Pope Benedict XVI has appointed a conservative Mexican-born archbishop to succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony as head of the archdiocese of Los Angeles. Archbishop Jose Gomez immediately becomes a leading Latino spiritual leader in the Catholic Church, and a powerful player in the church’s conservative movement.
Several dozen reporters and TV cameras awaited Jose Gomez as he stepped to the lectern inside L.A.’s cavernous downtown cathedral.
“I hope you forgive me if my comments are brief. This is the kind of moment that for me, words cannot fully describe my feelings," Gomez said.
He called his appointment to succeed Cardinal Mahony as leader of the Los Angeles Archdiocese the “greatest gift” of his life, next to his ordination as a priest.
Gomez was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico 58 years ago. He studied theology in Rome and Spain before the church assigned him to pastoral work in Houston, Texas. For five years he’s been the archbishop of San Antonio.
Mahony – who’s presided over the Los Angeles archdiocese for nearly a quarter century - noted that its first four archbishops were Latinos, but the six who followed were white.
“I think that is the big story today, as far as I’m concerned," Mahony said. "This is a recognition by our Holy Father that the Spanish-speaking Catholic community in the United States is the highest priority. This is really an epic moment in the life of the church in this country.”
One-third of the 65 million Catholics across the United States are Latinos. They make up 70% of the nearly five-million Catholics in the L.A. Archdiocese, which covers Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.
“The fact that I am a Latino who was born in Mexico I think will be another incentive for Latinos or Hispanics to participate actively in the life of the Catholic Church," Gomez said.
Gomez is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests and chair-elect of the Catholic Church’s Committee on Migration. At his news conference, he spoke about the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.
Gomez is a member of Opus Dei, a conservative movement favored by the current Pope. One report on Gomez's appointment said it was evidence that the Pope wants a strong defender of orthodoxy to lead the largest diocese in the nation.
The archbishop-designate downplayed the idea.
"For me, the spirituality of Opus Dei has helped me to grow in my spirituality and to understand better the participation of the lay faithful in the life of the church” said Gomez.
One San Antonio religion reporter who has covered Gomez described his gentle way with priests and lay people who do not share his conservative views – even as he urges them to review their faith more fully.
A tougher side surfaced during the news conference when a reporter asked about critics who said he was slow to remove priests accused of sexual abuse in San Antonio.
“That’s not true!" Gomez said. "Every single accusation has been taken seriously in the archdiocese in San Antonio and we have informed the community in the cases where there was certainty.”
As he took questions from reporters a few feet from the archbishop’s chair he’ll occupy next year when Mahony retires, Gomez conceded that he knows little about the L.A. archdiocese because he’s spent little time in the area.
“I’ve been here maybe four or five times, just visiting. I haven’t been to Disneyland.”
Until he takes over next February, Gomez said he plans to learn about the Los Angeles Archdiocese alongside Cardinal Mahony.
The cardinal – who presided over a $660 million legal settlement with victims of sexual abuse late in his 24 years on the job - seemed ready to hand over the reins.
“What I did yesterday, archbishop I didn’t tell you. I actually got my fishing license yesterday," Mahony said as people laughed. "It's good for three years. So I’m going to start the end of this month actually.”
Gomez espects to wrap up his affairs in San Antonio and move to Los Angeles in May.