The Leader of the Flock: Philadelphia welcomes Archbishop Nelson Perez home

By Mark Casasanto 
Mass of Installation photographed by Sarah Webb on behalf of CatholicPhilly.com

This feature story was intended for placement in our Summer 2020 edition. Given the timing and nature of some content as it relates to the state of current events, we decided to post portions of this interview here on our blog. Our ongoing interview with Archbishop Perez will continue in the upcoming Summer edition of PRH! Order your one-year subscription online at www.gohomephilly.com/subscribe.

Bishop Nelson J. PerezThe 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. The perfect day for an interview with Archbishop Nelson Perez, the newly-installed leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. There, from an office overlooking the iconic Dome of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, we welcomed the rise of this landmark day in a candid conversation.

As a Catholic who has, at times, steered past his church, this discussion was important to me on many levels. 

As most writers agree, interviews can be tricky, sometimes. Writers look for a connection with subjects. Subjects often don’t care. And the only solidarity to draw upon is the combined mental countdowns till your agreed-upon session clicks to a blessed and merciful end. 

On this late April morning, however – common pleasantries aside – a soothing sense of unity quickly quelled my journalistic uncertainties.

I harbor magnificent memories of growing up Catholic in my largely Italian/Irish American South Philly parish. Oddly, my Catholic identity resides at the vast Center City intersection where this landmark respite from reality known as Logan Circle rests.  

The footprint that is and surrounds the Cathedral represents the highlights of my own personal Catholicism. Sacred ground, if you will. From high school chorus performances to meaningful family masses and two glorious Papal visits – the experiences bring me back whenever I choose or need to recall. Memories that cheerfully color an often-cruel world with the rite to exult in the greens of the gardens, the scents of the flowers and the gentle mists of the fountain. 

A PRIESTLY TALE OF TWO CITIES 
January 23, 2020. It was an announcement that would leave Bishop Nelson Perez of Cleveland, literally, speechless. As the Archbishop-designate of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he would soon return home to the city where he fostered 30 years’ worth of relationships and memories. 

There’s an odd and somewhat quirky connection between Cleveland and Philadelphia, however. And no, it has nothing to do with the long heated debate surrounding the birthplace of rock n roll.

“There’s been this back and forth with Cleveland going back decades… as far as the late 1800s,” Perez details. 

Ignatius Frederick Hortsmann, Cleveland’s third Bishop, was a graduate of both Central High School and St. Joseph’s University before entering the Seminary. To this day, the Hortsmann family still lives in the area and one family member, coincidentally, works for the Archdiocese.

Years later, the mid-western city would return the favor when long-standing church leader, John Joseph Krol, was installed as Archbishop of Philadelphia in 1961. Krol would later be elevated to Cardinal and oversee the Diocese for 27 years. 

Fast-forwarding to modern day, Bishop Daniel Thomas of Toledo, a Roman Catholic High School graduate (‘77), was appointed to oversee the Diocese of Cleveland as its Apostolic Administrator when its Bishop stepped away for medical reasons. Tapped to relieve the former Manayunk resident as the new Catholic leader of Cleveland in 2017—Bishop Nelson Perez. 

FEAR NOT. THIS TOO SHALL PASS
“We are, as a people, very resilient,” Archbishop Perez says when asked about the current state of affairs of a world caught up in the throws of the COVID-19 Pandemic. “Especially here in Philadelphia,” he adds, referencing the Spanish Flu of 1918. “Like all the events in our lives, they come, they go and we learn from them. They leave their marks and scars, of course, but God helps us through.”

In the present, he acknowledges that we all have a due diligence to deal and roll with the status quo. “We tackle such challenges as people of conviction. Our faith and our hope are really our strength and our power in times of uncertainty,” he says convincingly. 

To that end, he is not fearful. Rather, he champions the resourcefulness and the ability to adjust, adapt and ultimately survive as a human species. “We’re all wearing our masks, right? Standing outside the supermarkets to get in. You do it a couple of times and it becomes almost the new normal,” he states emphatically.

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THE PALM TREE 
Times have changed and rather quickly. It’s difficult to envision what “normal” will actually look like post-pandemic. Events with mass gatherings – even at the most minimal numbers – will be heavily affected for the short-term and quite possibly alter the face of assemblies, permanently. The Catholic Church, however, and its local pastors were quick to spring into action. 

With Holy Week sitting smack dab in the middle of the peak of the pandemic and all federally mandated “stay at home” orders firmly in place, the faithful were faced with very limited options for worship. 

“It’s very interesting,” he says intriguingly. “We are working very hard to use all the social media platforms. During Holy Week services, it was just me celebrating in an empty cathedral and we drew close to a half-million viewers.” Although viewership crescendoed during that time, broadcast platforms are still logging up to 100,000 viewers every Sunday.  

“Obviously, it’s not the same,” he admits. But he points out the potential positives. “I personally know of people who ordinarily didn’t go to church that are now going (virtually) every Sunday at 11 am!”  

Yet, as Biblical history suggests, it’s in our nature to be physical. After all, isn’t that why God put us together? “There’s a part of gathering together and having that human contact that we long for,” the Archbishop agrees, “but I think we took it for granted.”

“Those of us from the romantic cultures are having tougher times of it,” he laughs, alluding to his Cuban and Italian heritage. “There’s a great level of physicality in our cultures.” 

In time, however, he does feel that even with the adaption to the status quo, we will find our way back. He cautions, however, that it won’t be a turnkey or flip of the switch solution as opposed to simply evolving with a renewed confidence and trust. 

“It’s sort of like a palm tree. You can bend a palm tree and tie it down with a rope… once you release that rope… it’s going to go back to where it came from. It’s going to spring back,” he says reassuringly. 

CELEBRATING THE GRADUATES OF 2020
On the subject of education, despite the need to look ahead towards methods and models that will strengthen and safeguard the future of Catholic education, his mind is focused on the present. With the sudden end to the school year, at least socially, it’s not lost on him that 2020 graduating classes from every level and form of education had significant, milestone events removed and replaced without warning. 

“I feel bad for them. This is a big year, a big deal for them… a great accomplishment. I sincerely feel bad that they actually can’t ritualize and celebrate their graduation as they had anticipated,” he says almost apologetically. “We are certainly working hard here in the archdiocese to develop a way of doing that virtually… the best way… that we can give them as a gift.” He says most reverently, “The reality is they’ve earned a great achievement and nothing can take that away.”

ONE AMONGST MANY
In early March, before the world pressed pause, Archbishop Perez broke from the gate like a Triple Crown winner. In his first 45 days back home, he was out visiting parishes, a high school and planning regional masses to get out amongst everyone. “I’m fundamentally an extrovert, so I love being around people… but this pandemic really threw a wrench into the works.” In that sense, he exudes sincerity when he speaks of rescheduling everything that was cancelled or postponed. 

“I have a real special place in my heart for youth and young adults… and I can’t wait to meet them in my new roll that the church has asked me to serve in here…” 

Delayed start aside, and as we collectively work towards a return to what we once took for granted as normal, expect Archbishop Perez to be at the ready to hit the ground running. Again. 

Call it divine intervention; call it what you will. But this is the right time and place for him. Now, more than ever, Philadelphia Catholics are poised to embrace and follow a trusted leader in the hopes of better days ahead. 

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