Philadelphia, Pa., Jan 23, 2020 / 01:35 pm (CNA).- The next Archbishop of Philadelphia said Thursday that he is glad for a homecoming to his native archdiocese, that he is inspired by the example of his predecessor, and that he aims to make pastoral presence the hallmark of his spiritual leadership.
Archbishop-elect Nelson Perez of Philadelphia said at a press conference Jan. 23 he is inspired by the “steadfastness” and “profound faith” of Archbishop Charles Chaput, his predecessor.
“I watched it from afar, learned from him—just watching him—how steadfast he was, and with profound faith, that while things were tough that God would make a way,” Perez said of Chaput who served as Philadelphia’s archbishop since 2011, “that somehow, someway, all things happen for the good of those who love God, as St. Paul said.”
“And he did that many times even in the midst of criticism,” he added, “but he was steadfast in his love for you and his love for the Church.”
On Thursday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput—submitted, according to Church practice, on his 75th birthday in September—and selected one of Philadelphia’ former priests, Bishop Nelson Perez of Cleveland, as Chaput’s replacement.
Archbishop-elect Perez’s installation Mass will be Feb. 18 at Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. Perez served as Cleveland’s bishop since 2017, after serving five years as auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre, New York.
When he is installed as archbishop, Perez will oversee almost 1.3 million Catholics and 214 parishes in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia archdiocese will likely face parish and school closures in the months to come. Perez acknowledged he will need to make decisions about those matters soon.
When asked by CNA on Thursday about his pastoral ministry, Perez began with one word: “presence.”
“I’m certainly not going to sit behind a desk. The role of the bishop is to be out and about,” he said, noting that in Cleveland he estimated he spent around 60% of his time visiting parishes and meeting with young people.
Outgoing Archbishop Chaput was often characterized in the press as a “culture warrior” who took “conservative” positions on controversial issues. The New York Times on Thursday suggested Chaput’s successor would embody a different vision for the Church in Philadelphia.
Perez balked at any notion that he and Chaput are at odds as bishops.
“We both definitely walk with the Church,” he told CNA.
During Thursday’s press conference announcing the appointment, Chaput heaped praise on the former Philadelphia priest. Perez, 58 years old, was born in Miami and raised in New Jersey but attended seminary at Philadelphia’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He was ordained a priest of the archdiocese in 1989 and served for more than 20 years before moving to Rockville Centre in 2012.
Chaput told the press that he described his ideal successor last year to the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre.
“I asked for a successor who would care for and guide our people, speak the truth with conviction and charity, and live a faithful witness to Jesus Christ,” Chaput recalled.
“He [Perez] was enthusiastically supported and very well loved by the people he served as pastor. And for good reason,” Chaput said.
“He’s a good man, a man of deep Catholic faith, with the skills, character, and warmth that will make him an exceptional leader here in Philadelphia. He is exactly the man with exactly the abilities our Church needs.”
Perez admitted he is grateful to come back to the place of his ordination.
“Once a Philadelphia priest, always a Philadelphia priest,” he said on Thursday. “You carry it kind of inside you.”
Regarding his predecessor, “I am concerned of the shoes I have to fill,” Perez said. He noted that even after he left Philadelphia, he and Chaput would text and email each other, and that the archbishop had been a “mentor and brother bishop” to him.
When he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre in 2012, Perez said he visited Chaput at his residence. The archbishop disappeared into another room and came back to Perez with a pectoral cross.
“He put it around my neck and he said ‘you are now my brother bishop,’” Perez reflected on Thursday. “And ever since then, he’s been such a great support.”
At Thursday’s press conference, Perez wore the pectoral cross Chaput gave him.
Chaput had to make tough decisions for the good of the archdiocese and the Church, Perez said, “many times like a father has to do in a family.”
“He made calls that today, have placed the archdiocese in a way better place,” he said. “In particular we need to thank God and praise God for this man.”
As the son of Cuban immigrants, Perez has had a longtime focus on Hispanic ministry, leading Hispanic ministry efforts in Philadelphia, Rockville Centre, and on the national stage, as the former chair of the U.S. bishops’ sub-Committee for Hispanic Affairs.
Perez also helped lead the V Encuentro process for the USCCB, a national gathering of more than 3,000 Hispanic Catholic leaders that outlined evangelization priorities for the U.S. Church.
The most pressing issue for the Hispanic Church in the U.S., he told CNA, is reaching second- and third-generation immigrants who are culturally but not linguistically Hispanic. Studies have shown a decline in religious practice with each succeeding generation of immigrant Catholic families.
“We have to create a pastoral style that is Hispanic in culture and nature, but in the English language,” he told CNA.
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