Archbishop Perez on ‘The Mystery of the Eucharist’: We Need to Deepen Our Love

The Cuban-American archbishop of Philadelphia discusses outreach to the Latino community, the need for a Eucharistic Revival, and upholding the sanctity of life as the Supreme Court considers abortion next month.

Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia speaking with Montse Alvarado on EWTN News In Depth Nov. 4, 2021.
Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia speaking with Montse Alvarado on EWTN News In Depth Nov. 4, 2021. (photo: EWTN)

Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia spoke with host Montse Alvarado on Nov. 4 at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. The interview aired on EWTN News In Depth on Nov. 12.

 

Archbishop Perez, it’s so wonderful to be here with you on the feast of St. Charles Borromeo here in St. Martin’s Chapel at the seminary where you just celebrated Mass a few minutes ago.

This morning we had the Mass; we had the celebration of candidacy, where men have formally declared and accept the Church — the Church accepted them as candidates for holy orders. So it was beautiful. [Montse: That’s wonderful, praise God] beautiful, moving. And it’s always a special day here at St. Charles. I did it here in this chapel myself. I was ordained a priest of Philadelphia. So I’ve sat in these very pews during my time in seminary formation. And so it’s still surreal to walk into this very chapel now as the archbishop of Philadelphia.

 

The Holy Spirit is wondrous in its ways. What can you tell us about how being Latino informs you being an archbishop? It’s a unique thing nowadays.

It is unique. There are only three of us: Archbishop [José] Gomez in Los Angeles, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller in San Antonio, and now me. It’s very humbling, No. 1; it’s very humbling for me to be one of three. I think it is the Holy Father’s understanding, also, of the presence of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States. We know from the Fifth Encuentro that 61% of Catholics in the United States at this time, 18 and under, come from a Hispanic background — from 20-something different countries that inform that word, right. So you do the math. So, to me, it’s a great source of joy. I don’t see myself, Montse, as a Hispanic bishop or a Latino bishop, in that sense, because, to me, in that sense, that doesn’t really exist. I’m a Catholic bishop who happens to be Cuban background. I was born in the United States, but my parents came from Cuba.

 

Tell us a little bit about them.

My parents have, like the story of many Cuban refugees: So when I hear about immigrants and refugees, that resonates in my heart. My father, at the age of 25, managed some 20-something banks in Cuba; he was a banker. And my mother and my father and my older brother, God rest his soul, came here in 1960. And I was in my mother’s womb. I already existed — from natural birth to natural death — Nelson already existed; he just hadn’t shown up yet, but he was on the plane. I was in Cuba. But they left that day. They left their house, and the place where they lived … left the places where we lived, never to go back, with a hope that somehow things would change.

And they didn’t. My father, who was a banking executive, his first job in Miami was selling Domino Sugar door-to-door. Then he moved — New York is the banking capital of the world — so he moved himself and us — I had already been born — to the New York metropolitan area, where he got his first banking job as a teller. This is a guy that managed a bunch of banks, and now you have to work as a teller and had to go learn English. And with his broken English, over time, he retired as a senior executive vice president of a bank in New York, and he started as a teller. I admire that a lot. And my mom, the woman of great faith. I got from my dad, I got the practicality of addressing issues and his steadfast faith. From my mom, I got her spirituality, and she taught me the desire to do God’s will in all things, which is easier said than done. In a lot of ways, they were great teachers to me, without even knowing that they were teachers in that way.

 

Knowing this story and how it informs your spirituality, do you think that our Church today is underinvesting in the Hispanic community?

I think it still has to wake up a little bit. I think a lot has been done. I think the Fifth Encuentro was, for the Church in the United States and the people of the United States, a wake-up call in a lot of ways, and the bishops have been wonderful in the support of that — it’s a Fifth Encuentro, because there were four others.

To listen to the voice of the Spirit: The Holy Father has called us to a spirit of synodality — well, that was, in a sense, a synod without a synod — without being called that, right? But it was bringing people into dialogue, which is such a favorite word of the Holy Father, that he’s now called us all to, right, to walk and dialogue together and see where the Spirit is guiding us. And the fruits of the Fifth Encuentro are still yet unfolding. But, yes, I think we’ve still got some ways to go, but we’ve also come a long way, as well; in many ways where I sit right now and what I do right now is a testament to the Church recognizing that. [Montse: It’s proof of that.] And I say that with all modesty, because that has nothing to do with Nelson Perez. It has to do with the fact that the Church has listened to the voice of the Hispanic people. And so, while I don’t see myself as a Hispanic bishop, but as a Catholic bishop, I also know that I’m a Cuban-American, too, at the same time, and I understand the significance of that.

 

There’s something beautiful when we walked into this wonderful chapel, you have the altar from All Saints-All Souls, right. That’s right, where the Mexican-American community, or just Mexican community celebrates and prays for their dead. How do you deal with that diversity? A lot of people think the Latino, Hispanic community is homogeneous, but it’s really diverse. As you mentioned, 27 countries.

Actually, very rich; you know, I’m sure your mom and dad and your family, won’t say that they’re Hispanic. They say they’re Mexican. My mom would say we’re Cuban. In the same way that people who speak English won’t say that they’re Anglos. They say they’re Irish, Scottish, British, or Australian. There’s a beautiful diversity and richness to it. And at the same time, you’ll find in the Hispanic, Latino world that the Mexican wants to be a Mexican, and the Cuban wants to be a Cuban, and the Puerto Rican wants to be Puerto Rican, and each bring a richness that’s united by language, and actually faith and spirituality that we wear on our sleeves.

 

We do, but it informs who we are and our identity as Catholics.

It informs who we are and how we live.

 

Archbishop, you were part of the response to the social unrest and all of the different race issues that happened in the last two years. How did you address that? And why did you think that that was so important?

There was a lot of social unrest here in Philadelphia. We were one of those places where thousands and thousands of people walked in peaceful protest, right? Because the hurt of racism is underneath the skin. So all you need to do is hit it. I walked on a Sunday afternoon with about 150 young adults praying the Rosary through the streets of Philadelphia. But then it all went away. But the hurt of the sin and evil of racism isn’t gone. And I met with our Black Catholic community; From there came the notion, the idea, the moving of the Spirit to establish the Archbishop’s Commission on Racial Healing and Dialogue. And so they began their work, but it’s about racial healing and dialogue. And it represents people from the suburbs, the city and different races as we all come together to talk to each other, because that’s where healing actually does happen: when we hear each other’s stories.

 

Why is the Church such a unique place and the right place to have these discussions?

Jesus was a healer, Jesus was a healer — was a big part of his ministry. And the Church humbly holds the place of being the sacrament of Christ in the world. So the Church has to be a healer.

 

 

We have this document that’s coming out of the USCCB [as the U.S. Bishops meet for their fall assembly]. That’s also causing great division with some people who want a very pastoral approach to Eucharistic cohesion, to that understanding of who we are as Catholics. Now, we bring that into the public square, and some who want a political approach, where they want people to be publicly censored or censured for the way that they advocate for abortion or undermine Church teaching publicly. What can you tell us about how we should think about that?

My hope for that document, as well as the Eucharistic Revival, is that we all, as Catholics, deepen our love for the Eucharist. Because if we do that, then the Lord will take care of the rest — that we deepen our love for the Eucharist, and then put our hearts where they need to be. And that means defending life. It means defending the poor. It means defending the immigrant. It means walking with those in need. It means a lot of things. But I pray that what we do and how we do it will bring us together to deepen our love for the power — the transformative power — of Christ in the Eucharist that has transcended time.

 

The Supreme Court is going to address a very serious issue, the issue of legalized abortion in the United States, what is your hope for what they will do there?

They need to recognize that life is sacred. And that we can't play around with that. And that life begins in the womb, at conception. And that it is not our place to decide when life begins, it was decided for us by God. And I hope they understand that, that once we lose respect for the most vulnerable, in the womb, or at the other end of life, of the spectrum, we've lost a lot. And if there's one thing we see in our country today with the violence in our streets, like in Philadelphia, you have the highest right now, level of homicides in a long time, is that life becomes disposable, and cheap. We have to go back to our roots and recognize that life is sacred. From the womb, to the person that's standing in front of you, because it's a gift from God. And it's not our right to go play with it. [Montse: and to let that influence our encounters.]. Our Encounters, our decisions and yes, our opinions [Montse: Yes, our public witness], our public witness, right?

 

You’ve been so instrumental in helping me think through these issues. And I hope that our viewers will share in thanking you. …

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