LOS ANGELES — The appointment of Archbishop José Gomez as coadjutor and successor to Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles signals the decisive role Hispanic leaders will increasingly play in the Church throughout the country.
But the appointment of the 58-year-old archbishop of San Antonio also marks a likely sea change in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Cardinal Mahony — who has held his post for 25 years and who will reach the official age of retirement in February 2011 — is viewed as a Church leader who has emphasized social justice concerns, increased lay participation in Church structures and encouraged liturgical experimentation.
Welcoming his successor Tuesday, Cardinal Mahony chose to underscore their common commitment to serving the needs of Hispanic Catholics. The cardinal applauded the appointment of a Mexican-born bishop to his archdiocese, the largest in the nation.
“I welcome Archbishop Gomez to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with enthusiasm and personal excitement,” Cardinal Mahony said in a statement posted on the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s website.
Elsewhere, the appointment stirred a mix of reactions.
“The changes for Los Angeles’ Catholics may be wrenching,” wrote Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times’ opinion pages. “Mahony is the last of the politically progressive, pastorally centered American prelates selected in the wake of Vatican II. Gomez belongs to a traditionalist generation.”
In a different corner of this sprawling archdiocese, however, the news stoked joyful excitement. Father Marcos Gonzalez, the pastor of St. John Chrysostom Church, was openly thrilled. He noted a slew of e-mails he had received applauding the appointment.
Father Gonzalez is already familiar with Archbishop Gomez, who was a featured speaker at a 2009 meeting of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. Father Gonzalez was impressed with the archbishop’s warm personality, clear interest in the renewal of the liturgy, and practical solutions for evangelizing the culture.
“Evangelization poses tremendous challenges here. We are the largest archdiocese in the country. Mass is celebrated in about 51 languages every Sunday,” said Father Gonzalez, who noted that St. John Chrysostom offers eight Sunday Masses — five celebrated in Spanish — for its 8,000 parishioners.
Indeed, Father Gonzalez acknowledges that the honor bestowed on Archbishop Gomez, who could very well become the first Hispanic cardinal from the United States, will be accompanied by huge practical and financial burdens.
“Los Angeles doesn’t have enough priests, and we need to rebuild our vocations program. The archdiocese made a huge payout for clergy sexual-abuse claims, and now we need to rebuild our financial stability. But I hear Gomez has a proven track record for dealing with these issues,” said the priest, a glimmer of hope in his voice.
Armed with an undergraduate degree in accounting and having shown an impressive gift for recruiting vocations in San Antonio, Archbishop Gomez is likely to confront these issues with similar energy in Los Angeles.
But Church experts who have followed his career don’t expect the archbishop to tackle these problems alone.
Since his ordination to the priesthood — followed by his appointment as auxiliary bishop in Denver and his subsequent appointment to San Antonio — Archbishop Gomez has solved problems by forming alliances and adopting a pattern of collaborative leadership. Along the way, he has earned a reputation as a “good listener” who favors gradual reform rather than direct confrontation.
“He is orthodox in doctrine, but not reactionary,” observed Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference and the author of Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church. “He is pastorally sensitive: When he arrived in San Antonio, he didn’t whip out his six-shooter and throw his weight around. He proceeded with prudence.”
Archbishop Gomez was ordained a priest of the personal prelature of Opus Dei, and that affiliation has prompted some media commentators to fret that he will impose “reactionary” practices out of step with the Catholic mainstream.
But Cardinal Mahony himself sought to dispel any preconceptions. “Some may conclude that since Archbishop Gomez was ordained a priest of Opus Dei he must be ‘conservative,’” the cardinal wrote on his blog. “In fact, these labels of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are really unhelpful in the life of the Church. We are all called to a deep relationship with Jesus Christ, and I can attest that both of us share a common commitment to Christ and to the Church, and that both of us are interested in promoting the teachings of the Church fully as well as bringing the words and example of Christ to today’s society and world. I consider ourselves to share an equal commitment to the continued growth of the Church here in Los Angeles.”
Archbishop Gomez told the Register when he was appointed to San Antonio in 2004 that he was no longer affiliated with Opus Dei, a worldwide “diocese” headed by a prelate, because once a priest becomes a bishop he reports exclusively to the pope. It is similar to when a member of a religious order becomes a bishop.
Shaw predicts that the new archbishop will move slowly to implement his own agenda and notes that while serving in San Antonio, he proved to be an excellent communicator with a “direct, transparent” approach, issuing strong documents on Catholic education and evangelization with broad appeal.
George Weigel, the papal biographer and Catholic commentator, noted the substance and tone of Archbishop Gomez’s remarks following the news of his appointment.
“It was entirely in character for Archbishop Gomez to speak at the press conference about prayer as his first reaction to the news of his appointment. This is a man of God who brings others to God and then challenges them to bring God to others,” said Weigel.
“That kind of evangelical Catholicism can give a new vitality to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — and might even begin to convert the culture, which is no small task in the entertainment capital of the world,” Weigel added.
In a 2008 Catholic News Agency interview, Archbishop Gomez acknowledged the difficulty of preaching the Gospel in an over-stimulated, materialistic culture.
“In the old times we not only had Catholic schools, we also had a culture that was supportive of Catholic teachings. The whole life of the cities and towns was built around the religious life,” said Archbishop Gomez.
“Now we have these huge metropolises and television and movies and the media and so many things that have nothing to do with the Catholic Church and Catholic teachings. People live in a society that is often opposed to the faith, and so our challenge is one of formation, bringing people to Christ, and then helping them to deepen their understanding of his life and his teaching, the content of our faith.”
For many Americans, Los Angeles — the flashy, car-obsessed entertainment center — has emerged as a global symbol of modernity’s shallow preoccupations. Yet the archbishop’s past history suggests he will adopt a judicious strategy for engaging the city’s distinctive character.
On the other hand, longtime allies predict he will move quickly to reach out to the Hispanic community, forming alliances and nurturing the development of new leaders who can collaborate with the Church’s evangelization of the culture.
From his early priesthood, Archbishop Gomez has sought to build bridges between Hispanic Catholics and the broader Church, even as he rapidly emerged as a national leader in mainstream institutions, like the USCCB. There he serves as the first chairman of the Secretariat on Cultural Diversity and is the chairman-elect for the Committee on Migration and Refugee Services. His impact goes well beyond Church structures: Time magazine recently named him one of the nation’s most influential Hispanic leaders.
Alejandro Aguilera, assistant director for the Secretariat on Cultural Diversity, recalls the archbishop’s long struggle to draw Hispanic priests and lay Catholics into the broader life of the Church in the United States.
“I first met Gomez almost 15 years ago when he was a priest in the Diocese of Galveston-Houston. He was involved in the National Association of Hispanic Priests and promoted fellowship and companionship for Hispanic priests,” Aguilera recalled.
Later, when he served as auxiliary bishop in Denver, Archbishop Gomez ministered to new immigrants, as well as third- and fourth-generation Hispanic Catholics.
Inspiring a new generation of Hispanic immigrants to deepen their faith, contribute to Catholic institutions and gain confidence in their adopted land is no easy feat. It has become an uncontested truism that full cultural integration often leads second- and third-generation Hispanics to drift away from the sacraments.
Archbishop Gomez collaborated on a number of initiatives designed to address this tendency. In 2008, he founded the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders — C.A.L.L. — which nurtures the religious faith and fellowship of Hispanic businessmen and entrepreneurs, while building their capacity to serve as Church and community leaders.
On the same day that the Vatican announced his appointment to Los Angeles, Archbishop Gomez was scheduled to lead a C.A.L.L. delegation in Rome. Members of the group regretted his absence, but were jubilant when they heard the news.
“This Hispanic archbishop is a man totally committed to the Lord, to his Church and to the Hispanic community,” said Mario Paredes, chairman of C.A.L.L., during a phone call from Rome.
“Since the archbishop arrived in San Antonio, he has challenged the Hispanic community to raise its standards and find its rightful place in the one Catholic Church in the United States,” said Paredes.
During the recent national debate on health-care reform, C.A.L.L. issued statements backing the U.S. bishops’ opposition to federal funding on abortion. C.A.L.L. has sought to increase Hispanic enrollment in Catholic schools by raising funds for tuition subsidies and emphasizing the importance of a Catholic education.
In his third pastoral letter issued on the cusp of his fifth year heading the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Archbishop Gomez exhorted his flock to embrace the task of evangelizing the culture rather than allowing themselves to engender passivity and even a tacit acceptance of values hostile to the faith.
“We want the world beginning with those nearest to us to share in what we have been given — the free gift of God’s grace and the joy that comes with knowing the truth that sets us free,” he stated in his letter on evangelization.
Before long, the Los Angeles Times’ opinion page may be churning with strong reactions to the city’s new Catholic leader — one editorial fretted that Gomez might refuse the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians. But Father Gonzalez, for one, expects good things. “We need him,” said the pastor.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.