But what does the election of Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles truly signify?
Secular media depicted the choice of the first Latino bishop to become president of the conference as a deliberate rebuke of President Donald Trump over the issue of immigration.
Such an assertion is a partisan misunderstanding of both the thinking of the bishops and the stature of Archbishop Gomez. He was not chosen out of some petty grudge against Trump. Nor was he chosen simply to check some box to promote diversity.
In reality, by electing Archbishop Gomez, the bishops have chosen steady leadership not only in a time of political, social and spiritual challenges, but also of immense opportunity and hope for reform and renewal. His election communicates that the U.S. bishops are determined to stay the course of leadership that is firm and faithful in upholding the teachings of the Church, while recognizing the incredible cultural diversity that exists in Catholicism in the United States.
In thanking the members of the conference after his election, Archbishop Gomez noted “the beautiful diversity and the missionary spirit of the family of God in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.” In his archdiocese, the largest in the country, Mass is said in dozens of languages. He also stressed that the vote was “a recognition of the essential place that Latino Catholics hold in the life of the Church and in the life of our great nation.”
Archbishop Gomez, born in Monterrey, Mexico, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1995. A priest of Opus Dei in Texas for a number of years, he was a major figure in the National Association of Hispanic Priests and the National Catholic Council of Hispanic Ministry.
A key indicator of Archbishop Gomez’s continuity with the U.S. bishops’ previous generation of leaders is his initial episcopal appointment, as auxiliary bishop from 2001 to 2004 under then-Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who hailed his colleague’s election as USCCB president. Archbishop Gomez subsequently served as the archbishop of San Antonio from 2004 until 2011 and then as archbishop of Los Angeles since 2011.
He is, of course, profoundly aware of the experience of Latino Catholics, who currently account for nearly 40% of the U.S. Catholic population. And he has long been an advocate of an immigration reform that he calls “possible and reasonable” and offered after his election to sit down with President Trump and other political leaders to discuss immigration reform. Indeed, he has long been one of the most articulate spokesmen among the U.S. bishops advocating for authentic Catholic teaching on immigration, having continuously stressed the need to find the proper balance between maintaining the dignity of immigrants and the right of the country to respect its borders.
Equally, as shepherd over a sprawling archdiocese, he is personally aware of the immense challenges of secularism, materialism and atheism, as well as the plight of the homeless, elderly, vulnerable and especially the unborn.
As head of the bishops’ committee tasked with recent updates of the conference’s “Faithful Citizenship” guidance for Catholic voters, Archbishop Gomez oversaw a process that ended with the bishops upholding abortion as the “preeminent priority” of society today. “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority,” the bishops taught in a new letter accompanying their voter guide, “because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family and because of the number of lives destroyed.”
And as pointedly noted by Archbishop Chaput during an assembly floor debate over the letter’s content, this continuing insistence of the preeminence of pro-life perspectives in no way conflicts with Pope Francis’ instruction that the lives of the poor and marginalized must also be defended with equal passion — as demonstrated by the letter itself, since it includes relevant language specifically addressing this point taken from the Holy Father’s 2018 apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad).
In another expression of common ground with papal priorities, Archbishop Gomez has gone out of his way to praise the immense good being done by average Catholics out of love for Jesus Christ. In an interview with EWTN News Nightly, he echoed the words to the bishops this week by the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, that despite challenges there are many good stories to tell. Catholics do good work everywhere, Archbishop Gomez said, and “are making a big difference in our country.”
Central to that “big difference” is evangelization. Reflecting on Pope Francis’ call for a Church that goes out, Archbishop Gomez told News Nightly that evangelization entails the bishops working to bring the faith to everyday life. And he and his brother American bishops now have the opportunity to outline personally to the Holy Father the manifold ways that the U.S. Church is living out this profound commitment to the Church’s evangelical mission, as they continue to travel in regional groups to meet with him during the U.S. bishops’ quinquennial ad limina visits that are now underway.
This practical understanding of the faith undergirds the new USCCB president’s plans and priorities for the conference.
“We are living in a moment of hope and renewal in the Church,” Archbishop Gomez wrote on the day of his election, a moment that entails evangelization and missionary work in culture. But he also readily acknowledges the scourge of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis and has pledged to continue to fight against all abuse in the Church.
For Archbishop Gomez, these practical priorities are placed in the context of eternity.
As he wrote recently in a note to the faithful of the archdiocese on Nov. 1, the Solemnity of All Saints, “We are not here to just drift through our days, only responding to what comes next or accomplishing the tasks set before us. God intends our lives, our journey through time, to have a purpose and a destination — eternity, heaven, the love that never ends.”
Famously soft-spoken and always courteous and temperate, Archbishop Gomez as head of the conference represents a new moment for faithful Catholics to embrace civility but also quiet, holy heroism in modern culture. In his own words, “Our times call for a heroic Christianity, but not a heroism of big speeches or grand gestures. There is a quiet, ‘hidden’ heroism in Christian living, being missionaries and apostles in the circumstances of our daily lives, not worrying about the pressures to conform to our society, not worrying about what other people may say.”
Sound advice for the average Catholic and even sounder advice for America’s bishops.