LOS ANGELES — Archbishop José Gomez, the nation’s first Latino American bishop to lead the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, comes into the job at a testing time — facing the continuing fallout from the McCarrick scandal and other aspects of the clergy abuse scandal, as well as the ongoing challenge of preaching the Gospel in a polarized and ever-more-secular American society.
But according to those who know him well, Archbishop Gomez, who turns 69 on Dec. 26, with his calm and steady demeanor, appears to be the right leader for this moment, with a vision focused on pointing the Church to its original source of unity for its teachings and identity: following the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a Nov. 19 column for Angelus News, the new USCCB president reinforced the point that he does not have his own vision for the Church; rather, the vision and agenda for the Church comes from Jesus alone.
“Jesus gave his Church only one mission and one identity: to tell the world about his life and what he has done for us, and to help them know that Jesus is the way that leads to the truth about their lives, to the love and happiness that they long for,” he said. “We are called to be people who evangelize, disciples who are missionaries. Every one of us. This is our identity as Catholics, and this is the true nature of the Church. And our mission is urgent.”
Perhaps the most cogent expression of Archbishop Gomez’s thought and approach is found in his March 2017 pastoral letter, “For Greater Things You Were Born.” The letter was a clarion call, simple and direct, for Christians to become now “holy men and women living as children of God in the image of Jesus Christ” in their homes, communities, parishes, schools and ministries in the face of “a deepening secularism and ‘anti-humanistic’ spirit in American life.”
“In a society where the reality of God and the meaning of the person are now in question, we need to reclaim and repropose the vision of the human person that we find at the heart of the Gospel,” he said.
Deep Relationship With Jesus
Sister Regina Marie Gorman of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, a longtime friend of Archbishop Gomez and member of the board of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, told the Register that the archbishop took the title of his pastoral letter from her order’s foundress, María Luisa Josefa.
“The call to be saints is what drives this man, consistently,” Sister Regina said.
“He has a sense of urgency that Jesus is calling you now.”
She explained that the archbishop starts the discussion about the Catholic faith with Jesus, not “abstract theology.”
“He speaks from a relationship with God who has become a man,” she said.
That deep relationship with Jesus, she said, is what gives the archbishop strength, peace and constancy in facing challenges. And the archbishop’s conviction that “love wins” with Jesus is also why he leads with “the long view in mind,” she explained, characterizing him as an “astute leader” who does not lurch reactively from crisis to crisis.
Sister Regina Marie added friendship with Jesus comes first even in administration. Rather than administer and hope Jesus blesses the result, she said the archbishop is careful that “initiatives always have the Person of Jesus at the center of what we do.” He focuses first on how “we can serve and love as Jesus loves.”
Start With Prayer
Those who have worked with Archbishop Gomez also know that his relationship with Jesus is founded firmly in prayer, consulting him first in decisions.
“You’re talking about a very humble man, and his humility manifests itself in his prayer life,” Andrew Rivas, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register. Rivas, who has worked with Archbishop Gomez since 2006, explained his perspective is “very Catholic and grounded in the Gospel.” This deliberate consultation with Jesus, and what Jesus wants from him in prayer, is deeply ingrained in his leadership.
Rivas recalled that, one time in Texas, then-Gov. Rick Perry asked Archbishop Gomez for the support of the Texas Catholic Conference on a particular pressing issue. The archbishop did not give the governor an immediate answer, but told him, “I’ll pray about it.”
Two weeks later, Gov. Perry checked in with Rivas and asked what the archbishop had decided. Rivas asked the archbishop, who told him, “Andy, I’m still praying about it.”
Rivas recalled, “The governor was very flummoxed and said, ‘Okay, maybe I should pray about it!’” Eventually, the archbishop finished praying about the matter and then told the governor that he had discerned the issue was important and the conference should get behind it.
“That’s his approach,” Rivas said.
No Single-Issue Saints
According to those who know him, Archbishop Gomez has worked to present the comprehensive entirety of the Church’s social teaching as a fruitful way of loving and serving Jesus at every stage of a person’s life, from conception to natural death. Social action without Jesus, whether for the poor or the unborn, ends itself in exhaustion. The archbishop has not only given public witness on these issues, but also connects it to the call to holiness.
“There are no single-issue saints,” Archbishop Gomez declared in a talk on polarization in American life delivered at Georgetown University in 2018, making clear the call to be a saint, loving as Jesus loves, cannot be parceled along political ideological lines.
Kathleen Domingo, senior director of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told the Register that the archbishop unpacked that meaning with the lives of the saints: Mother Teresa, for example, served the poor, the outcast and the lepers of Calcutta, but spoke eloquently against abortion, linking it to the violence in the world. Dorothy Day similarly worked for establishing a just society for workers, immigrants and the poor, “but she also had an abortion experience and spoke beautifully about the unborn.”
“All of the saints serve all of the people,” she said.
Archbishop Gomez made moves to solidify these connections for people in the archdiocese and integrated the archdiocese’s pro-life and social-justice efforts into a single office dedicated to the issues of life, justice and peace. The archbishop also showed how the Church could make a unified stand for life, starting with the unborn child, with the OneLife LA celebration. It is possible Archbishop Gomez, during his three years as USCCB president, may seek to bring these initiatives to a national scale.
“Every time Archbishop Gomez talks about immigrants, he also talks about the unborn. And every time he talks about the unborn, he talks about immigrants,” she said.
“He wants people to understand that these need not be polarizing issues,” she said. In fact, it's just two sides of the same coin. It's about the beauty of human life. And: Are we helping? Are we not helping?”
Christ Without Compromise
Catholic numbers in the U.S. are declining — and a Pew Research report showed that Latinos in the U.S., long traditionally considered to be a Catholic mainstay and half of the Catholic youth, are now abandoning the faith at a greater rate than the rest of the Catholic population.
But Archbishop Gomez’s approach to this reality at the helm of the USCCB will likely be to emphasize the same approach with Latinos as with all Catholics: challenging them all to embrace the call to follow Jesus Christ and find their greatness in becoming Christ’s saints. He expects they all can do it with Christ’s grace.
“What he’s expecting from any Catholic from any culture is the same he’s expecting from Hispanics, and I think that sets him apart,” Luis Soto, director of Hispanic outreach and content for the Denver-based Augustine Institute, told the Register. Soto, who knows Archbishop Gomez from his time as an auxiliary in Denver, told the Register that Archbishop Gomez rejects the “condescending” notion held by some Catholics that Latinos (or any group of people, for that matter) are somehow incapable of fully embracing and living out the Church’s teaching.
However, Soto explained Catholic ministry to Latinos has been vastly underfunded and understaffed in proportion to the need and said Archbishop Gomez is keenly aware this needs to change so more Latinos can respond to the joyful call of Jesus and the demands of his Gospel.
In this context, Archbishop Gomez has worked hard to create Latino Catholic associations that help Latino Catholics live out their call to holiness and witness in the Church, such as the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL), National Council for Hispanic Ministry, and the National Association of Hispanic Priests, among others.
At a time when many Catholics are finding it hard to stay in Christ’s Church, “We cannot expect many results by not really working hard in promoting the Catholic faith,” Soto said.
Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell explained to the Register that Archbishop Gomez’s vision of the Christian call to holiness also manifests itself in the parish community, “with people who are living out their faith in Jesus Christ and living his teachings.”
“The parish can be a source of healing and transformation in our society,” he said, explaining the archbishop geared archdiocesan offices to serve and support the on-the-ground ministry and witness of the parishes.
Bishop O’Connell explained the archbishop’s unified vision of living out the Church’s social teachings as manifesting how one’s following of Jesus “goes beyond those categories” of left-right politics. Archbishop Gomez, he said, like Pope Francis, condemns the “holocaust of horror” that is abortion and also the “terrible sin” in the injustices suffered by the poor and the denial of Christian hospitality to the migrant and refugee.
And people on all sides also recognize his commitment of time and resources to the entirety of the Church’s social teaching is genuine.
“He’s one of the few in the country who has that reach to get support amid that conflict we’re seeing in the Church right now,” Bishop O’Connell said.
John Carr, the founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told the Register that the Church is wounded deeply from the sex-abuse crisis, intra-Church fighting and political divides. He said Georgetown has hosted the archbishop twice, and what the archbishop brings forward is a vision of “hope amid great fear.”
“He sees the Gospel as a whole,” he said. “And so the unborn child and the immigrant child are both children of God. And we’re called to defend both of them: not because of politics, not because of ideology, but because they’re children of God. And he can make that case at a time when politics is demoralized and divisions in our country and in our Church are paralyzing us in some ways.”
“He is by instinct a pastor and a bridge-builder, and we need bridge-builders and pastors,” he said. “He has the potential to be a healer in a time of great divisions in the Church.”
Jonathan Reyes, the head of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, told the Register that a “particular charism” of Archbishop Gomez is “the call to holiness — it’s in him, it’s in his spiritual formation.”
“And I think he has a fundamental understanding that at the heart of everything we are doing as a Church is the call to holiness,” said Reyes, who has known the archbishop for many years, dating back to when both men were in Denver serving under the leadership of Archbishop Charles Chaput.
On the practical level of dealing with specific issues, Reyes pointed out, “He is multilingual. He has an international sense: He understands things in Rome; he understands things in the United States. He’s the sort of quintessential bridge between a whole set of cultural and political realities.”
Added Reyes, “So at this moment in the Church, just having a voice who can see the world from all these different perspectives … I think that more than ever that kind of global bridge-building view, centered on the call to holiness, is a real gift.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
Register staff contributed to this report.