The choice of San Antonio Archbishop Jose H. Gomez to take the reins of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles upon the retirement of Cardinal Roger Mahony signifies the growing role of Latino Catholics in the United States.  

But along with his Mexican heritage and connections to the Hispanic community, the archbishop brings a strong pastoral presence and proven leadership skills that will be key in uniting Catholics in the nation’s largest diocese.  

It was announced April 6 that the 58-year-old Archbishop Gomez, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and became a U.S. citizen in 1995, will take the position of coadjutor archbishop of Los Angeles at the end of May. He will eventually replace Cardinal Mahony, who has headed the archdiocese since 1985. Next February, the cardinal will turn 75, the age at which bishops are required to submit their resignations to the pope.  

Gradual persification  

The Los Angeles archdiocese is home to 4.2 million Catholics, an overwhelming 70 percent of whom are Hispanic. It has also been a frequent site of controversy over the last decade, being hit hard by lawsuits stemming from sexual abuse allegations and often serving as a battleground for political issues such as immigration and capital punishment.  

The selection of Archbishop Gomez for such a high-profile leadership position — one that will likely lead to him becoming the first Mexican-born cardinal in the United States — has been seen as a recognition of the growing role of Hispanic Catholics in America.  

“There is a gradual ethnic persification of the Church hierarchy, which is reflective of the larger persity we have in the Catholic Church,” said Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture.  

“It is really a sign that the Church in Los Angeles and the Vatican want to be responsive to the needs of the emerging Latino presence,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “Certainly in Los Angeles, Latinos constitute a majority of the Church, and this is really a great opportunity for a Latino archbishop to take the lead.”  

Influential leader  

Ordained a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature Aug. 15, 1978, in Spain, Archbishop Gomez has long been a leader to Hispanic Catholics.  

After spending the early years of his priesthood in San Antonio, he was named auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver in 2001. He then returned to San Antonio, where he was installed as archbishop Feb. 15, 2005. He is also a former president and executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Priests, has served as a board member of the National Catholic Council of Hispanic Ministry, was a founding member of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders and is current chair of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Cultural persity in the Church. In 2005, Time Magazine named him one of the 25 most influential Hispanics in the country.

Arturo Chávez, vice president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry and president of San Antonio’s Mexican American Catholic College, has known and worked closely with Archbishop Gomez over the past eight years. Chávez said that the archbishop is a practical leader whose accounting background helps him bring a “bottom-line realism to the world of ministry.”  

Archbishop Gomez is also well versed in the concerns of the Hispanic population, Chávez told OSV.  

“He really knows the priorities that we have in Hispanic ministry, especially when it comes to evangelization, to addressing the needs of youth and young adults and to all of the issues of immigration,” he said. “At the same time, I think one thing that was clear in his time here in San Antonio is that he’s not just a bishop for Latinos. He is a leader for all Catholics, and even non-Catholics look to him as a real community leader.”  

Opportunity to evangelize  

Archbishop Gomez told OSV that he plans to continue his mission of building a culture of evangelization, which he outlined in a recent pastoral letter. The archbishop’s top priority will be a good fit for the Los Angeles archdiocese, which identified evangelization as its primary pastoral initiative in a 2003 archdiocesan synod.  

“In my ministry, I have been very interested in education in the faith,” he said. “It is a great challenge for the Church at this time to educate Catholics in the teachings of Christ. So I think this is a great opportunity for all of us to continue that ministry and I hope that I can be of assistance to people in growing in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”  

Archbishop Gomez added that a particular emphasis must be placed on reaching the young generation, especially through the use of new technology.  

“It is a different generation, and we need to find a way to use all the means of communication, as the Holy Father has suggested to us, to evangelize our people and to reach out and help them to see the beauty of the Catholic Church,” he said.  

The 288 parishes of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles also represent a wide range of cultural and ethnic traditions, with Mass being celebrated in more than 30 different languages. Although it is a much larger population than San Antonio, which has 139 parishes and just over 700,000 Catholics, he believes that the lessons he learned in San Antonio will serve him well in his new assignment.  

“I think we have been able to work together with different ministries and organizations … and I think the Archdiocese of San Antonio is working more as a community, as a family, to address the needs of the people,” he said, adding that in his time in San Antonio he has seen a unity among not only the Hispanic population but with people of various European and African backgrounds as well.  

“It is just a beautiful combination of cultures, and we all respect each other and work together,” he said. “That is what I am taking from here, that we can all work together for the good of the Church.  

“That is a beautiful model for the future,” he added. “Being here as archbishop has given me a new and renewed understanding of the beauty of this community that I hope I can bring to Los Angeles, and hopefully, to the whole country.”  

Sidebar: End of an era

Cardinal Roger Mahony’s name has frequently appeared in headlines during his 25 years as archbishop of Los Angeles. Among the highs and lows of his quarter century leading the archdiocese:  

July 16, 1985:Named archbishop of Los Angeles  

June 1986: Launches advocacy effort for the social concerns of Hispanics, beginning a long commitment to social justice initiatives aimed at the Latino community  

June 28, 1991:Elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II  

2000:Speaks out against the death penalty and calls for a moratorium on executions in California  

2002:Becomes central figure in emerging sexual abuse scandal, accused of protecting guilty priests and concealing records  

Sept. 2, 2002:Dedicates newly constructed Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, built to replace the Cathedral of St. Vibiana, which was damaged in a 1994 earthquake; receives criticism over new church’s $190 million price tag  

May 29, 2003:Opens first archdiocesan synod in Los Angeles in 40 years  

2005-2006:Opposes harsh border patrol tactics and anti-immigration bill, argues for comprehensive immigration reform  

July 2007:Announces settlement with more than 500 abuse victims totaling nearly $700 million, offers public apology to all victims of sexual abuse  

March 21, 2010:Serves as one of the leaders of major immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C.

--Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.