In his New Year’s Day message, Pope Francis called 2020 the year of hope, saying, “Thus the year that begins will be a journey of hope and peace, not through words, but through daily gestures of dialogue, reconciliation, and care for creation.”
The pope may have been talking about his plans for Philadelphia.
On Thursday morning, the Vatican announced that Archbishop Charles Chaput, who has served the diocese since 2011 and has been a bishop for 32 years, will be succeeded by Archbishop Nelson Pérez. The change in Philly’s Catholic leadership did not come as a surprise since, in September, Chaput turned 75, the traditional retirement age for Catholic bishops.
A change in the leadership of most any other religious community in the city would not likely merit editorial attention, but Pérez ministers within a church that has inflicted extreme and criminal damage on the city’s children over the years — damage that carries permanent scars.
The city of Philadelphia became one of the epicenters of the abuse scandals that have rocked the church throughout the world, when a 2005 grand jury report on priests of the Philadelphia Archdiocese detailed a shocking history of abuse and indifference. It moved the jurists to write, “We find it hard to comprehend or absorb the full extent of the malevolence and suffering visited on this community, under cover of the clerical collar.” Despite the 15 years that have passed since the initial report, many victims have still found no peace or justice.
Pérez, who will be installed as the 10th archbishop of Philadelphia on Feb. 18 at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, will shepherd the 1.3 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and serve as a leader in Philadelphia’s wide-ranging faith community. He has an opportunity to help heal a community whose faith has been severely challenged. As Pope Francis’ visit in 2015 proved, the presence of a strong and thoughtful leader — one with a message of inclusiveness and compassion — can bring a community and a city together.
Pérez, who previously served as archbishop in Cleveland, has deep Philly roots, having studied at Wynnewood’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and serving at several local parishes as both a vicar and a monsignor. His familiarity with the city and his own background will make him uniquely qualified to deal with some of the other large challenges like poverty and immigration that face his flock.
Pérez has a history of building bridges and community in Philadelphia. When he took over as monsignor at St. William parish in Lawncrest in 2002, he joined a community in the midst of a racial and demographic change, turning from mostly white and Catholic to a more diverse neighborhood that included people from all types of backgrounds. Pérez worked hard to build and strengthen bridges between these groups.