“The diversity of the church is its greatest strength,” so says Nelson Perez.
Those words signal that Philadelphia Catholics are about to turn the page in local church history. On Jan. 23, Pope Francis appointed Perez, 58, currently bishop of Cleveland, to be the next archbishop of Philadelphia, leading the area’s 1.4 million Catholics — the largest single religious denomination in the region.
Perez will be the first Latinx archbishop in the city and is — politically and socially — diametrically opposed to his predecessor, Archbishop Charles Chaput. Chaput was the first Native American archbishop in the U.S., but unlike Perez, Chaput is a staunch traditionalist. He was appointed in 2011 by Francis’ predecessor, the arch-conservative Pope Benedict XVI.
Philadelphia’s archbishops have nearly always been promoted to cardinal, giving them voting power in the church hierarchy. Francis’ refusal to promote Chaput or to elevate him to cardinal has been viewed as a statement about his disapproval of Chaput’s politics and style and a virtual firing of Chaput.
Perez was made bishop of Cleveland in 2017 by Francis. Carol Kovach, who heads communications for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, said of Perez in a statement to PGN, “A kind, joyous and hard-working person, Bishop Perez is best described as proactive, involved and supportive in his leadership style.”
Of his work in Cleveland, she said, “In the Diocese of Cleveland, he made the visitation of parishes, schools and many other Catholic and community organizations a top priority. He was tireless in his desire to get to know the people and places of the diocese.”
Perez comes to Philadelphia — a renowned sanctuary city — with a track record of standing for immigrants and working in Cleveland to prevent deportations. Unlike Chaput, who is a supporter of President Trump, Perez has said of Trump’s immigration policies and treatment of the poor, “We’ve lost our moral compass.”
As a part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Perez serves as chair of the Bishops’ Standing Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church. In November 2018, Perez began a three-year term as the bishop liaison for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
Cuban-American Perez was born in Miami, raised in New Jersey and ordained in Philadelphia. Perez spent 23 years in Philadelphia as a priest and as a teacher at LaSalle University. Perez also did pastoral counseling while in Philadelphia.
For LGBTQ Catholics, Perez’s appointment is a momentous change. Chaput is widely regarded both in and out of church circles as one of the most virulently homophobic and transphobic members of the Church hierarchy.
Ann Reilly, a longtime member of the LGBT Catholic group DignityUSA, said, “We know [the appointment of Perez] will be a step forward for us as LGBTQ Catholics because Pope Francis could have chosen someone else, someone older, more conservative. But he chose a Latinx bishop who cares about sex abuse victims, cares about immigrants, cares about poor people and cares about opening the church to everyone.”
She added, “Perez’s opening statement to us was one of warmth and humility. He immediately spoke to sex abuse victims, spoke in Spanish to our large Latinx community. I feel so hopeful.”
Out Rev. Naomi Washington Leapheart is an adjunct professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University and served as the faith work director for the National LGBTQ Task Force. She was hired as director for Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs for Philadelphia in October.
Washington Leapheart expressed her excitement over Perez. “This is an important appointment,” she said. “It’s exciting to welcome the first Hispanic person to lead the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Archbishop-Elect Perez has a track record of strong engagement with everyday people, particularly immigrant communities, both here in the city and on the national stage.”
She added, “I’m hopeful that this transition will signal a continued commitment to diversity, compassion and justice within the local Catholic community.”
Many Philadelphians found such commitment lacking under the conservative Chaput. He is known for anti-LGBTQ stances. He has led what many have termed a campaign against LGBTQ Catholics, who he has stated do not exist in terms of church doctrine. While archbishop of Denver and before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue, Chaput worked to defeat legislation that would have granted same-sex couples civil unions in Colorado.
Chaput also pushed for a parochial school student to be expelled because lesbian mothers were raising him. Chaput said of his decision, “Sexual intimacy outside marriage is wrong … and marriage can only occur between a man and a woman.” The preschooler was banned from entering any Catholic kindergarten. Chaput said the child would present a problem in classrooms.
Chaput also said recently that mass shootings are caused by a “culture of sexual anarchy” and “perverted freedoms.”
In October 2018, Chaput gave a speech at the Youth Synod in Rome. He said, “There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic’ or a ‘transgender Catholic’ or a ‘heterosexual Catholic,’ as if our sexual appetites defined who we are; as if these designations described discrete communities of differing but equal integrity within the real ecclesial community, the body of Jesus Christ.”
The text of Chaput’s speech was widely disseminated, and in it, he urged the church to cease making references to LGBTQ Catholics in published materials.
This stance is at odds with Pope Francis, who has been more open to embracing LGBTQ Catholics and even gay priests. The Cleveland Diocese has an LGBT Ministry, but it has not been active since 2018. Perez had no involvement with the ministry, which is largely one of pastoral counseling and events for parents.
Church analysts view Perez’s appointment as yet another sign that Francis is continuing to move away from conservatism to shift the ideological tone of the Catholic church in the U.S. to one that is more progressive and inclusive.
In Cleveland, Perez doggedly routed priests accused of sexual abuse — nearly two dozen in his brief stint as bishop there. In his opening statement in Philadelphia, Perez spoke directly to victims, apologizing to them. Philadelphia has been the locus of a massive cover-up of priest sex abuse.
“Perez couldn’t be more different from Chaput,” said Michael Sean Winters, author of the “Distinctly Catholic” blog for the National Catholic Reporter. Winters, a visiting fellow at Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies and the author of several books on Catholicism, said that “Perez is Francis’ first legacy appointment” in the U.S. Winters cited Perez’s relative youth and the prominence of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which is the fifth-largest in the country.
Winters said, “Philadelphia is the high-water mark for clericalism in the U.S.,” and Francis wants to break that down.
Perez will be installed at a Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Feb. 18.