Just a few weeks after Nelson J. Pérez ’84 was installed as the 10th archbishop (and 14th bishop) of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, overseeing the spiritual life of 1.3 million Roman Catholics, the global COVID-19 pandemic sent his flock into lockdown.
“I stand and I preach to an empty cathedral that holds 1,200 people. There’s no one there and at the same time, there are a lot of people there,” Pérez explains. “In the last few months my presence has been virtual, which has been odd.”
However, the self-proclaimed extrovert has found a silver lining: Some 27,000 to 30,000 people were watching the livestream of Sunday Mass from the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia each week before the limited return of in-person Mass began in June.
The Basilica is a long way from Pérez’s time earning a bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Montclair State, but the archbishop remembers how those years shaped him: “My college years were not party hardy. They were study worky – which I think helped form a certain work ethic in me.”
The middle son of Cuban immigrants, Pérez grew up mostly in West New York, New Jersey. During his undergraduate years, he drove along Route 3 to what was then Montclair State College, scheduling his classes early three days a week so that he could work nearly full time at Sears Credit Central in Secaucus.
His time at Montclair State and public schools in New Jersey molded him in multiple ways.
“What it gave me is a broader vision of the secular world,” says Pérez. “Because my education and formation was not exclusively within the realm of Catholic schools and Catholic education. That, in some ways, challenged my faith and made it stronger too.”
After Montclair State, Pérez taught high school in Puerto Rico before entering the seminary, eventually earning a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.
One of only three Hispanic archbishops in the U.S. and the first Hispanic to lead the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pérez brings bilingual skills that help when shepherding five counties of Catholics through a public health crisis with major socioeconomic, racial and cultural impacts.
“This moment with COVID, we will get through it. We are not done yet. It has brought upon all of us an opportunity to reevaluate what are the things that are important? The things we didn’t appreciate? That we took for granted? All of a sudden our routines are taken away. People are saying, ‘We can’t wait to go to work.’ Families have reconnected. I think people have also reconnected with their faith.”
Nonetheless, Pérez says, we all crave human connection and a return to normalcy. “People have asked me, ‘Do you think this is the way we are going to go to church?’ No. That’s like having dinner on Zoom. … And you hear it in families. Families are saying, ‘We want a hug. We want to hold hands.’”
He also shared a message for today’s students:
“Ultimately what you do with the formation and education that you get at Montclair State is not just about you,” he says. “It’s about the world that you are going to help to make a better place.
“You are a gift to the world. When Pope Francis speaks about young people he doesn’t call you the future. He calls you ‘the now of God.’ … Never underestimate the gift that you are to the people around you.”
–Mary Barr Mann