Going Home to Lead a New Flock

Archbishop José Gomez became the Archbishop of San Antonio Feb. 15.

As an auxiliary in Denver, he spearheaded the establishment of Centro San Juan Diego for Family and Pastoral Care, which has become a national model for Catholics to help assimilate new waves of Catholic immigrants.

Born in Mexico, Archbishop Gomez grew up in San Antonio and was ordained a priest of the Opus Dei prelature in Spain in 1978 (as a bishop, though, he is no longer subject to the prelate of Opus Dei but to the Pope). He became a U.S. citizen in 1995.

The archbishop spoke with Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen.

Tell me about your faith formation.

I went to Catholic schools in Mexico, and they always talk to you about practicing your faith and the possibility of becoming a priest. When I was 14 or 15, I kind of decided to try to be a good Catholic. My mother got sick. She had cancer and she was cured. That was a very special moment. At the same time, one of my cousins died in a car accident. That was another call for me. Then I moved from the Catholic schools to a private school, and that’s when I felt I needed to practice my faith even more.

These tragedies you described got you looking at mortality and faith?

Exactly. I started going to daily Mass and participating more in the life of the Church. Then I went to college, and after I finished college I decided I wanted to pursue the priesthood.

Tell me about your affiliation with Opus Dei.

In high school I started attending activities of Opus Dei, and I joined it in college. It’s part of my formation in my faith, and it has a beautiful component of calling the lay people to become active in the life of the Church and to be more active in the practice of their faith. We have to find a way to provide adults with more formation in the faith. We have everything for first holy Communion, confirmation, and we’re even seeing the emergence of some successful campus ministries. But we don’t have too much for adults.

Are you still a member of the prelature of Opus Dei?

My spirituality and formation is grounded in Opus Dei. However, my canonical responsibilities are to the Archdiocese of San Antonio and to the Holy Father.

What would you like to accomplish in San Antonio?

My main goal is the preaching of the Gospel. I think there’s an important thing in the life of the Church of the United States, and it’s education in the faith. We really need to work on our people knowing our faith better. And we need to help people to discover how to practice their faith. In the past, it was easier because culture and faith were more interrelated. Now we live in a society that’s becoming more secular, and it’s more difficult to practice faith.

What’s your position on Catholic politicians who support abortion?

It’s the same as what Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has said and the position all of the bishops in the United States took collectively. If we are Catholic, we have to give priority to our consciences in how we act in private life and in public life. As bishops, we have decided to increase our dialogue with people in public life. The statement in Denver in June was very clear about the need to engage our society in dialogue about these things.

In Colorado, former attorney general Ken Salazar, who’s Hispanic and Catholic, ran a successful pro-abortion race for the U.S. Senate. A lot of Hispanic voters wanted to see a fellow Hispanic American succeed at that level. Was that awkward for you?

I’m a good friend of Mr. Salazar, but my position was very clear. We have talked about this issue and he knows where I stand. He is reflecting on all of these issues, and now that he’s elected, I hope he can give priority to his faith. We have talked several times, and he is pondering all of these things, and we have to keep praying for him.

In San Antonio, will you be likely to deny Communion to pro-abortion politicians?

We have hundreds of people receiving Communion without correct preparation and we don’t say anything. We need to be more proactive in educating people rather than looking to punish. At the same time, if the situation comes where I have to act, I will act.

What changes might you bring immediately to San Antonio?

I need to listen to the people before making plans. There are obvious things I plan to accomplish, such as integration of the faith into the lives of the people and promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. As I understand it, we have 11 seminarians in San Antonio — a diocese of 700,000 Catholics. Obviously we need more vocations.

What approach will you take in regard to seminary training?

As we call people, we need to offer them a solid program — solid in the teachings of the Church, solid about teaching the values of a life of prayer. So in that sense, I suppose every seminary should be like that — faithful to the Church.

No matter what you do in the future, you will always be known in Denver for your role in establishing Centro San Juan Diego. Tell us about that.

It was a dream come true. We had an extraordinary need for the Hispanic people of Denver to have a place to learn about their faith and at the same time feel they are an important part of the Church, and to receive the social ministry help they need in order to become active in American society. So it was a big challenge, because we had to decide to get deeper in the formation of the people and at the same time provide them with the social development they needed.

To our surprise, it happened. We had to raise some money, and we had to put together the programs. We started a certification program for catechists, a certification program for youth ministers, and everything just came together. It’s a wonderful reality now.

Will you establish something like that in San Antonio?

I don’t think there’s a need for it. The reality of San Antonio is different. There’s a long tradition of the Hispanic culture in San Antonio and an ongoing relationship with Mexico. There’s a deep sense that the Hispanic culture is simply a part of life in that city. Hispanics are not a minority in San Antonio.

Years ago, you told me how orientation in the United States is difficult for Catholic Hispanic immigrants, who come from places where the Church is more central to the culture and Catholicism is more festive and community-oriented. Have things improved in Denver?

I think Centro San Juan Diego has helped the English-speaking Hispanic community to feel that the Church is more present for them. And the programs and opportunities available through Centro San Juan Diego have been a huge help in making Spanish-speaking Hispanic immigrants part of the community.

Is this a problem throughout the United States? I keep hearing we have waves of family-values, traditional Catholics coming in and not being embraced by fellow Catholics.

It is a problem. More dioceses are discovering that we need to provide our people with a solid formation in the faith and the tools that help them become an active part of society. I think Centro San Juan Diego will be a model for all the dioceses to minister to Hispanics in the future. I think Hispanics respond when they see the commitment of the Church, the priests and solid teachings. That’s what the Church is all about in South America, Mexico and Latin America.

It’s more about community and celebration of life?

Absolutely, and immigrants need that here. They need the community part of the ministry of the Church.

Will immigrants change the Church in the United States? Will they bring to it a warmer, more festive approach?

I hope so. I think festive, community-oriented worship has roots in the Gospel. Think about how Jesus started a small community with the disciples and how they celebrated different feast days. Even the Last Supper was a celebration. I hope the Church in the United States will take advantage of the experience of the Hispanic culture to celebrate our faith in a community way.

Is Hispanic Catholicism more traditional than what we’re accustomed to in the United States?

It has deep roots in traditions. Even the first missionaries were teaching the truths of faith in a very practical way, with Los Posadas before Christmas, or Las Piñatas, or the different Holy Week celebrations. It’s the enculturation of the faith. In that sense it’s traditional. At the same time, the novelty of the thing is to use practical things to attract people to the faith.

Such as?

Pilgrimages, food and celebrations.

Why has American society grown more secular?

Societies are based on economies. So economies change the perspective of the people regarding life. Based on what’s happening with an economy, people may give more importance to material things and everything they need to provide for themselves and their families. The practice of the faith becomes a secondary thing. It’s not something urgent. It’s your faith because the most important thing is to go to heaven, but it’s not a concern as immediate as taking care of the material needs that you have.

Is faith stronger in a good or bad economy?

It’s a human thing that when things are not too good, it’s easy for us to rely on God. With the terrible tragedy in Indonesia, or Sept. 11, we had lots of people coming to church. The challenge is to make the Church so attractive that in good times people feel the need to practice their faith.

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.