Vatican picks a Latino to lead Los Angeles Archdiocese

The Vatican’s choice of a Mexican-born archbishop, Jose Gomez of San Antonio, as the next prelate of Los Angeles reflects the formal acknowledgment of a remarkable, decades-long shift in the center of gravity of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church -- from Northeast to Southwest, from Eurocentric to Latino-dominated.

The 58-year-old Gomez has the potential to reshape the Archdiocese of Los Angeles over most of the next two decades, assuming he can successfully steer it past the shoals of a lingering sexual abuse crisis. In him, Pope Benedict XVI clearly saw a leader for a new kind of American church, one that is in sync with changing demographics but also adheres to Benedict’s traditional notions about Catholic theology.

“This is an epic moment in the life of the church in the United States,” Cardinal Roger Mahony said Tuesday as he introduced his successor during a news conference at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, itself a symbol of L.A.'s position as the new capital of U.S. Catholicism.

Gomez, who stood near Mahony, nodding and smiling slightly as he was introduced, struck a humble tone in his own remarks to reporters. “I know that God will give me the grace to serve this local church well, as Cardinal Mahony has done for so many fruitful years,” he said.

The archbishop, who has led the San Antonio Archdiocese since 2005, was named by the Vatican on Tuesday as co-adjutor of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and will assume that role May 26. The term means he will be Mahony’s successor-in-training until the cardinal retires early next year, as expected, at age 75.

At that point, Gomez will become archbishop of what is by far the largest Catholic community in the United States, spread over Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and containing more than 4 million members, 70% of them Latino.

Given the stature of Los Angeles in the worldwide church, he will almost certainly be elevated to cardinal at some point after Mahony’s retirement.

“Until now, New York has been the biggest prize in the American church,” said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia-based blogger who closely follows Catholic affairs. “But now it’s L.A . . . by far.” Gomez, Palmo said, will be able to speak to Latinos “in a way that no other American prelate in the top ranks has ever been able to. . . . The makeup of the leadership in the church has been forever changed overnight.”

The appointment of Gomez, along with that last year of Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, will also allow Benedict to put his own stamp on the U.S. church.

Gomez will take over an archdiocese with problems as outsize as its geography, and will be charged with trying to move the local church beyond a priestly abuse scandal that involved hundreds of victims and led to a $660 million court settlement with victims, the largest in the nation.

Some of those who know Gomez or have followed his career said he is unusually well suited to the job, with a reputation as a soft-spoken conciliator who is nevertheless unafraid to stake out strong, uncompromising positions. “I think he’s humble enough to listen, but I think he’s confident enough to lead,” said Daniel G. Groody, a Catholic priest who heads the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

Mahony said his successor will bring another valuable asset to the archdiocese, which has been forced to sell off many assets to pay for the sex abuse settlement. Gomez, the cardinal said, was trained as a certified public accountant, “so he will have hands-on experience . . . with these issues.”

Critics, largely from the community of Catholic sex abuse victims, said Gomez had been overly lenient with several priests accused of sexual abuse in San Antonio.

“With Gomez, the pope is promoting a bishop with a troubling record of recent secrecy and risk regarding child safety,” said Barbara Garcia Boehland of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “If the pope is trying to convince us he’s ‘tough’ on abuse, he’s shooting himself in the foot by elevating Gomez.”

Gomez has raised eyebrows in the past because of his long affiliation with Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization that has been accused of adhering to cult-like secrecy and gained notoriety for its sinister role in “The Da Vinci Code” fictional book and movie.

The organization has strenuously objected to that portrayal, and Gomez said Tuesday that Opus Dei “has helped me grow spiritually” and did not strike him as adhering to a conservative stance, “because we are not conservative or liberal -- we are faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ.” When Gomez became a bishop, his affiliation was switched automatically from Opus Dei to the Archdiocese of Denver, and later San Antonio, according to Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the L.A. Archdiocese.

Gomez also denied the allegations that he had protected abusive priests. “That’s not true,” he said, without elaborating about any particular cases. He promised to be vigilant in protecting children from abusive priests.

Tuesday’s news conference, which featured perhaps three dozen people clustered in the vastness of the downtown cathedral, was in some ways a study in contrasts. It began with Mahony, standing erect, a full head taller than Gomez, reading a three-page statement in English and then again in English-accented Spanish. He said he had urged the pope to appoint a Latino successor and was “so grateful to God for this gift of a Hispanic archbishop.”

Gomez, round-faced, his hair already grayer than Mahony’s, then read his own statement, shifting effortlessly between Spanish-accented English and his native Spanish. He turned emotional as he spoke of his ties to San Antonio, where his mother grew up and where he served as a priest through most of the 1990s. When he spoke of his parishioners in the archdiocese there, his voice broke and he halted to compose himself as he said, “I will never forget them, and will never stop thanking God for the privilege of having served them.”

In San Antonio, Deacon Pat Rogers of the archdiocese said Tuesday that the news came as no surprise. “The rumor mill has been, since he got here, that Jose Gomez -- who is from Mexico, is well thought of and is a conciliator -- will one day be in Los Angeles,” Rogers said. “The 100 people or so who work at the chancery, of course, felt a certain sense of pride that the pope himself felt strongly enough about [Gomez’s] gifts to choose him to take on the challenges of the largest archdiocese in the country. On the other hand, there is a lot of sadness.”

In Monterrey, Mexico, where Gomez was born, one priest with the local archdiocese said he expected the transition from Mahony to be subtle. “Initially, I think you will see continuity in the pastoral work of the archdiocese,” Father Juan Jose Martinez said. “And then, little by little, as [Gomez] gets to know the very large area, he will put his stamp on it.”

“Los Angeles is an archdiocese with many, many challenges,” Martinez said. “But Monsignor Gomez is a tireless worker. He is very accessible, very affable. It made an impression on me that he always has a smile. He is of course well-versed in theology and philosophy but also has that special talent to be close to people. He is a great gift for Los Angeles.”

Father Thomas Rausch, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, said it is far too early to say what the differences will be between Gomez and Mahony. But he said Mahony is “probably the most progressive of American cardinals,” and not just because of his high-profile support for immigration reform. Mahony has also drawn criticism from conservative Catholics for his outreach to gay Catholics and for his annual religious education congress, which can draw progressive speakers.

Ernesto Cortes Jr., co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing group active in both Los Angeles and San Antonio, said Gomez has worked collaboratively with his organization and other community-based and ecumenical groups. “He’s a champion of immigrant rights and immigration reform,” he said. “And from my understanding he’s been a very good archbishop.”

Father Jarlath Cunanne, who ministers to many Mexican and Central American immigrants at his church in the Pico-Union neighborhood, St. Thomas the Apostle, said Gomez’s life story would undoubtedly strike a chord with the Latino majority in the archdiocese. “The church in Los Angeles, for sure . . . is now predominantly Hispanic, so I do think that they’ll be excited about that, and that’s a good thing and a positive thing,” he said. “It does reflect the experience of the people I’m working with, that’s for sure.”

Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City, Jessica Garrison in Los Angeles and Louis Sahagun in San Antonio contributed to this report.