Displaying a self-effacing sense of humor and shocked delight at the prospect of returning to the city where he became a priest, Nelson Pérez reintroduced himself Thursday to the region’s 1.3 million Catholic faithful as Pope Francis’ pick to become the next archbishop of Philadelphia.
Yet, even as the 58-year-old prelate stood before a crowd of priests, churchgoers, and reporters at the archdiocesan offices, Pérez said he was still struggling to accept it was real.
“I’m shocked. It just doesn’t compute,” he said. “In a very real sense — in a very practical sense — I’m home. ... Once a Philadelphia priest, always a Philadelphia priest.”
Just hours before, Francis had named Pérez, the current bishop of Cleveland, to succeed Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
As the first Latino chosen to lead the archdiocese and only the third to be named a U.S. archbishop, Pérez will be installed at a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on Feb. 18. His appointment to replace Chaput, who is stepping down after reaching the clergy customary retirement age of 75, represents a moment of transition for the church both locally and across the United States.
Analysts saw his selection as the latest sign that Francis is attempting to tilt the ideological balance of a historically conservative U.S. church — epitomized by the outspoken traditionalism of Chaput — and mold it more in line with his papacy, favoring a pastoral approach over a strident focus on divisive cultural issues.
Pérez is "not a culture warrior,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a church historian at the University of Notre Dame, who described him as more on the “moderate and modulating” side. “He hasn’t made those hot-button issues his platform. Picking him is picking someone who hasn’t made that his agenda.”
At the same time, he inherits the leadership of an archdiocese facing challenges that have plagued the broader church: struggling finances, persistent declines in Mass attendance, and legal battles over issues such as sex-abuse claims.
But it is at least a community he knows. Born in Miami, raised in northern New Jersey, and ordained at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pérez 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 church hierarchy as an auxiliary bishop in Long Island, N.Y., in 2012. His return comes two years after Francis dispatched him to lead the Catholic faithful in northeast Ohio.
The son of Cuban migrants who fled Fidel Castro’s government in 1961, Pérez grew up in the Cuban enclave of West New York, N.J., and moved to Puerto Rico to teach elementary school in the years before he arrived in Philadelphia and was ordained a priest in 1989.
During his two years in Cleveland, Pérez emerged as an outspoken advocate for immigrants, 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.
About a fifth of the Philadelphia region’s Hispanic population, or 61,000 people, identified themselves as Catholics in the 2010 census. Pérez will return to a community that has since grown even more.
“The fact that he is Latino is hugely significant,” Cummings said. “That’s where the future of the church is in terms of demographics, and appointing a Cuban American to Philadelphia is bringing it in line with the rest of the church.”
Chaput himself was once heralded for breaking new ground: He was the first Native American bishop appointed in the United States. On Thursday, he stood at Pérez’s side during the news conference and said he couldn’t be happier with his replacement.
“I asked for a successor that would care for and guide our people, speak the truth with charity and conviction,” the archbishop said. “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.”
The two basked in mutual admiration as Pérez made quips about his own waistline — “There was about a half hour of my life where I fit in 32-waist pants” — and his fond remembrances of lunches at Reading Terminal Market. He spoke eagerly of his desire to reconnect with priests he once served alongside.
“Monsignor Sullivan,” Pérez said, smiling and pointing in the audience to the archdiocesan vicar for clergy he said once used to join him on cigarette breaks outside the building. “I don’t do that anymore,” he assured.
As for Chaput, Pérez referred to him as “a great mentor and friend” and resisted attempts to draw distinctions between them.
“We each have our personalities, but we both walk with the church,” he said. “He’s one of my heroes. I don’t compare myself to him that way. I wouldn’t dare.”
Chaput, too, 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 among conservative Catholics who became more unified in response to Francis’ papacy.
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, meanwhile, comes to the role of 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
Massimo Faggioli, a church historian and Villanova professor, cautioned not to expect any radical shifts in theology in the transition, though he predicted the new archbishop might bring new perspectives on issues ranging from homosexuality and immigration to Muslim relations.
“I don’t think [Pérez] can be introduced as a liberal Catholic," he said, “because that’s not true. But I think there will be some changes in governance style.”
Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, made an early impression upon his arrival in Philadelphia nine years ago by trading the trappings of the cardinal’s mansion for much more modest accommodations at the seminary. He has been credited since 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.
Those problems have not evaporated. And Pérez acknowledged Thursday that his tenure 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, comprising more than 215 parishes, 460 diocesan priests, and a network of universities and schools serving more than 141,000 students.
Chaput has said that the archdiocese probably needs only half the number of parishes it currently has but vowed to leave those decisions to his successor. Pérez offered no firm promises Thursday.
During a morning meeting with the archdiocese’s council of priests, Pérez spoke of wanting to refamiliarize himself with the archdiocese before making any significant changes, said Bishop John J. McIntyre, an auxiliary bishop under Chaput who served with Pérez as a priest.
“I think right now, he’s not approaching it with a set plan,” he said. “Even though he knows us, he’s been gone for almost eight years, so he wants to get to know the lay of the land again and see what the issues are now.”
Pérez is expected to spend Friday visiting with children and parishioners around the archdiocese before returning to Ohio.
And as his debut on the archdiocesan stage drew to a close Thursday, the next archbishop exuded optimism in the face of whatever his tenure might bring.
“I gave my life to a faith that believes that a dead man came back to life — of course I have hope for the church,” he said. “[It] has gone through … hard moments, heart-wrenching moments … in the last two decades. But the church is still here.”