Pope Francis on Thursday named Cleveland Bishop Nelson Pérez as the next head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, making him the first Hispanic archbishop to lead the region’s 1.3 million-member flock.
Born in Miami, raised in New Jersey and ordained at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pérez, 58, served as a parish priest for more than two decades in West Chester and the Olney and Lawncrest sections of Philadelphia before being elevated to the hierarchy as an auxiliary bishop in Long Island, N.Y., in 2012.
He returns to the region to succeed Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who will step down after turning 75 last year, the traditional retirement age for Catholic bishops.
“I asked for a successor that would care for and guide our people, speak the truth with charity and conviction,” Chaput said, introducing Pérez at a news conference at the archdiocese’s 17th Street headquarters four hours after the Vatican announcement. “He is exactly the man with exactly the abilities that our church needs, and I’m very grateful to Pope Francis for sending him home to us in Philadelphia.”
Pérez was effusive in his first address to a small crowd of archdiocesan employees, reporters and faithful, speaking both in English and Spanish about how thrilled he was when he learned last weekend that he would be returning to the area.
Wearing a pectoral cross Chaput had given him eight years ago when he became a bishop, he praised his predecessor for his service and welcomed the prospect of returning to relationships he had built in the archdiocese over decades.
“Once a Philadelphia priest, always a Philadelphia priest,” he said, although he said he was still struggling to accept his return would be as the region’s archbishop. "It just doesn’t compute.”
He will be installed at a Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul on Feb. 18.
Pérez’s selection is the latest , according to church analysts, that Francis is eager to tilt the ideological balance of the conservative U.S. church and mold it more in line with his papacy, one of the most progressive in generations.
Chaput has pushed back against those who would characterize him as Francis’ foil, but his outspoken traditionalism and willingness to enter the fray of secular politics have earned him an ardent following in the conservative Catholic movement that emerged in response to Francis.
Chaput’s writings and public statements on divorce, statute-of-limitations reform, and gun control occasionally put him at odds with the likes of Mayor Jim Kenney, some clergy sex-abuse victims, and — seemingly, at times — the pope himself. He was the first archbishop of Philadelphia in generations not to be elevated to cardinal, the title given worldwide to the senior bishops whose duties include choosing the pope.
Pérez will become archbishop less than eight years after he was first elevated to the hierarchy by Pope Benedict XVI and without the same lengthy record and scholarly reputation that Chaput had by the time he came to Philadelphia from Denver in 2011.
But Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and Villanova professor, cautioned not to expect any radical shifts in theology with the transfer.
“I don’t think [Pérez] can be introduced as a liberal Catholic because that’s not true," he said. Still, he predicted the new archbishop might bring new perspectives on issues ranging from homosexuality and immigration to Muslim relations.
During his time in Cleveland, Pérez emerged as an outspoken advocate for immigrants in his community, denouncing the Trump administration’s family separation policy and saying the nation had lost its “moral compass.” The bishop also once intervened on behalf of a migrant facing deportation with a personal appeal to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of stark different theological cultures,” Faggioli said. "But I think there will be some changes in governance style.”
At his introductory news conference Thursday, Pérez was hesitant to draw comparisons between him and his predecessor, calling Chaput “a great mentor and friend.”
Chaput has been credited during his time in Philadelphia with stabilizing an archdiocese roiled by financial shortfalls and fallout from a damning grand jury report that implicated the city’s church hierarchy in covering up decades of sexual abuse.
But those problems have not evaporated. And Pérez acknowledged that his tenure in Philadelphia was likely to be marked by many of the same issues.
He thanked Chaput for making at times unpopular decisions “with great courage and with great steadfastness, sometimes in the face of criticism."
Pérez will inherit day-to-day management of one of the largest Catholic infrastructures in the United States comprised of more than 215 parishes, 460 diocesan priests and a network of universities and schools serving more than 141,000 students.
But it is one that has endured recent strain under the weight of fallout from the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that uncovered decades of abuse and cover-up in dioceses across the state, a contentious statehouse battle over laws that would give victims more time to sue, and persistent declines in Mass attendance that promise another wave of austerity measures.
Chaput has said that the archdiocese probably needs only half the number of parishes it currently has, but vowed to leave any decisions to his successor. And Pérez offered no firm promises Thursday on the archdiocese’s future.
“Change is a part of life. We have to adapt to the world around us. You adapt for the good of the people and the good of the church. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions.”
It’s a notion, he said, he has adapted to his whole life. A Cuban-American, Pérez’s parents fled Fidel Castro’s government in 1961. But he grew up in the deeply Cuban enclave of West New York, N.J., and moved to Puerto Rico to teach elementary school shortly after graduating from Montclair State University with a degree in psychology.
He enrolled in the seminary in Philadelphia and, once ordained, served as a parish priest and as assistant director for the archdiocesan office for Hispanic Catholics. He taught psychology classes at La Salle University before Pope Benedict tapped him in 2012 to serve as an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Rockville Center in Long Island, N.Y.
Pérez said he learned he would be leaving Cleveland after less than two years in that post from the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United State, as he was visiting his mother in Miami on Saturday.
“There’s this little code word that these nuncios use when they call, ‘Are you alone?’ and if you say you’re alone, then watch out,” he said. “I asked, ‘Where am I going now.?" … I was shocked, just absolutely shocked."
For his part, Chaput said he intends to remain in the Philadelphia area — continuing his work as a priest, an author and in-demand speaker — once his successor is installed.
“But first,” he said. “I intend to take three months off, praying and cooking.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for details.
Staff writer Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.