It seems Pope Francis was paying close attention when he rolled through Philly in 2015. Maybe the Rocky theme that greeted him at the airport got stuck in his head. Maybe he thought back to it when it came time to choose our new archbishop, and thought: A town like this needs a native son.
And in Bishop Nelson Pérez, named Thursday as the new leader of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, we get that — or pretty close to it.
The son of Cuban immigrants, he grew up in Jersey and served as a priest for two decades in the Philadelphia area, including stints in Olney and Lawncrest. It is almost certain that our new prelate has strong, long-held opinions on our sports teams, our cultural touchstones, our culinary heritage. By which I mean, he’s definitely got a favorite cheesesteak spot, and there’s something very comforting in that.
That was apparent at his introductory news conference Thursday when the new leader of our city’s Roman Catholic church — an admitted foodie — joked about the time in his life when he could fit into pants with a 32-inch waist.
“It lasted one half hour,” he said.
Spoken like a true Philadelphian.
And all throughout the getting-to-know-you — or more precisely, getting-to-know-you-again — session at archdiocesan headquarters, Pérez spoke with humor and humility and warmth, our native tongue (at least when we’re following our better angels). Like someone you’d like to get to know.
“Once a Philadelphia priest, always a Philadelphia priest,” he said, then making a nod to our outsized civic pride. How you never stop being a Philadelphian even if you leave town for a while.
“You carry it inside you,” he said.
More comforting, though, is that, in addition to speaking Philly’s language, Pérez speaks Francis’ language. Literally — as one of few American bishops who can speak to the pope in his native Spanish tongue — and figuratively.
Unlike his predecessor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, a staunch conservative gifted with the ability of saying the exact wrong thing at so many times of crisis and challenge, Pérez talks about the church as it should be: universal. Chaput seemed at every opportunity to draw a line in the pews: These are the beliefs. You’re either with us or against us. Perez has said that the diversity of the church is its greatest strength.
Hopefully that means us wayward Catholics, too. The ones who have watched in dismay as our current archbishop has too often kowtowed to President Donald Trump — calling on us to support a man who has no concern for morality, or religion, or the immigrants who make up so much of Philadelphia’s church.
So, perhaps our new archbishop will walk us into the 21st century. Pérez has spoken out against Trump, and he’s backed it up with actions: Directly intervening in a migrant’s deportation case with a personal call to ICE. While Chaput railed against “perverted freedoms,” Pérez has confronted the president, saying the nation had lost its moral compass.
“That’s not our soul,” he said, in Cleveland, his previous stop before coming home.
That seems pretty Philly.
When Pope Francis came to our fair city in 2015, he posed us a challenge: What are we going to do? What are we going to be for the least among us? The poor, in a city with the highest poverty rate in America. The suffering, in a city with the worst opioid crisis in the country. The wounded, in a city wracked by gun violence. The children, in a city with crumbling, toxic schools.
That was his challenge. A challenge that now faces Pérez, who will hopefully lead a Philadelphia church that looks to open its doors, not shut out the world.
Thursday, our city’s new archbishop echoed again and again the inclusive message of his boss in Rome. He spoke of an active church that is “engaged and open to the world,” one that is “fruitful and full of joy.” For a long time, he spoke in Spanish to the city’s Hispanic community that he served for so long here in Philly. Who know him, he said, simply, as Father Nelson.
“I’ve been that to them,” he said. “And will continue to be that to them.”
He apologized to the victims of sexual abuse by priests, so many of whom still seek justice in Philadelphia, or at least rightful recognition from the church that hurt them.
And he asked us to pray for him.
He sounded as if he meant it all.