Accompanied by solemn prayers, hymns in Spanish and English, and a whooping, uproarious crowd, Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez was installed Tuesday at the helm of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, telling the region’s 1.3 million Catholics that he can’t do his job alone.
“It’s time to come back to the church,” the 58-year-old prelate said, addressing for the first time in his new role a church that has been buffeted by parish mergers, financial difficulties, and sex abuse investigations in recent years.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, the archbishop told the thousands packed into the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, he enters his new assignment with hope.
“Yes, I have hope,” Pérez said. “I gave my life to a faith that believes that a dead man rose from the dead. … This is the foundation of our Christian faith — this hope that no matter how dark it gets, no matter how much it appears that this is the end, it is not."
Pérez’s first homily as archbishop capped off a two-hour Mass of Installation rich in pageantry, reverent tradition, and religious symbolism. But cutting through the pomp and grandeur, the new archbishop’s relaxed, folksy pastoral presence suffused the basilica.
Pérez entered the cathedral after a procession of more than 500 cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, and seminarians with a broad smile on his face. He was greeted by waving attendees holding up their phones for photos or pumping their fists in the air.
He cracked jokes in English and Spanish once the Mass had begun, and paused at one point to ask the standing-room-only crowd to chant along with him and say hello to his mother, who was in Florida watching the ceremony over a livestream. She had just been released from the hospital and could not attend.
Pérez individually embraced people in a long receiving line, drawing extra applause when he shook hands with one of the city’s other newcomers, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, greeting her by putting his hand on the side of her face.
And when it came time to deliver his homily, he eschewed the pulpit for a step right in front of pews. Close friends and family members said they expected nothing less from this garrulous, down-to-earth archbishop.
“This is a huge source of gratitude and religious pride for our family,” said Pérez’s cousin Christine Sesin-Florentino of Clifton N.J. “But on a family level, he’s just the same old funny Nelson.”
Despite Pérez’s unassuming manner, his installation as the region’s first Latino archbishop is historic. He becomes the youngest sitting archbishop in the United States, inheriting day-to-day management of one of the largest Catholic dioceses in the country.
His relative youth will give him a nearly two-decade runway to leave his mark on the five-county archdiocese of more than 215 parishes, 460 diocesan priests, and a network of universities and schools serving more than 141,000 students.
He succeeds Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who retired upon reaching the church’s traditional retirement age of 75 after just over eight years in Philadelphia.
Pérez thanked his predecessor at the start of his homily Tuesday.
“He was steadfast, and he made decisions that sometimes a father has to make. Decisions that sometimes drew him great suffering and criticism," he said. “The Archdiocese of Philadelphia owes this man an incredible debt of gratitude for who he was, is, and continues to be.”
Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s top ambassador to the United States, said Chaput had earned his time to relax. To Pérez, Pierre added: “You don’t get to rest.”
“The archdiocese needs you to be a shepherd that goes out to meet the flock with energy, zeal, and warmth,” he said. “This archdiocese is not the same as when you left it.”
The son of Cuban immigrants, Pérez was ordained in Philadelphia and spent nearly three decades here as a priest before he was elevated to the hierarchy with appointments as an auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island in 2012, and Cleveland in 2017.
Pérez said that he embraces Pope Francis’ vision of the church as "a community of visionary disciples,” and that his plan for the archdiocese “is that I have no plan.”
“I hope to listen and visit over time,” he said, “and learn what the church in Philadelphia looks like today.”
That listening began Tuesday. Pérez welcomed dozens of bishops seated behind him on the stage, including Chaput’s predecessor in Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and Bishop Joseph Bambera of the Scranton Diocese, Bishop Edward C. Malesic of the Greensburg Diocese, and Archbishop Roberto González Nieves of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Then, after the ceremony concluded, he returned to greet hundreds of well-wishers in the vestibule.
Among them was Rosario Lopez, 28, who arrived excited to see her former pastor assume such a prominent role. After her family immigrated to Philadelphia from El Salvador 18 years ago, they said, Pérez, then a priest at St. William parish in Lawncrest, made them feel welcome.
““He understands what it is like to be an immigrant,” said Lopez, who helped translate for her mother, Maria Inez, and uncle Gerardo Ramírez. "He represents all of our countries.”
Maria and Frank Murillo, who were married in Philadelphia by Pérez in 2008, brought their seven children to the installation Mass.
“We are very excited," said Maria Murillo, whose family now lives in King of Prussia. “He has a great spirit, and he’s willing to unite the church.”
They left with the crowd spilling out onto the cathedral’s steps, with Pérez’s last message still ringing in their ears.