Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"In Hoc Signo Vinces" (or "Unlike Agholor") – The "Smell of the Scrapple," and Other Philly Notes

“When I was
a young boy
My father
took me into The City
to see a marching band /

He said,
'Son, when
you grow up
Would you be
The Savior of the broken
the beaten, and the damned?'....
While on the usual after-hours circuit at the 2014 November meeting of the US bishops, this scribe stopped to wave and nod to a familiar trio of prelates holed up at a table in the Marriott lounge.

Per his habit, the then-auxiliary of Rockville Centre wasn't with his old confreres from Philadelphia, but the bench's contingent of his fellow Cuban exiles: the auxiliaries of Brooklyn and Newark, Bishops Octavio Cisneros and Manny Cruz. (Somehow, the group's senior member – Felipe Estevez, the Miami-bred bishop of St Augustine – was oddly missing.)

To be sure, Nelson Perez would always join the other Philly priests-made-bishops for their traditional dinner during the week, but – having spent 15 years in these night sessions (i.e. the part of the day when Whispers' work really gets done) – the rest of the time, Nelson invariably wound down the days with the conference's Latino bloc, often including the now-president, LA's Archbishop José Gomez.

In any case, on the night mentioned, Cisneros shouted a memorable greeting my way: "Now you can say you saw the Cubans preparing the 'invasion'!"

Five years later, little could any of us have imagined how that line would prove prophetic.

*  *  *
Having spent the last six days going back through the in-house Archive, the notion of Perez's return to Philadelphia as the Tenth Archbishop was first raised in conversation with an op as early as February 2018 – a month that notably marked another local watershed on the faith-front: the Eagles' first Super Bowl victory, which brought some 5 million of our own into the streets.

Still, even if the prospect of the first "restoration" in 102 years remained a secret to the yokels at the Inquirer, whatever one's record of chops on this beat, the reality of the choice remains a matter of adjustment – or, as the Pope's pick termed it at his free-form Thursday homecoming, "It is surreal for all."

That Nelson is already powerfully aware of this underscores the lack of learning curve that he'll have upon his Installation on February 18th (itself the US' shortest transition in recent memory, besting then-Bishop Sean O'Malley's 29-day entrance into Boston in 2003). At the same time, though, how the trenches are absorbing the new reality speaks to what's arguably the first actual effect this appointment has already had here, even before our prodigal son formally enters the reins.

For nearly two centuries since Philadelphia Catholicism's cultural paradigm was redefined from 1830 onward – when the Dublin-born, 30-something Bishop Francis Kenrick created a system of clericalist rule to eviscerate the lay trustees who drove this infant diocese into schism – the products of said dynamic have been trained and formed, practically from the womb, to hold the office of Archbishop with two things: awe and distance, a legacy which has inevitably rubbed off on the occupants of the post.

Even into the present, see, the overwhelming sense among people and priests alike has remained that a call from the Boss or a summons to meet with him is an event you simply hoped never to experience, because it almost surely meant your ass was in a sling about something. And however unintended it's been, the reality of successive occupants from outside who've had difficulty relating to this unique context – to say nothing of 15 years over which damage control has been the Chancery's foremost priority – have merely served to compound the degree of fear and reticence anytime Pharaoh would show up.

And now, all of a sudden, that historic dread has been lifted – like a sledgehammer hitting a plate-glass window, it might just be gone forever. In other words, to employ a term that's been used for the Pope who named him, simply by emerging as Francis' choice, the guy we've all long known by his first name alone has already accomplished something remarkable: the "demystification" of the job that's long been viewed, both here and beyond, as American Catholicism's last absolute monarch.

Indeed, only the selection of one of our own could have done this, let alone – literally – overnight. Still, as Nelson's never held a role of significant authority in his home-church, this first break points to the question on practically everyone's mind: How will a lifetime of relationships and institutional memory translate into governance? Or, as the Old Guard would have it even now, "What else is he gonna try getting away with?"

Even as the Archbishop-elect has been credited with being "an outside-the-box thinker" during his first Chancery stint in the 1990s, the full shape of it will only become clear with time... however, it might help to remember the Latin(o) approach to things: in English, "More is more."

*  *  *
As he faced his first opening for an auxiliary bishop in late 2013, Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. began the process with one aim in mind: the appointment of a Hispanic priest to serve a burgeoning immigrant population.

While Philadelphia has historically had pockets of Latinos (predominantly Puerto Ricans) in a handful of neighborhoods, the demographics have radically shifted since the mid-1990s as waves of Mexican emigres began settling here, whether for service-labor jobs in the city or agricultural work at the western and southern edges of this five-county fold.

Per diocesan figures, the Philly church's Hispanic population doubled in size from 2000 to 2016 – and, indeed, given the widespread tendency of the undocumented to shirk civil or ecclesial registrations to avoid being found, odds are the spike is bigger still. Nonetheless, the Capuchin prelate was given the same response nearly every US bishop receives on seeking a Hispanic deputy: the Holy See simply didn't have enough promotable Latino candidates to accommodate the request. (For every Stateside petition for a Latin bishop, experience shows the demand is such that one is only able to be provided in roughly every five or six cases.)

Of course, as candidates from ethnic "minorities" are drawn from national lists, Philadelphia's own best-equipped Hispanic had already been snapped up, sent to Long Island and a hat just shy of his 51st birthday. Yet in the end, it all worked out: had Chaput nabbed his desired Latin auxiliary six years ago, it is virtually certain that Perez's homecoming to the 12th Floor of "The 2's" – 222 N. 17th Street (The Philadelphia Chancery) – would never have come to pass.

This isn't the first time the process has only worked over the long haul. One has to be around long enough to be able to understand that.

On a related note, while a good bit of media reaction to the appointment has aimed for sensationalism over substance – above all in terms of seeking to pit predecessor and successor as somehow in opposition to each other on questions of secular politics – back in reality, any notion of a "wedge" between the two archbishops is simply preposterous... or, to use a common Chaput-ism, utterly "foolish." (To use a shorthand the brothers will appreciate, the Pope has named Pérez – not Perzan – as Archbishop.)

For all of the retiring prelate's very well-known qualities after 25 years on the national stage, a poker face ain't among them and never has been. Accordingly, were Chaput in any way displeased with the pick, it wouldn't have taken much to sense it at Thursday's presser – indeed, even the yokels at the Inquirer would've been able to notice.

Given that, it's admittedly hard to recall the last time the Ninth Archbishop sparkled like that in public in this town – after eight years spent battling the archdiocese's century of demons (and worn tired from it), his long-held wish to retire quickly had been granted with lightning speed... and at least as much, the pleasure was clear that his succession belonged to, as he put it, "exactly the man with exactly the abilities our [local] church needs."

History shows how that praise was no fleeting act of magnanimity. Within months of Perez's transfer to Long Island in 2012, Chaput brought his eventual successor back for the archdiocese's annual Hispanic Heritage Mass... and in a gesture underscoring his esteem for the "baby bishop," the archbishop let the young auxiliary use the Chair of St John Neumann for the occasion (above) while the former took a concelebrant's seat in his own Cathedral – a rare yield, one usually rendered only to senior prelates (read: cardinals or Vatican officials) who deign to visit.

(What's more, as Nelson's name began to gather steam over the last six weeks or so – from personal memory, roughly the same point in the process at which the identities of both Chaput and his predecessor, now-Cardinal Justin Rigali, likewise began to emerge – it is telling that two of the Whispers ops who started floating Perez at that stage were sources familiar with the mind of the incumbent.)

At 52, Chaput became the nation's youngest archbishop on his return to Denver, where he had already spent 15 years as a pastor and provincial of his order. And now, 23 years later in the Northeast, that same distinction belongs to his replacement – another well-loved parish priest where he's been restored: Philadelphia's youngest chief shepherd since John Krol himself came here at 50 in 1961... and, again, he too from Cleveland at that.

It's been a long 15 years, but in more ways than one, the circle has completed itself.

Speaking of the circle in the (Logan) Square, it should not be lost on anyone that the Archbishop-elect was himself a parish priest here at the time of the 2005 and 2011 city grand jury reports on the response to abuse by the Chancery he now inherits.

For those of us who lived through the agony of those days – and, if we're going to be fully honest, still carry the wounds of them – the transition of role we're now witnessing isn't just meteoric in its timeframe, but staggering in its impact.

*   *   *

Lastly for now, to one and all of this crowd who've taken a moment over these days to share your closeness, good wishes and prayers, this son of Philadelphia simply can't thank you enough. Even if every appointment is a local church's nonpareil moment of realizing how none of us are ever islands unto ourselves, the flood of notes and calls on this one have made that feeling ever more concrete and moving, and that's meant more than the world.

Beyond the reality of the choice, there's something else to get used to on this end – after a year of daily work and consultations to prepare for this move, and with it the personal sense of sweating the outcome, losing sleep over it (and, in ways you can't imagine, being hounded by the locals about it), the air of foreboding it bore (like a knife hanging over one's head) is suddenly gone, with something much happier and easier in its place.

As birthday presents go, I couldn't have asked for a better one than this... and sure enough, it was even delivered in Whispers Form: 48 hours in advance.

Everything you've seen above – and, indeed, below – is merely a first "snapshot" of a very full scene, the threads of which began long before us and have taken a lifetime of immersion to grasp. In that light, after a year's worth of soundings from among our folks, now that we know who's coming, a fresh round is well underway to begin figuring out our road ahead.

As some of the wider world knows, we're not exactly a shy people, and the input has reflected that in spades. Still, just as certain critical elements kept popping up in charting the course toward the optimal nominee, the same two words are now coming in from across all sorts of divides – burbs and city, people and priests, right and left, Anglos, Latins and the rest:

"I'm hopeful."

"I'm hopeful."

"I'm hopeful...."

And after 15 long, hard years, just hearing that almost feels like a miracle in itself.

That said, though, however "hopeful" we want to be, that won't keep the ground in Aston from sinking; it doesn't mean that we've seen our last cases of clerical misconduct or embezzlement... and, brutal as it is, even the utmost "hopeful" we can muster will not spare Nelson from the specter of a fresh round of school consolidations and closing 100 more parishes, on top of the 70 already shuttered over the last six years.

Nonetheless, just like his predecessors, the incoming Boss will have everything he needs to succeed. And what was true for Pharaohs past remains so for the next of the line – namely, the fulfillment of his mandate is contingent on one thing alone: the degree to which this Archbishop chooses to tap into the goodwill, talent, fidelity and commitment of his people, his religious and clergy, and the wider community to which he returns... because, well, it's one of Philadelphia's most open secrets that when the Church in this place fails, the whole of this region suffers. And Lord knows we have suffered enough.

In early November, the donors and stakeholders who keep Whispers afloat received a private briefing from this scribe, which included the consultation I submitted on this appointment. Those who received it might want to read the salient piece again... either way, it ended with these words: "The people I love most have earned nothing less."

Suffice it to say, the call went through. But it is only the beginning of a defining Encounter ahead.

As the full detail of these weeks would probably bore most of this crowd, the "Director's Cut" of the succession is a matter for the next internal brief. Meantime, as there's now a transition to handle on the home-front – and no shortage of other things soon to drop elsewhere – as ever, keeping this work afloat relies solely on your support:


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Querido Nelson, Welcome Home – Bearing Shades of Krol and Bevy, Cleveland Returns to Philadelphia

Now 212 years into our life as a local church, God's People here in Philadelphia came to accrue an odd distinction in American Catholicism... well, one among others: given the insularity of this place, we've become the last major Stateside diocese that only ever had white bishops....

That is, until now – and the streak ends with a memorable splash onto the Chair of St John Neumann.

Per three Whispers ops, Pope Francis is set to name Nelson Perez – the 58 year-old son of Cuban exiles, until now the bishop of Cleveland, ordained a priest of Philadelphia in 1989 – as his adopted home's 10th Archbishop on Thursday, 23 January.

The move comes four months after the 75th birthday of Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap., who widely aired his wish to be retired quickly after 32 years as an active prelate, the last eight of them embroiled in attempting to rescue the 1.1 million-member Philly fold from a financial and managerial free-fall – an ongoing plate which now includes an unprecedented Federal investigation into clergy sex-abuse across the entire province (i.e. state) his successor will inherit.

And as for the guy this scribe has only ever called "Nelson" – a fellow son of my own father in all this – at first blush, this feels like the best of both worlds: even for his Miami birth and North Jersey boyhood, a figure "native" enough to know and be able to engage the ironclad local culture... yet still sufficiently "outside" as to challenge the intransigence of the same.

With his appointment, Perez is set to become the US' third Hispanic archbishop – an unprecedented number, alongside the metropolitans of San Antonio and Los Angeles, the latter now the first Latin President of the nation's bishops. At the same time, it is significant that Nelson would be the nation's first Latin metropolitan outside of a predominantly Hispanic outpost.

More to come – but for now, as a Philadelphian, the moment still has to sink in.

Above all, again, let us pray in the ways these streets have taught our people...

...y querido hermano – ahora nuestro Pastor – in the words of our history, "receive the certificate of the Cross you will soon carry": Nelson, here's your mandate.


Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Buon Anno... Come, Lord

“At ubi venit plenitudo temporis, misit Deus Filium suum
factum ex muliere, factum sub lege,
ut eos, qui sub lege erant, redimeret,
ut adoptionem filiorum reciperemus....

[“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son:
born of a woman, born under the law,
to ransom those under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as sons....
*   *   *
Before all else, a Blessed Christmas and all the promise of this New Year to you and yours, and especially to those you serve – hope these days have made for a very graced break from the usual! Either way, gratefully, it's still going....

Much as the Fall Cycle now past pretty much unfolded according to plan, given the intensity of these weeks – let alone what awaits over the ones to come – hope you'll understand how this scribe's needed a breather. Lest it wasn't clear, see, even Whispers needs to be human sometimes, even if that means catching the seasonal bug along the way. Still, the lull here will continue as long as events allow – precisely because, before long, they won't. In other words, enjoy the quiet while it lasts.

Nonetheless, there are some critical things to pray over in these days... so where words (or, indeed, the readership's part) fall short, Tradition luckily kicks in.

Ergo, per centuries of Catholic custom at the "gate of the year," may we all join to invoke a new birth of the Spirit – the "Father of the Poor," Whose movement is "not about building walls, but about breaking them down"...

...and given the moment at hand in these pages' home, please pray with us that God's People here in Philadelphia might have the help we need to begin making a Church again in this place, that we can finally start rebuilding from the wasteland that our Chancery and its culture have left us.

Veni, Creator Spiritus....