Parish reflects L.A. — and it’s thriving

His parishioners describe Father Paul Griesgraber as “old school,” a term that is almost laughably open to interpretation, given the 2,000-year history of his particular school, the Roman Catholic Church. In his case, it is used with affection and respect to describe a priest who trusts in the majesty of the Catholic Mass and invests it with deep spirituality — in both English and Spanish.

He is also a priest who brings people streaming through the doors of his church, St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda, a place that, in many ways, reflects the larger Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Once largely white, St. Catherine’s is now mostly Latino. Immigrants have pumped new life into the parish, and Spanish-language Masses draw larger crowds than those in English.

“The church was dead,” Olga Calderone, St. Catherine’s health director, said bluntly of the time before Griesgraber arrived last summer. “Now we are bringing the cultures together. ... This is the beauty that Father Paul has brought to our church.”

It is also what parishioners at St. Catherine’s hope the next archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose Gomez, will bring to an archdiocese that has been battered in recent years by a devastating sexual abuse crisis even as it has grown to become by far the largest Catholic community in the nation.

Gomez, who arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday, will be officially welcomed to the city Wednesday afternoon with a Mass at the downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. As co-adjutor of the archdiocese, Gomez will work alongside Cardinal Roger Mahony, then succeed him when the prelate retires early next year.

In interviews over the last week, parishioners and staff at St. Catherine’s talked about their hopes and concerns for their church as it faces a transition locally and confronts a pernicious threat globally: a scandal of sexual abuse by priests that Pope Benedict XVI recently called “terrifying.”

Almost without exception, those interviewed at St. Catherine’s said they were pleased with the selection of Gomez, a native of Mexico and a U.S. citizen who has been archbishop of San Antonio since 2004. They had qualified praise for Mahony, who was seen as a compassionate and largely effective archbishop who, many believed, had stumbled in his handling of sexual abuse cases.

Many expressed confidence, however, that Mahony had enacted appropriate safeguards against future priestly abuse, and some made the argument — implicitly rejected recently by the pope — that the scandal had been blown out of proportion by the news media.

It is hard to say to what extent these views reflect those of all Catholics. The people interviewed were regular churchgoers, outwardly the most faithful of the faithful, and may be more forgiving of the church’s human failings than more casual Catholics.

Still, what emerged repeatedly from their conversations was a passionate belief in the Catholic Church as an institution, immense satisfaction with the stewardship of their local parish, and a slightly more skeptical view of the greater church hierarchy, both locally and in Rome — views that are in line with surveys of Catholics nationally.

“Sometimes I pray to God,” said parishioner Delia Garay, “and say, ‘Why are there so many disappointments with humans?’”

On a recent weekday morning, about 100 people gathered at St. Catherine’s for daily Mass, scattering themselves through the church’s cavernous nave. Built in the mid-1960s to support a booming San Fernando Valley, the church has a modern, light feel, with pink walls and tall, narrow stained glass windows.

Griesgraber was at the altar, speaking in a warm, resonant voice. At 58, he is a tall, thin man with a chiseled face. A lifelong churchgoer on the Westside of Los Angeles, he came late to the priesthood, resisting the call for years while working in jobs that included handyman and real estate developer. When he came to Reseda after a relatively brief stint at a parish in Pasadena, he knew nothing about the Valley or St. Catherine’s.

He told this story in his homily, adding that once he arrived, “I felt instantly that I was home, that I had been here forever.”

Gomez, he said, will be in the same situation: “He’s coming from a whole ‘nother world. ... We don’t have a lot in common with him; he’s not part of our neighborhood.” But, he assured the congregation, “what he does share is that inner light of the Lord. ... His cares will become our cares, and our cares will become his cares.”

Later, in the rectory, Griesgraber spoke about his efforts to rebuild the parish in the last year, quadrupling the enrollment of the elementary school, adding more Spanish Masses, reopening a vacant convent to house volunteers who teach in the school and otherwise serve the church while they ponder a life as a priest or nun. And he talked about the transition in leadership in the archdiocese, which Mahony has headed since 1985.

He is aware of “surface chatter” that Gomez might be too conservative for Los Angeles, which has developed a reputation as one of the most progressive archdioceses in the country. Gomez is affiliated with Opus Dei, an organization seen as a conservative force in the global church.

“I listen for it; I listen deeply for it,” said Griesgraber. But nothing he has heard from Gomez has set off any alarms. “My guess is that he’s a deep person with a deep spirituality” who can’t be pigeonholed as conservative or liberal, he said.

But then, Griesgraber said, he himself belongs to two groups of priests, one conservative and one charismatic. He is known for charismatic Masses that bring a sort of Pentecostalism to the church, and even speaks in tongues; but he also supports a monthly Latin Mass that appeals to the most conservative Catholics. What’s important, he said, is for the church to get back to basics, to its “legacy of love.”

“This is our inheritance,” he said. “We have to let that back in.”

After daily Mass the next day, a group of parishioners gathered in the sacristy, a room behind the altar. They reflected the attendance at the weekday Mass: lots of retirees, some of the church’s most devout and longest-tenured members.

John Curti, a retired public school custodian, has been attending St. Catherine’s since 1948. He said every archbishop in Los Angeles has been an improvement over the one before; he expects that to continue. Mahony’s legacy, he said, will be that he “built up the archdiocese.”

Jenny Braun, a parish member since 1951, said Mahony “did a good job in bringing all of us together. I think he’s for justice and the poor.” But Mary Rodarte offered one of several dissents: “I think a lot of people have been disappointed in him, and I think the change is going to be good.” She said Mahony was too slow to react to the priestly abuse scandal.

“I know right from wrong,” she said, “and I would have acted right away.”

There was near unanimity that it was time for a Latino archbishop, and one who speaks Spanish as a native. Curti noted that when the church dropped an all-Latin Mass in the 1960s, the idea was to adopt “the vernacular language of the people.”

“So,” he said, “if a parish like this is heavily Hispanic, then the Mass should be in Spanish so these people can understand the word of God in their own language.”

Sunday services filled the church this last weekend after a five-hour Pentecost vigil the night before. A late-morning service in English was full; Spanish-language Masses were standing room only.

John Estrada emerged from the English-language Mass, slipped on his sunglasses and strode through the parking lot. The retired Los Angeles Unified School District worker and former gang member had been baptized in the Catholic Church, but left it and bounced around among evangelical churches and then no church at all for most of his life.

Now 64, he said he was “a lost soul” until he came to St. Catherine’s about a year and a half ago. As a reinvigorated Catholic, he is optimistic about where the church is headed and has seen “dramatic change” for the better at St. Catherine’s since Griesgraber took over. As a Latino, he is proud that the new archbishop shares his heritage.

He said he remains deeply troubled by the sexual abuse scandal. But, he added, “We as Catholics just have to be strong in our faith.”