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 Pope Benedict XVI’s naming 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 April 6, 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.

Father Marcos Gonzalez, pastor of St. John Chrysostom Church in Inglewood, Calif., 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.

In his third pastoral letter issued as ordinary in 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.

Forming Alliances

Church experts who have followed the archbishop’s career don’t expect the archbishop to tackle 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, an author and former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference. “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, CardinalRogerMahonyBlogs LA.blogspot.com. “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.

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.

Hispanic Outreach

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.

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.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.