Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Standing with the Eleven Million:' Immigration a centerpiece of Cardinal Mahony's mixed legacy

Cardinal Roger Mahony speaks at a rally in support of the Dream Act in downtown Los Angeles, December 2010
Cardinal Roger Mahony speaks at a rally in support of the Dream Act in downtown Los Angeles, December 2010
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Last month, as Cardinal Roger Mahony prepared to pass along the leadership of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to Archbishop Jose Gomez this coming Sunday, L.A.'s current Catholic leader - and perhaps its top clergyman-blogger - posted a lengthy piece titled "Retirement Plans: Standing with the Eleven Million."

In it, Mahony wrote about continuing his activism on immigration reform. From the post:

Over these many years, I have been constantly called and challenged by the words of Jesus: “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35), echoing God’s mandate to his people in the Old Testament.

Over the years immigrant peoples have become very dear to me, and Jesus continues to call me to walk with them on their journey. I intend to spend the coming months and years walking in solidarity with the 11,000,000 immigrants who have come to the United States to improve their own lives and the life of our country and to advocate on behalf of the silent millions. In a special way I look forward to collaborating closely with our United States Bishops’ Conference and the Committee on Migration and Refugees which is now chaired by the next Archbishop of Los Angeles, the Most Reverend José H. Gomez.

For so many immigrants in the United States today, life is not easy. With the terrible downturn in the economy the past two years, millions of people have lost jobs in every field of employment. Many have had to give up their homes and to make deep sacrifices to keep their families going. So many voices blame immigrant peoples for our economic woes. This is unjust and flies in the face of the facts.

Some 11,000,000 of our immigrant brothers and sisters are misunderstood and maligned. Without legal documents, their livelihoods and their very lives are at risk. They live in the shadows of our society. They are easy targets of blame for everything that has gone wrong, and is going wrong, with our country. But a little historical perspective sheds light on our current situation and gives hope for the future, helping us to see immigrants not as “those people,” but as brothers and sisters living in our communities with the same longings and aspirations as all Americans.

Advocacy for immigrants, particularly the undocumented, will be one of the things for which Mahony's quarter-century tenure in Los Angeles is best remembered. But it will also be remembered for his much-criticized handling of a church sexual abuse scandal, considered to have hurt his career beyond Los Angeles. A story earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times noted:
Mahony, who retires in the coming week as head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, leaves a legacy that church historians will puzzle over for years. Once a shining star — perhaps the shining star — of the American church, his reputation suffered from his handling of a devastating sexual abuse scandal that shattered the lives and trust of many Catholics and led to the largest civil settlement by any archdiocese, a staggering $660 million.

Yet such were Mahony's strengths that he remains respected, even beloved, by many in his flock who see him as fiercely devoted to social justice, willing to fight for progressive reforms in the church and motivated by a lifelong passion for easing the burdens faced by Latino immigrants. He also kept the archdiocese from financial collapse after the sex abuse settlement, an achievement that required tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.

"I would say that, in the minds of historians in the future, they will look back on these 25 years as some very creative years, where the growth of the archdiocese was shepherded ably by him," said Msgr. Craig Cox, the rector of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo. "Certainly times of controversy and tension, without a doubt, but I think that history will look kindly on him."

In spite of the abuse scandal, Mahony's immigration reform activism, most recently on the Dream Act, continued to make him a hero to many Latino Catholics.

His successor, the Monterrey, Mexico-born Gomez, promises to follow a similar path on immigration. Gomez, formerly Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas, has publicly condemned workplace immigration enforcement raids and recently called for a halt to deportations to Haiti as the quake-ravaged country struggles with a cholera epidemic.