Verdict Still Out as New Bishop Proceeds Deliberately

Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

'So many people put a priest on a pedestal and don't let him get off of it. But I'm just a person faced with the same options and temptations as anyone.'

By his own admission, Bishop Armando X. Ochoa came to the job of San Fernando regional auxiliary bishop for the Los Angeles Archdiocese with little preparation for the task the Roman Catholic Church had asked him to assume.

The expectation was that Ochoa would grow into the job.

Even the geography was relatively unknown to Ochoa, despite his having been a lifelong Southern Californian.

"Other than driving through on the 5 freeway or the 101, or a workshop at the seminary, I never had any reason to go to the Valley," he said. "I make no bones about it. This was all new territory for me."

There was, however, one important piece of information about the area with which Ochoa was familiar. He knew that the San Fernando Valley, particularly its northeast corner, has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations of Los Angeles County.

It was clear, said Ochoa, one of three children raised in Oxnard by middle-class Mexican-immigrant parents, that a large part of the reason he was assigned to the San Fernando Pastoral Region was because he is Latino.

In the year since his appointment, Ochoa--at age 44 a personable but low-key, almost shy man--has set about learning the region. And he has done so the way he does everything--slowly, deliberately and with a minimum of fanfare.

"For me, the past year has been a matter of growing comfortable, of getting to know what is my role," Ochoa said during a recent interview at his temporary offices on the campus of Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary High School in Mission Hills. (A move to permanent quarters at Our Lady of Peace parish in Sepulveda is planned for later this year).

The papal "bull," or official proclamation, elevating Ochoa to the Catholic episcopate and signed by Pope John Paul II, hangs framed to the side of his desk.

During the first in-depth interview he has granted since he was named a bishop by the Pope in late December, 1986, Ochoa said, "Archbishop (Roger) Mahony has a wonderful ability to deal with the media. I had avoided it till now, because it's just not my style."

In February, 1986, Mahony, then just five months on the job as prelate of the nation's most populous Catholic jurisdiction, announced a plan to divide the three-county, nearly 3-million member archdiocese into five subregions for administrative purposes.

The idea was to bring an auxiliary, or assistant, bishop closer to the people so the needs and concerns of Catholics in the pews would be better served, while also establishing local listening posts for Mahony. Each regional bishop was given broad powers for dealing with personnel and other matters, but final decisions still rested with Mahony.

One such region was called the San Fernando Pastoral Region, which extends from the Ventura and Kern county lines on the west and north, south to Mulholland Drive and east to the communities of Mount Washington and Glassell Park, including Glendale and La Canada Flintridge.

Within its boundaries are about 1.8 million people, roughly a fourth of them Catholic, with 47 Latin and three Eastern Rite parishes, 13 Catholic high schools and two church-connected hospitals.

As bishop for the region, Ochoa said he is concentrating on listening and learning while trying to make friends for the church with his easygoing, down-to-earth manner. His ability to relate genuinely to people is his strong point, he said, and others interviewed agreed.

Like Mahony, Ochoa might be called liberal on social issues, and conservative on the rest.

Ochoa supports the effort by the San Fernando Valley Organizing Committee to create a church and community-based advocacy organization similar to the powerful United Neighborhood Organization in East Los Angeles and the South Central Organizing Committee in South Los Angeles.

"We keep him abreast of what we're doing," said Sister Carmel Somers, who is leading the Valley organizing effort. "He's available."

Ochoa is also mindful, however, of the fears of politically conservative Anglo Catholics that the Los Angeles archdiocese is paying far more attention to minority needs--particularly those of Latinos--than to their own, more traditional concerns.

But how to reach out to those Anglos is something Ochoa has yet to determine. "It's very difficult," he said. "But we have to educate our Catholic lay people to the social encyclicals of the church. . . . I'm seeing that this is going to be very, very important."

There are some within the local church who believe that Ochoa is too deliberate, that he is taking too long to establish a forceful presence. In the year since Ochoa has been formally installed in the region, he has yet to visit many of the local parishes, and there is some grumbling that his style is just too laid back.

"He's nervous about being Hispanic in a largely Anglo area," said one Valley church official who has worked with him. "He's nervous about how he is perceived."

A member of Mahony's inner circle said that, so far, Ochoa has received "mixed reviews" downtown.

"People expected a great deal of him quickly. They're sitting on problems, expecting quick fixes," the priest said. "But that's not what's happening. Armando's very cautious and won't make a move without being thoroughly grounded first."

Others, noting the church's timetable moves far slower than much of the world around it, say it is too soon to judge Ochoa. "He hasn't been around long enough for any of us to start a real file yet," said Msgr. Francis J. Weber, the archdiocese archivist.

'Good to Be Around'

"Bishop Ochoa," said one priest who knew him at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, "has always been good at drawing people into a group. He's just good to be around."

Perhaps most indicative of Ochoa's style is his delay in conducting a formal installation ceremony for himself within the San Fernando region, something the two auxiliary bishops who were named at the same time he was already have done in their own areas.

He still has no plans to do so, and part of the reason is his desire not to set himself apart from the average Catholic.

"So many people put a priest on a pedestal and don't let him get off of it. But I'm just a person faced with the same options and temptations as anyone," Ochoa said.

"You know, it's nice to sit down with people and have a beer, even two, instead of having them come over and kiss my ring sometimes.

"I never saw my priesthood as something I wore. It was something I didn't choose. It was just something I cooperated with."

Auxiliary Bishop William Levada was the region's first resident bishop, but within months, Rome transferred him to Portland, Ore. For a while, Msgr. Arthur J. Lirette of Glendale's Holy Family parish kept an eye on the region as an interim caretaker while Mahony worked with the Vatican to get new auxiliary bishops named to fill the spot in San Fernando and two other regions with similar vacancies.

Ochoa, then a parish priest at Sacred Heart Church in Lincoln Heights, was one of the men the archbishop recommended to the Vatican for bishop.

Ochoa had heard rumors that he was being considered by Mahony, but dismissed them as far-fetched. After 17 years "in the trenches," as he put it, serving as a parish priest in heavily Latino communities on the east side of the county, "who's going to believe talk about being named a bishop?"

But a week before the public announcement of his elevation, Ochoa was summoned to the archbishop's chancery office on West 9th Street near downtown and told he was now a bishop.

"All I had known was the life of a parish priest. To be appointed an auxiliary bishop was overwhelming. What made it harder was I couldn't talk about it to anyone until the public announcement," Ochoa said.

Ethnic Communities

Mahony acknowledged at the time that Ochoa's appointment, along with that of Bishop P. Carl Fisher, a black man who was assigned to the San Pedro Pastoral region, represented "in a very significant way" the church's concern for Los Angeles' ethnic communities.

Ochoa said he assumed he was also chosen because his social and theological views, as well as his opinions on matters of church discipline, are similar to Mahony's.

For example, Ochoa said he considers women's ordination to be a "non-issue" because of the Pope's opposition to the question, believes homosexuals should be lifelong celibates in accordance with Catholic teachings that cover all unmarried people, and he looks toward faith rather than married men for a solution to the church's growing shortage of priests.

And even with the threat of AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, he said, telling young people about condoms "gives them mixed messages" about the advisability of premarital sex and, therefore, should not be done at school-based public health clinics, such as the one at San Fernando High School.

On social issues, however, he takes a different tack, although, as Father William J. Wood, executive director of the California Catholic Bishops Conference in Sacramento said, "Bishop Ochoa is certainly no liberation theologist."

But, Ochoa says, "By gosh, we have to work for the betterment of all people all across the board."

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