It felt like a homecoming.
Archbishop Nelson J. Perez, whose deep connections to Philadelphia include a seven-year stint as pastor of St. William Church in Lawncrest, on Feb. 18 celebrated his first Mass as head of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia.
Perez’s two-and-a-half-hour Mass of Installation, an ornate ceremony that featured three choirs, was held at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, where he was ordained a priest in 1989.
“I’ve always said since I left (the diocese) seven-and-a-half years ago that once a Philadelphia priest, always a Philadelphia priest,” he said.
Perez, 58, who was born in Miami and raised in North Jersey, took over from Archbishop Charles Chaput, who reached 75, the traditional retirement age for Catholic bishops.
As priests arrived at the basilica, Perez greeted them with hugs and handshakes, and he did the same with churchgoers as he processed to the altar, exchanging waves and points.
Two busloads, around 70 people, attended from St. William, where Perez was pastor from 2002 to 2009. The Rev. Al Concha, the church’s current pastor, said parishioners have been excited about the appointment.
“They’re extremely delighted,” he told the Northeast Times. “It’s very wonderful news for everyone, mostly so they can see him now more personally on a normal basis.”
Perez, who had been serving as bishop of Cleveland, returned to St. William in January 2019 to lead a Mass kicking off the parish’s 100th anniversary celebrations, which recently concluded. The new archbishop played a part in fostering the church’s strong community, Concha said.
During his time in Lawncrest, Perez was also a board member of the Philadelphia Protestant Home and Lawndale Neighborhood Revitalization Project.
Though the installation ceremony had an almost party-like atmosphere, Perez has a tough task ahead of him, shepherding a diocese that continues to deal with financial difficulties, shrinking Mass and school attendance, and, perhaps most prominently, the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
“Your Excellency, yours is not an easy task,” said Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. “The Holy Father (Pope Francis) has great confidence in you.”
Perez briefly addressed the abuse scandal, speaking of “the sad betrayal of some of our own who have deeply hurt those they were called to serve, for which we and I are ever so deeply sorry to these victims.”
“We continue to work with hope that we will make it right and be a source for them of healing,” he added.
Pierre presented Perez with a letter from the pope, and the new archbishop embraced Chaput before taking his chair, or cathedra, and his staff, known as a crozier.
One of the first people to greet Perez in a receiving line during the ceremony was Father Judge High School President Brian Patrick King and senior Angelo Colon. They were picked, along with a delegation from Little Flower, to represent the archdiocese’s high schools.
“It was memorable,” King said. “It was kind of one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. To sit there and see how the day unfolded, I mean, it was kind of breathtaking.”
In his homily, which was delivered on the step separating the congregation from the sanctuary, Perez spoke about Christian hope and encouraged people to re-engage with the faith and with the church.
“It is time to reach out and grab His hand, grab the Lord’s hand,” Perez said. “It is time to come back to church, to the source of the Lord in his Word and on that altar.”
He repeatedly quoted Francis’s “The Joy of the Gospel” and said hope is not wishful thinking.
“Hope is the confident expectation of what God has promised and its strength is in His faithfulness,” Perez said.
The Rev. Jim DeGrassa, pastor of Resurrection of Our Lord Church in Rhawnhurst, was on a previously-scheduled parish bus trip but watched the Mass online. He was impressed by Perez’s message and enthusiasm.
“He talked about hope and, after everything we’ve been through at the archdiocese, that’s a great way to start this next chapter,” DeGrassa said.
St. Dominic’s pastor, the Rev. Edward Kearns, did attend the Mass and met Perez years ago, when the archbishop was a young priest serving at St. Ambrose Church in Olney.
“He’s always had a good reputation in Philadelphia,” Kearns said. “He’s a very warm, friendly individual, very intelligent but a nice way about him.”
Significant portions of the Feb. 18 liturgy were conducted in Spanish. Perez’s parents were born in Cuba, and he is Philadelphia’s first Hispanic bishop. Much has been made of his ability to connect with Latino Catholics; however, Concha, the St. William pastor, said Perez has a knack of forming bonds with anyone.
When Perez returned for the centennial celebration, after having left St. William a decade ago, he remembered the names of parishioners and even asked about their family members, Concha said.
Last week’s festivities also highlighted Chaput’s tenure. He was named archbishop in 2011 and drew flak early on for closing schools and parishes in an attempt to cut costs.
“He made decisions that sometimes a father has to make, decisions that at times brought him great suffering and criticism,” Perez said during his homily.
DeGrassa credited Chaput for being realistic about the archdiocese’s fiscal challenges and for involving priests in big-picture discussions. Kearns praised his handling of the sex abuse crisis, for which his predecessors have received strong rebuke in various investigative reports.
As for Perez, he’s been asked what his plan is for the new job.
“The plan is, as I said in Cleveland, that I have no plan,” he said. “I hope to listen and visit over time (and) learn what the church of Philadelphia looks like today.” ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.