A young priest's passionate calling

First of two parts

After homilies at their handsome, twin-steepled cathedral, the priests of San Antonio often throw open the doors to a public plaza, stepping over a bronze cross that by legend marks the precise heart of the community. City Hall is across the square, and by tradition everyone sworn into office -- believers or not -- walks across, beneath the elms and oaks, for a benediction.

"A blessing of goodwill," Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who was raised a Buddhist, said with a smile and a shrug. "We all need that."

"The Catholic Church in San Antonio holds a sacred, fundamental place in the city's dynamic, because it was here at the founding -- literally," Mayor Julian Castro said. "It was kind of the beginning of the city."

Last week, Jose Gomez, the 58-year-old prelate atop the Archdiocese of San Antonio, was appointed the next archbishop of Los Angeles, heading the nation's largest Catholic community.

Gomez will inherit an archdiocese very different from his home of the last five years. Here, the church is but one voice among many, and the sacred and the secular do not intermingle so effortlessly. His congregants will embody the contradictions and struggles of the American Catholic Church, an institution torn over when to accommodate and when to challenge an increasingly secular culture.

Mexican-born, educated in Rome and Spain, Gomez brings to his new task a genial disposition and an impish sense of humor. He has a fondness for rioja wine, smothered steak and pro sports. He can be disarmingly regular. The other night he was spotted at a swanky restaurant with three friends -- none clergy -- en route to an NBA game.

None of it shields the fact that he is an assiduous theologian and a stern traditionalist. And in his mind, the church in San Antonio wasn't just the beginning of the city. It was the beginning, he believes, of the evangelization of America.

'A very good boy'

Jose Horacio Gomez was born the day after Christmas in 1951, the only boy among five siblings. He was raised in Monterrey, Mexico, a business hub at the foot of the Sierra Madre Oriental. His late mother, Esperanza, was a homemaker and his late father, Jose, was a physician who treated workers at a local brewery.

The family lived in a hilltop neighborhood called Vista Hermosa, where the children of upwardly mobile families bicycled and roller-skated down tranquil streets. In an interview, Gomez's four sisters described a devout household defined by family unity, honesty and a sense of gratitude to God.

The local parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, was 10 blocks away. Gomez's father attended Mass each morning; his mother ran the parish bookstore. Gomez soon became an altar boy.

Today, his sisters refer to him as El Arzobispo -- the archbishop -- but back then he was known by the nickname Pepe. He was a typical kid, kicking a soccer ball with friends, fishing with his father in southern Texas, joining his family on annual vacations in Acapulco. Family photos show a skinny boy in the embrace of his family. One shows the future archbishop dressed up as cowboy; another was taken when he made honor roll.

"A normal boy," said one sister, Alicia Gomez de Torres. "He fought with us. But he was a very good boy."

As the only son, he had a "very special place" in the family, said another sister, Maria Eugenia de Salvidar.

Soon, he thirsted for religious education; he never had a girlfriend and often watched, transfixed, as his grandfather read a prayer book late into the night. But he'd always been an ace student, and his father insisted that he obtain a professional degree. Gomez forged a compromise of sorts.

"He went to study and study and study," said another sister, Maricarmen Gomez de Celaya. By 1975, he had earned degrees in accounting and philosophy from the Autonomous National University of Mexico -- and become a lay member of Opus Dei.

A place to learn

The storied and guarded organization has often been surrounded by controversy; critics have linked it to the far-right movements of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Francisco Franco in Spain. Gomez never publicly described the organization through a political prism. Opus Dei, he said in a 2005 interview with Today's Catholic, simply "helped me learn how to practice my faith."

The organization is not a breeding ground for priests; only 2% of Opus Dei's 90,000 members are priests. So Gomez, still yearning for a greater connection with the church, set off for Europe, earning a doctorate in moral theology from the prestigious University of Navarra.

He was ordained a priest in the summer of 1978; the quiet ceremony was held in Spain, before the alabaster altar of the Torreciudad shrine to the Virgin Mary. He then embarked on his vocation, doing pastoral work with students in Spain and Mexico before serving at parishes in Texas.

The young priest was shy and studious, formal about the line between clergy and lay. Yet congregants found him easily approachable, as quick to discuss his sisters' artwork as the latest turns in the papacy.

"In no sense is he overly righteous," said former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger.

When he spoke with you, several congregants said, he made you feel as if you were, for a moment, the last two people on the planet.

"He is the greatest listener I have ever come across," said Angela Notzon, who lives with her husband, Al, in an 84-year-old Tudor mansion in San Antonio and is a parishioner at Our Lady of Grace church, where Gomez was based in the 1980s and '90s. "As you speak, he listens and smiles, which makes you feel important."

Notzon was seated in her dining room; among the framed photographs on the walls was one of Gomez with her grandchildren.

"In 1990, we told him that we were going to go to Rome on vacation," she continued. "He handed me a little piece of torn paper with a name and address on it. He said: 'If you get a chance, go to this address. You will be very welcome.' Well, we went to Rome and were having a little free time one day. We went to the location he mentioned and knocked on the door. A man answered the door and said: 'Do you know where you are?' We said: 'Nope.' He said: 'This is the Opus Dei headquarters. Would you like to attend Mass with us?' It turned out to be an incredibly beautiful experience."

A voice for Latinos

By the late 1990s, Gomez was on the fast track. The priesthood can be a catty workplace, and privately some sniffed that Gomez was advancing in part because of his feverish allegiance to the authority of the Vatican -- practicing, critics felt, with one eye on his parish and the other on the pope. But there was a more benign explanation too.

Since 1960, shortly before Gomez became an altar boy, Latinos had represented more than two-thirds of the growth of the American church. And Gomez had become a leader in the church's Latino wing, serving as president of the National Assn. of Hispanic Priests. He was also central in establishing a Mexico City institute built to educate Latino seminarians headed for the United States.

A year later, then-Pope John Paul II named him auxiliary bishop in Denver. It was there that Gomez cemented his status as a voice for Latino Catholics.

At the time, Colorado's growing Latino population felt neglected and ignored by the church, and it fell to Gomez to "let the Hispanic community know the church cares about them," said Father Michael Sheeran, president of Regis University, a Catholic institution in Denver. Today, more than half of Denver's 385,000 registered Catholics are Latino.

"Colorado has had some difficult ethnic tensions," said Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. "Bishop Gomez did a great job of putting people at ease and bridging the differences. . . . The proof of his skill is how gracefully and effectively he showed that he could be a bishop to all."

Having a Latino bishop in Denver, Chaput said, was "a very big deal."

Gomez's most lasting contribution in Denver was a two-story brick building in a tumbledown neighborhood, which he helped convert into a bustling center to assist Latinos. The Centro San Juan Diego ministers to spiritual and worldly needs, including English classes, law clinics and instruction on starting a small business.

"This provides skills for integration into American society -- and into the American church," said Executive Director Luis Soto.

Deep roots

San Antonio's cathedral is storied, tracing its origins to 1731. Jim Bowie got married there; Davy Crockett's ashes are purportedly kept there in a marble coffin; and during the siege of the Alamo, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna climbed the cathedral tower to raise the blood-red flag of no quarter.

Gomez's roots stretched far back into San Antonio; his grandparents were married in the cathedral in 1917 and had three daughters, the oldest his mother. In February 2005, Gomez was installed as the archbishop in San Antonio. He had been, in a sense, called home -- this time as the shepherd.

Gomez was the only U.S. bishop to emerge from Opus Dei, and even the priests in San Antonio had bought into the whispers -- "the scary-type stuff," said Father Virgil Elizondo, a vicar.

"To be honest, we were all a little scared," Elizondo said. But the priests soon found that Gomez "did not fit the stereotype," he added. "He was very human."

By the time Gomez was installed in San Antonio, he had moved beyond the confines of theology and become a modern, nimble manager. With the church facing a severe shortage of priests, Gomez worked to get more in the pipeline; San Antonio has ordained 15 priests since he arrived, including a record class of nine last year.

At a time when other dioceses were facing scores of allegations that their clergy abused young parishioners -- notably Los Angeles, which had reached a $660-million settlement -- Gomez and his dioceses faced a handful of claims that the church hadn't responded forcefully enough to abuse.

Gomez welcomed the use of new technology and lobbied for more corporate involvement to shore up finances; he recently recruited a former president of Valero Energy Corp. to help reorganize the chancery and lead a fundraiser for a new seminary dorm.

Despite his lofty position, he retained his deft touch with parishioners.

A couple of years back, Gomez dropped by Our Lady of Grace, his old parish church. Volunteers had upgraded the kitchen with a new stove and ice-maker. Parishioner Martha Fleitas had never met Gomez but "mustered the courage to invite him over to take a look," she said. Gomez offered a compliment. A year later, he spotted her at another function, smiled and said: "Hi, Martha!" It was a small moment no one else noticed, Fleitas said, one that meant the world to her.

"I'm not a scholar, or wealthy," Fleitas said. "I'm just a parishioner who teaches confirmation."

Gomez has not, however, turned into some mild-mannered folk figure -- far from it. Indeed, in San Antonio, he has become a visible member of a group of bishops, favored by the Vatican, who are using the church as a platform for unreserved politics and impassioned evangelization.

Next: A leading voice in the Catholic Church.

scott.gold@latimes.com

louis.sahagun @latimes.com

ken.ellingwood @latimes.com

Gold reported from Los Angeles, Sahagun from San Antonio and Ellingwood from Monterrey, Mexico.

Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg, Jessica Garrison and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

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