On Sunday, Cardinal Roger Mahony celebrates his 75th birthday. It’s also the day he steps down as the head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Replacing him is Archbishop Jose Gomez. Gomez led dioceses in San Antonio and Denver. He's about to take the reins of one of the nation’s largest and most diverse Catholic populations.
When Rome called with his new assignment, Archbishop Gomez says the conversation was straightforward. “They asked me but they didn’t give me a chance to say no," Gomez said, laughing.
Gomez spoke during a conference call after the announcement last year. It was a humorous moment from a man not known for his sense of humor.
“I think he recognized that people perceived him as being overly formal, and he lamented that," said Bishop Oscar Cantu. Cantu worked with Gomez for two-and-a-half years at the San Antonio Archdiocese. He says humor aside, Gomez was known for a lot of things – his devotion to the church, his love of the Green Bay Packers, the fact he was lactose intolerant but could certainly tolerate a shot of tequila.
Gomez is also known for his administrative skills. He studied business in college and had what Bishop Cantu calls a God-given talent for financial planning. “Most clerics run away from accountants rather than run to them. But he embraced that because it’s part of his background. And he was really able to use that for the good of the church.”
Under Gomez, the San Antonio Archdiocese created and funded several charity operations, including one that helps families afford tuition at Catholic schools.
Another distinction is Gomez’s background. He was born in Monterey, Mexico. He’s the first Latino to serve as archbishop of Los Angeles – and he’s an outspoken advocate for the rights of immigrants. That’s an enormous plus in L.A.
The evening mass at Our Lady Queen of Angeles in downtown L.A. is in Spanish. Father Richard Estrada says his congregation represents the new face of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles. "We’re 99 percent Latino church, immigrant church. And Bishop Gomez, we welcome him and we support him because we know he supports immigrant rights.”
A bigger challenge for Archbishop Gomez might be bringing back those who have left the church all together.
Father Thomas Rauch teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University. He says Gomez has made it clear he hopes to inspire casual Catholics to return to the flock.
But Gomez is also part of the Opus Dei – the organization within the Catholic Church known for its conservative views. Rausch says a conservative archbishop could be a big change for Catholics accustomed to the more progressive leanings of Cardinal Mahony.
“It’s to the credit of Cardinal Mohony," says Rausch, "that he tried to reach out to those groups. He wrote pastoral letters to women, to gays and lesbians. He was very concerned with those who saw themselves at the margins of the church rather than it’s center. And that is going to be a challenge for the new archbishop because his own impulses or instincts are more conservative.”
Another concern is Gomez’s ability to deal with scandal. It’s been four years since the L.A. Archdiocese paid a settlement of $660 million to compensate victims of sexual abuse by priests. But even in his last month on the job, Cardinal Mahony was dogged by one more abuse case.
Rocco Palmo covers Catholic news at the blog Whispers in the Loggia. He says in San Antonio, Archbishop Gomez didn’t have to deal with an issue boiling with as much anger and embarrassment as the priest sex abuse scandal in Los Angeles.
“So it’s going to be a test for the archbishop," says Palmo. "And that’s the $660 million question, if you will. How is Archbishop Gomez going to handle that? I think it remains to be seen.”
But Archbishop Jose Gomez has one big advantage: the priest sex abuse scandal in Los Angeles is, for the most part, now out in the open and settled. That could clear the way for Gomez to be, above all, a priest – the priest who leads the largest Catholic congregation in America.