Tuesday, February 18, 2020

In River City, The "Rising Son"

Some months ago, as the process which led to today wended on, one of the contenders told Whispers that "I would have to be psychotic to say 'Yes' to your place."

Given the enduring challenges at hand, odds are this bishop wasn't just speaking for himself. But for those of us who already know and love this city and its Church – and, indeed, are the most clear-eyed of all about the situation here – there would never be any such qualms: not out of a sense of ambition, but of devotion.

And amazingly, that sense would end up carrying the moment.

To be sure, the first return of a Philadelphia priest to the Chair of St John Neumann in over a century was anything but a certain prospect. But seeing how this scribe's own have reacted to it these last three weeks, it's suddenly become hard to conjure how any other choice could've been made. If anything, the effect just the news alone has had echoes the sense expressed by Romano Guardini in the wake of a world war: "An event of incalculable importance has begun – the church is awakening in souls."

Just a few months after taking Nelson Perez out of Philly as a bishop, Benedict XVI used the same phrase in his last address as Pope. As he explained the thought in another text, Guardini "meant to say that no longer was the church experienced and perceived as merely an external system entering our lives, as a kind of authority, but rather it began to be perceived as being present within people's hearts – as something not merely external, but internally moving us."

If that doesn't lay out the "conversion" upon which the 10th Archbishop's mandate rests, nothing ever could. Still, that its motion is already in evidence after 15 trying, brutal years of crises and scandals – compounded by the most sweeping institutional contraction ever seen in an American diocese – is nothing short of extraordinary.

Only today, however, does the work begin.

Thirty years since his priestly ordination in the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Nelson's Installation in the same place begins at 2pm Eastern (procession from 1.40) – the livefeed will be on Whispers' main page then.

As you might imagine, after the intensity of the yearlong process followed by a historically quick handover, this Philadelphian's brain is a bit fried, but the experience has been worth the trip.

For now, one last thought before the finish line.

From time immemorial, it's been Whispers' custom to note the unique import of February 22nd for American Catholics – on the latter side, it's the feast of the Chair of Peter, the premier feast marking the role of the Pope, while in the States, it's the civic equivalent thereof as Presidents' Day, timed to coincide with George Washington's birthday. (As ever, the civil holiday was observed on Monday.)

Long as that link's been made here, only in our time have the two histories fully converged: on his 2015 visit to Philadelphia, the reigning pontiff became the first Bishop of Rome to visit Independence Hall, where Francis saw the chair from which Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (left).

Given the carving on the back of the seat, at the drafting's close, the future first President was led to remark that it represented "a rising, and not a setting, sun."

And now, thanks to Francis' decision for this place, as of today, we'll see it again, this time over St John's Chair – the new coat of arms has the very same symbol on it.

While the official description attributes its placement to the Perez clan's roots in Cuba, there's a hidden meaning as well: a stealth nod to Nelson's first pastorate, St William's on Rising Sun Avenue in the Northeast.

Clearly, all this didn't fall into place overnight. But it's no coincidence, either – as our Seventh Archbishop always taught his sons, there is only Providence...

...and after three decades living this beat in this place, to see another of these sons now come home as his successor is about as fulfilling as it gets.