When Archbishop Jose Gomez introduced himself to the faithful Tuesday morning, he described Los Angeles as "the global face of the Catholic Church." He might as well have been talking about himself.
FOR THE RECORD:
New archbishop: In the April 7 Section A, two news stories and a graphic about the selection of Jose Gomez to succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony used conflicting numbers for the size and ethnic makeup of L.A.'s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The correct membership figure is 4.6 million, according to the 2009 Annuario Pontificio, the official statistical yearbook of the Catholic Church, although the L.A. archdiocese estimates that more than 5 million people attend Mass locally, including those who are not formally registered. About 70% of the members of the archdiocese are Latino. —
Gomez, 58, who will succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony, is a reflection of the future of American Catholicism. Born in northern Mexico, now an American citizen, he is one of the millions of Latinos who will make up the majority of Catholics in the United States within the next 10 years.
And like many of those Latinos, he is at once a conservative and a progressive: unyielding in his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, passionate in his advocacy for immigrants and the poor, confounding to those who try to wedge him into the traditional right-left political paradigm.
During his six-year tenure atop the San Antonio archdiocese, Gomez emerged as a leading advocate for doctrinal conformity, determined to stave off what he saw as creeping secularism in the church.
He denounced one Catholic university when it invited then-Sen. Hillary Clinton to campus, because she favored abortion rights, and another when it invited a Benedictine nun, because she had advocated the ordination of women. Under his reign, a local Catholic high school ended its relationship with an organization that raised money to fight breast cancer, because the same organization gave grants to Planned Parenthood. After a 17-year-old lay advisory commission created by his predecessor suggested that gay marriage might be a human rights issue under one reading of the church's teachings, Gomez disbanded the commission.
"The doors were closed for collaborative communication," Mary Moreno, one commission member, said in an interview Tuesday. "We just got a letter. And when things are done like that, it kind of leaves a sting."
Yet in Denver, where Gomez served as a bishop, he was the driving force behind the creation of Centro San Juan Diego, both a formation center for lay leaders and a social services center for immigrants. Roughly 30,000 adults visited the center last year to learn English and computer skills and obtain free legal advice to gain citizenship and fight deportation.
Gomez has marched for immigrants' rights and worked to bridge the complex cultural gap between long-established Mexican American communities and newly arrived immigrant communities from elsewhere in Latin America.
He is a leader of a church that, ideologically, "is kind of everywhere depending on what the issue is," said Father David Garcia, the former rector of San Antonio's storied San Fernando Cathedral and a longtime collaborator with Gomez. But Gomez has made it clear that he sees no contradictions. In a homily he delivered a few years ago, he said the Catholic faith should be lived "without excuses" -- which can often mean, he said, "defending the poor and the immigrant and the prisoner on death row."
"He is with the Latino community on all of these issues," said Centro San Juan Diego Executive Director Luis Soto. "He is a great man. He is a great priest. And we are very proud of him. . . . I think you are going to like him very much."
Indeed, many Los Angeles-area Catholics hailed the selection of Gomez.
Art Herrera, 73, who was born and raised in Boyle Heights and is now a Eucharistic minister in his parish, said that because there will be a Latino at the head of the church, "lukewarm Catho- lics are probably going to come back."
Gomez was born in Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest and most affluent city, the fourth of five children of devout Catholic parents. He still visits frequently because his four sisters and many of his 16 nieces and nephews live there.
"He knew from a young age he wanted to be a priest. He was very dedicated and our parents were a good example," said Gomez's sister Maria Eugenia Gomez de Saldivar, 54, in Monterrey. "I don't remember him ever talking about getting a girlfriend. He always knew what he wanted."
He earned degrees in accounting and philosophy from the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, and was ordained a priest there in 1978, under the Prelature of Opus Dei.
Latinos are the fastest-growing segment among the 65 million Catholics in the United States and make up more than two-thirds of the 5 million Catholics in the Los Angeles archdiocese.
"I'm glad to hear that it's a Latino," Herrera said. "I'm very grateful for that."
Others, however, questioned whether Gomez's unwavering orthodoxy would be embraced in Los Angeles.
"Latino Catholics are not monolithic," said Robert Garcia, 32, an openly gay Long Beach city councilman. "The new bishop has to realize we have a very diverse Catholic population in Los Angeles. . . . We have diverse points of view. There's those of us, like myself, who think the Catholic Church needs to take a more progressive position on numerous issues."
Gomez will also face new and thorny issues in Los Angeles that could test the careful balance of his orthodoxy -- namely the issue of organized labor, which is intertwined with immigration in California and which Mahony chose to address forcefully. Mahony was seen as an ardent supporter of worker rights and labor unions -- marching with janitors, standing with carwasheros, ensuring that church properties were built with union labor, declaring that he would ignore proposed laws demanding that undocumented workers be identified to authorities.
"That is what we expect," said Maria Elena Durazo, a Catholic and the secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "It is a high bar, but we hope and expect the same kind of relationship. . . . California is a different state from Texas. We do have progressive agendas and we don't always agree with each other, but I think we have a basic agenda of respect and not demonizing."
Finally -- perhaps inevitably in today's Catholic Church -- Gomez's record of confronting the church's clergy abuse scandal will be scrutinized from the start.
In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $660 million to more than 500 victims of abuse stretching back six decades -- the largest settlement of its kind. The archdiocese's handling of abuse allegations is also the target of a grand jury investigation. In recent weeks, the scandal has boiled over anew with allegations that Pope Benedict XVI helped cover up abuse cases or shield pedophile priests.
Gomez has also not managed to sidestep the scandal.
In San Antonio, critics have alleged that he failed to address abuse allegations forthrightly and failed to hold accused clergymen accountable for their actions. In one case, a clergyman who was accused of sexually abusing a teen was permitted during Gomez's tenure to live in a parish residence next door to an elementary school and a day-care center, said Barbara Garcia Boehland, the San Antonio chapter director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
SNAP has written several times to Gomez seeking an apology and more direct confrontation of abuse allegations but has heard nothing, Garcia Boehland said. She said her son, Eduardo Ramon III, was violated by a priest as a boy; he committed suicide at age 20.
The selection of Gomez, she said, made her question how determined the Vatican is to root out and end abuse in the church.
"Elevating him is not being tough on people who know," she said. "There is going to be more hiding of priests. Gomez is good at that."
Asked Tuesday about allegations that he protected wayward priests, Gomez said: "That's not true."
All told, it will be a difficult assignment, said Father Daniel G. Groody, a Catholic priest who is director of the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at the University of Notre Dame and a longtime Gomez acquaintance. Gomez acknowledged Tuesday that he knows little about Los Angeles and has visited just four or five times.
"I think the Los Angeles archdiocese will present a new set of challenges," Groody said. "But I have every reason to believe that he'll measure up to the task."
Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles and Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.