CLEVELAND — On the day after being named by Pope Francis as the tenth Archbishop of Philadelphia, Bishop Nelson Perez took a ride with the man he's replacing, Archbishop Charles Chaput, to the shrine of one of their predecessors, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann.
The spot is one Perez visited many times over his years as a parish priest in Philadelphia but on this day, as he knelt before the body of the first American male saint, it hit him.
"Is this for real," Perez said thinking to himself. "Is this even for real that I'm sitting next to really a hero and a giant in the Catholic Church in the United States, Archbishop Chaput and before the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, a saint and now I'm heading in line with them to be a successor of them. It really kind of blows my mind. I try not to think of that but it was an awesome moment that I said 'oh my God is this really happening?'"
Perez will be installed as Archbishop of Philadelphia during a mass to be celebrated at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, February 18. The speed with which this transition is taking place is remarkable with the retiring Archbishop Chaput expressing to Pope Francis his desire that this change take place before the start of Lent at the end of the month.
"I understand this is one of the quickest turnarounds in the United States of a bishop going from one diocese to another," said Perez. "Usually it has to happen within 60 days according to church law but this is happening three and a half weeks after the public announcement so it's quick."
The speed was the secondary surprise with the announcement itself being the first. Perez was only named to the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland in the summer of 2017, a place he said he quickly learned to call home.
"It's sad leaving Cleveland for me I have to honestly say and that's been the predominant feeling because Cleveland has been wonderful for me, the people of Cleveland, they're faith filled, joyful, they embraced me, they loved me, I loved them back. I fell in love with the people of Cleveland and I owe the people of Cleveland a debt because they taught me how to be a diocesan bishop, they taught me how to shepherd a diocese. Now that's there gift to me and really to the church of Philadelphia," he said.
At 58 he is the youngest Archbishop of Philadelphia since the late John Cardinal Krol was named to the post in 1961 at the age of 50. Like Perez, Krol also came to the post from Cleveland.
"It's just interesting that there's been this back and forth between Cleveland and Philadelphia. I think it's the third bishop of Cleveland, Bishop Horstmann was a Philadelphia priest, Cardinal Krol was a Cleveland priest, a Cleveland auxiliary bishop then goes to Philadelphia," he said. "Now a Philadelphian comes by way of New York to Cleveland now goes back and in fact the new coach of the Browns is from Philadelphia. So there's been like this relationship with Cleveland and Philadelphia."
Because of his young age Krol would end up overseeing the Archdiocese for 27 years that's why some have called the elevation of Bishop Perez as a legacy pick for Pope Francis.
"I really don't know why the Holy Father named me for Philadelphia to be honest with you," he told News 5. "They don't tell you, you just get a call and you're told that the Holy Father is requesting this of you and in obedience you'll accept it."
Once he is installed as Archbishop of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Cleveland will either be sent an apostolic administrator from outside or a diocesan administrator from inside until the Pope names a new bishop. When that day comes in the near future the new bishop can expect a call.
"As soon as the Holy Father announces who is coming here I'm going to call that guy and say 'you are one lucky man,'" he said.