his citizenship test, had fashioned together his own version of the Liberty Bell.
Fernandes, 49, a self-described “young and happy priest,” will be ordained a bishop and installed as leader of the Columbus Diocese on May 31.
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News of Father Fernandes’ appointment to bishop comes months after Pope Francis reassigned former Columbus Bishop Robert Brennan to lead the Diocese of Brooklyn in September. Brennan said his last Masses locally on Nov. 21 after having served in Columbus for approximately two and a half years.
Who is Bishop-elect Earl Fernandes?
Humility guides Father Fernandes.
It’s the lesson his parents imparted on him, growing up poor in a neighborhood of Toledo. And it’s the moral imperative that has followed his spiritual journey and career, he said.
Before becoming pastor at St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Cincinnati, Fernandes attended the University of Toledo, where he got a bachelor’s degree in biology, before attending the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
In medical school — he comes from a family of doctors and teachers — Fernandes realized he wanted to be a priest. He has a doctorate in moral theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome, Italy.
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Before serving as pastor at St. Ignatius, Fernandes served from 2016 to 2019 on the staff of the Apostolic Nunciature, the offices of the Pope’s representative to the United States, in Washington
While living in Washington, the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one dead and 35 injured, was an eye-opening experience for Fernandes.
“I see myself as a man, a human man, made in the image of God, and every person I see as a brother and sister,” Fernandes said. “We don’t have to use violence to achieve peace.”
Violence and hatred diminish a person’s soul, the bishop-elect said, and he practices affirmation not diminishment. He said he knows what it means to encounter prejudice firsthand.
“You don’t let other people dictate your life and beat you down,” the bishop-elect said, recalling times where he had been accused of stealing, had mud thrown at him or been passed over for jobs in the Catholic Church.
That adversity has shaped Fernandes’ own empathy, and he said he is thrilled to meet and work with the people throughout Greater Columbus and to get to know the region’s diverse population.
As a priest first ordained in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati on May 18, 2002, Fernandes was a parochial vicar at Holy Angels Church and taught religion at Lehman Catholic High School, a coeducational school in Sidney, Shelby County, from 2002 to 2004.
That experience in rural Ohio has guided Fernandes’ commitment to serve as a bishop for all 23 counties within the Diocese of Columbus, which includes a large majority of rural areas and farmland beyond Columbus.
“I’m not just here for the city folk,” he said.
Fernandes’ vision for diocese’s future
Nicknamed “Father Speedy” by his parishioners in Cincinnati for his fast-walking and talking, Fernandes is committed to efficiency when it comes to prioritizing goals for the Columbus Diocese.
He referenced Pope Francis’ desire to create a synodal church, or a church that walks together, listens and discerns.
“It’s not so much a program for social and political reform but for evangelizing — of bringing the joy of The Gospel to every level of culture and to every heart,” Fernandes said.
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One of the bishop-elect’s first orders of business will be to study Real Presence, Real Future, the draft plans to restructure parishes within the diocese amid declines in attendance and a priest shortage throughout the Catholic Church.
Fernandes sees his appointment as an opportunity to create a missionary-oriented diocese, adding that the Catholic hierarchy can’t just be seen as bureaucrats lounging in air-conditioned offices.
“We need to be spiritual entrepreneurs,” he said. “We need to help everybody live their vocations and see Christianity not just as a set of rules, but a way of life.”
Before Fernandes was named bishop, Monsignor Stephan J. Moloney, the vicar general of the Columbus Diocese under three bishops, had been serving as the interim leader — called the diocesan administrator — since December.
“Today’s news is a joy-filled moment for all of us here in the Diocese of Columbus,” said Moloney. “We know and trust that Bishop-elect Fernandes will be a wonderful, deeply caring shepherd for all of us here in the Diocese of Columbus, and I know he will find the warmest of welcomes from his new diocesan family.”
Former Columbus Bishop Brennan’s departure marked the first time in recent history that the diocese appointed an administrator instead of having bishops serve until their successor was installed.
The two bishops who served the Columbus Diocese prior to Brennan – Bishop Frederick Campbell and Bishop James Griffin – both retired from the job and served until the installation of the next bishop, said Deacon Berg.
Brennan, now bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, also applauded the announcement.
“I couldn’t be happier for him and the Church in Columbus,” Brennan said. “In my time in Ohio, I came to know Bishop-elect Fernandes as a neighbor and through his service on the Board of the Pontifical College Josephinum. He will bring his many talents, a deep faith and a genuine love for the Lord to a Church that is vibrant with that same love for the Lord.”