A unique outreach to Philadelphia police recently welcomed Archbishop Nelson Pérez for a Philly-style cheesesteak lunch — and an in-depth conversation about the challenges faced by those in law enforcement.
On March 30, the archbishop met with several board members of the Michael the Archangel Ministry, based at the Philadelphia Lodge 5 Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
Prior to sharing a meal with the board, Archbishop Pérez visited with FOP president John McNesby.
Named for the patron of police officers and led by Oblate Father Steven Wetzel, the nonprofit Michael the Archangel Ministry — which Father Wetzel describes as “multidenominational, rather than nondenominational” — provides pastoral care, crisis ministry and spiritual enrichment opportunities.
Services include Masses for fallen officers, hospital visits, bereavement support, funeral rites and pastoral counseling to some 14,000 active and retired Philadelphia Police Department members, as well as their families.
Michael the Archangel members also partner with St. Francis Inn, Shriners Hospital for Children, the Red Cross and archdiocesan Catholic Social Services on a number of humanitarian initiatives, including a “Good Night Lights” tribute to Shriners’ patients.
The ministry fills a vital need for police officers, who “don’t exactly deal … with the best of the world” in the line of duty, said Archbishop Pérez.
Homicide, gun violence and drug overdose rates have reached record levels in Philadelphia and in a number of major U.S. cities.
“You’re now seeing three, four people shot at a time,” said Philadelphia Police Sergeant Michael Cerruti, a co-founder and board member of the ministry. “You’re basically on a battlefield in the city.”
Pressure from concerned family and friends to change careers also weighs heavily on officers, said fellow board member Daniel Solecki, chief operating officer of Givnish Family Funeral Homes.
“I can distinctly remember hearing conversations of spouses of other police officers in line at funerals (for deceased officers) paying their respects: ‘Am I going to be next? I’m afraid to answer the phone, afraid to answer the door. Is this going to be me?’” he said.
“Anti-police sentiment” and calls to defund law enforcement have undermined morale amid what is already a difficult and dangerous profession, said Archbishop Pérez.
While acknowledging broader issues of social and prison reform, the archbishop said “cops have gotten beaten up in the last several years; very beaten up. And in the end, you’re there to protect and serve. … Those that society has beaten up are the ones they call when they’re in need.”
Before Michael the Archangel Ministry was founded in 2014, many officers “used to be at the bar to handle such situations,” said Cerruti. “And that wasn’t healthy.”
The ministry began to develop through a chance encounter between Cerruti and Father Wetzel, then pastor of the former St. Joachim Parish in the city’s Frankford section.
When Father Wetzel called for police assistance with a neighborhood drug problem, Cerruti – then an indifferent Catholic working in undercover narcotics – sent a few police to follow up.
“It led to us going to visit (Father Wetzel) on a regular basis in the rectory kitchen, and having all kinds of conversations, and even confessions at the kitchen door,” said Cerruti. “And during those conversations, we talked about a lot of the issues police officers deal with and how to confront those issues.”
(Watch the 2021 “Good Night Lights” tribute organized by Michael the Archangel Ministry.)
Creating the ministry made sense, especially since an estimated “67% of the FOP membership is Roman Catholic, as far as we can identify,” said board member Captain Louis Campione.
Yet Michael the Archangel serves police officers of all faiths, especially since most of the thousands served by the ministry “feel free to talk to Father (Wetzel)” directly about almost anything, said Cerruti.
That closeness is born of what Father Wetzel calls the priestly mission of “presence.”
Whether celebrating pre-dawn Masses for officers between shifts, blessing police in roll call rooms, or riding along on the overnight “last out” shift, Father Wetzel said “it’s important to be with (police) on the street and on the job.”
Amid particularly difficult situations, including suicides, Inspector Frank Bachmayer said he calls on Father Wetzel to bolster responding police officers.
“It’s such a comfort for us,” said Bachmayer.
Officer Jennifer Coco, who works at the Philadelphia Police Training Center, agreed.
“There are a lot of people that will not go for help because they’re embarrassed,” she said. “But because Father is so personable, it’s easy to talk to him about problems. It’s stress, it’s trauma, and you need an outlet.”
Cerruti said the ministry “uses faith to help officers on the right path.”
And that approach shows “behind the uniform, there’s a human being,” said Archbishop Pérez.
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