This past Thursday, it was announced that Pope Francis had appointed Bishop Nelson Perez, the Bishop of Cleveland, Ohio, as the next Bishop of Philadelphia. He will succeed Archbishop Chaput who reached the obligatory retirement age of 75 this past September. Nelson Perez graduated from St. Charles Seminary and was ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1989. He served as a parish priest and in special ministry in the Archdiocese for 23 years before being named an auxiliary bishop of Rockville Center, New York, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. Two and a half years ago, Bishop Perez was sent to be the Bishop of Cleveland. He’s 58 years old, the son of immigrants from Cuba, and perfectly fluent in Spanish. I watched the press conference in which Archbishop Chaput introduced him and the Archbishop-elect addressed the crowd and took questions from reporters. Bishop Perez seemed to be still in a state of shock at the appointment, recalling the moment when he received the call from the Apostolic Nuncio. He is sad to be leaving Cleveland but delighted to be “coming home.”
That same day, I went to Our Lady of Good Council Parish in Southampton to concelebrate the funeral Mass for the mother of our Director of Religious Education. Chatting about the news of our new Archbishop with the pastor before Mass, I asked him if he knew Bishop Perez. The pastor replied, “He’s my classmate from the seminary. This is unbelievable. My image of the Archbishop of Philadelphia is of someone who was a contributor to the 2nd Vatican Council, a personal friend of the Pope, and who had lunch with the President of the United States.” (He was referring to our former Archbishop Cardinal Krol). “Now, our Archbishop is a guy I used to have lunch with almost every day in the seminary.”
How does one go from being the child of political refugees to the Archbishop of Philadelphia? There was a lot of speculation and a lot of worry over who Pope Francis would appoint. Most of the speculation (and worry) was couched in political terms, i.e., trying to guess what message the Pope would be sending to Philadelphia and the United States by his appointment. But when I heard the news of Bishop Perez’s appointment and heard him speak, it became clear that such worries were mistaken. The appointment was not based on political calculation nor was it the fruit of an ambitious prelate. What I was witnessing was the ongoing fulfillment of Christ’s promise: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Archbishop Chaput said at the press conference: “I asked for a successor that would care for and guide our people; speak the truth with charity and conviction and live a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Bishop Perez is exactly the man with exactly the abilities that our church needs. I’m very grateful to Pope Francis for sending him home to us in Philadelphia.” I don’t think many people, including Bishop Perez, expected this appointment, especially since Bishop Perez has only been in his post as Bishop of Cleveland for just over two years. But to see him there, I recognized something more than just the man. In this event, Christ was calling. What was given to us fit our need in an unexpected way, and when one experiences this correspondence – this “fit” – and this unexpected sense of “being home”, there is a fresh clarity regarding our mission and purpose – why it is that we are here – and a desire and a willingness to follow immediately. This was the experience of those first disciples called by Jesus. They found in him what they were looking for and followed him immediately.
The Church, because it is made up of sinful and fragile people, can fall into a political self-understanding that leads quickly to division, a division not at all different than the divisions we see now in Washington and in our public discourse. We put ourselves into “camps” based on ideology or personality and become rivals to each other. Archbishop Chaput is always characterized in the media as a “conservative” or a “traditionalist”, and from this secular perspective is placed in a “camp” opposed to Pope Francis, who has been portrayed as a “liberal” or “progressive.” St. Paul recognized this same tendency in the newly formed Christian community in Corinth when hearing reports of rivalries among the people. The error in judgement is thinking we belong to a “camp” or a particular person, e.g., to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas instead of to Christ who called Paul, Apollos, and Cephas to follow him. All of those individuals are signs of Christ. They point to Christ. To stop at the sign leads to division. To use an analogy, God calls one to marriage through a particular person, but to put your hope on the particular person and not the one who calls you leads to frustration and division in the marriage. Christ is not divided. In following him, we will experience a unity within ourselves and with each other. He is the one who makes the unity happen. We don’t make it but discover the unity in the following because we are all following Jesus. It is He who unites us. It is Jesus and our fulfillment in him that we have in common and that unites us. The secular world that is obsessed with “identity politics” doesn’t get this. One reporter at the press conference asked Bishop Perez, “How does it feel to be one of only three Hispanic Bishops in the United States?” The bishop responded, “I’m not a Hispanic Bishop. I’m a Catholic Bishop who speaks Spanish.” One perspective divides, the other unites. What is liberating and brings us abundant joy is that God has a plan for our destiny and we don’t have to make it happen. He will form me into the person he desires for his mission of unity. I just have to follow. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” I’m sure Peter and Andrew had no idea at the time what Jesus meant by “fishers of men”. They would discover it and be made into fishers of men in the following. Faith in Christ is what matters. Our hope does not depend on our efforts or ingenuity. To think I have to figure out the future myself and fix the problems is to be stuck in gloom and darkness. Christ the light has entered, and we are called to follow the light. Asked by a reporter if he had hope for the Church in Philadelphia given all the problems and challenges our Archdiocese is facing, Bishop Perez replied, “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.” Anyone who has heard and experienced that same call, shares in the same hope. God bless Archbishop-elect Perez. May we follow this shepherd as he follows Christ’s call.