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Archbishop Jose Gomez learns L.A. as Mahony's retirement nears

On a Sunday morning soon after he arrived in Los Angeles, Roman Catholic Archbishop Jose Gomez celebrated Mass in Santa Maria. In his telling, it was an epic journey.

Santa Maria lies 160 miles northwest of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the seat of the archdiocese in downtown Los Angeles, but still within the boundaries of the territory Gomez is about to inherit. The drive there took two hours, he remembers. The drive back in afternoon traffic took four.

"That was my introduction to Los Angeles traffic," Gomez said in a recent interview, laughing and shaking his head. "On a Sunday!"

Since he arrived in Southern California last May, the archbishop has put thousands of miles on the Ford Taurus he brought with him from San Antonio. He has crisscrossed the region, seemingly determined to meet every one of the 4 million to 5 million Catholics who make the Archdiocese of Los Angeles the most populous in the United States — more than six times the size of the one he left.

Gomez has been learning his new turf, which encompasses Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. In a sense, he has also been trying to sell himself to his parishioners and priests. Some of them were wary of his history as a member of Opus Dei, a controversial Catholic organization with a reputation for extreme orthodoxy.

Gomez appears largely to have calmed fears that he might be too conservative for an archdiocese like Los Angeles, which, under Cardinal Roger Mahony, has gained a reputation as one of the most progressive in the Roman Catholic Church.

"As we've come to know Archbishop Gomez, all that concern has been put aside," said Father John Provenza, pastor of Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Pedro, where Gomez celebrated Mass in December. "We see him as very open and understanding of the needs of our church and community."

Gomez has also won hearts by projecting warmth, humility and deep spirituality; by standing patiently in endless receiving lines; by laughing often and talking to the many Spanish-speaking Catholics in the language of his native Mexico.

It has been a quietly auspicious start. But no one knows with any certainty how Gomez will proceed when he takes over as leader of the archdiocese Feb. 27, the day Mahony turns 75, the standard retirement age for an archbishop.

"I certainly see a man who is willing to hear and learn and understand," said Deacon Dave Estrada, who as head of the archdiocese's office of synod implementation has met with Gomez several times. Still, Estrada said, "it would be hard for me to label him."

Gomez, 59, is in an unusual position. He bears the title of "coadjutor archbishop," a term that applies to a prelate-in-training. In that role, he has worked alongside Mahony, learning the complexities of the archdiocese. The two live together, sharing the archbishop's residence, occasionally ordering takeout food and watching a game together on TV.

It is not exactly a relationship of equals. For one thing, as a cardinal, Mahony is a member of the church's international governing elite, and he will retain that title and role even after he steps down as archbishop. For another, until he retires, he's still in charge.

When the archdiocese recently announced plans for local Catholic schools to expand the length of the academic year, it was Mahony who led off a news conference by reading a statement in English. Gomez came next, repeating the same words in Spanish.

Gomez then stood to the side as Mahony and Catholic school officials answered reporters' questions in English. Finally, as the event was ending, a reporter for a Spanish-language television station asked if Gomez could say something — he didn't specify what — in Spanish.

"What's the question?" Gomez said, sounding slightly annoyed.

It is, presumably, a humbling experience for a man who, in San Antonio, has already been an archbishop. Then again, Los Angeles is not San Antonio.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles serves the largest and probably the most ethnically diverse population of U.S. Catholics. As head of the archdiocese, Gomez will instantly become one of the most important voices in American Catholicism, listened to and — as Mahony can attest after the firestorm of sexual abuse scandals — intensely scrutinized.

Already, as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, Gomez has been speaking out nationally as an advocate for immigration reform. It is one of the subjects on which he and Mahony share a passion.

Closer to home, Gomez has stressed a few simple themes: He is an agent of continuity, not change. His highest priorities are evangelizing new Catholics and training additional priests. He supports efforts to give lay leaders a stronger role in the church.

In the recent interview, conducted at the archdiocese's headquarters in Koreatown, Gomez talked about his sense of what local Catholics may be seeking from him.

"I think they are looking for ... continuity," he said. "You know, change is always difficult … so they're happy that I'm trying to continue the ministry of the cardinal. But I also notice that — and I think the cardinal would probably agree with me — that people need hope, and spiritual leadership."

Gomez is aware that his background in Opus Dei — best known for its fictional, and controversial, depiction in the book and movie "The Da Vinci Code" — has set off alarms. He said he is no longer formally affiliated with the group but, far from renouncing it, said it had shaped his spirituality.

He compared his beliefs to those of the last two popes, each of whom helped push the church in a more doctrinaire direction while remaining well within the mainstream of Catholicism.

"I'm as conservative as Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict," he said. "Opus Dei, before the Second Vatican Council, was the most liberal organization in the Catholic Church, because it talked about the participation of the lay faithful. That was not normal at that time. And then, somehow, after the Second Vatican Council, it became one of the most conservative organizations in the church. You know, those terms don't really apply to the Gospel.

"I'm totally committed to the issue of immigration," he continued. "I'm also committed to the culture of life. So in political terms, those are things that are on the opposite sides sometimes, but the church is richer than those political labels."

Gomez has worked hard to reassure some in the archdiocese who have been at the forefront of Mahony's more progressive initiatives.

As parish life director of Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, Cambria Smith is among a number of women placed in significant roles in the archdiocese during Mahony's tenure. She said she has met several times with Gomez, who says he is committed to maintaining a strong role for women.

"I think that the impression that he's given people is that he's very open to listening and learning, and that he wants to respond in a way that's going to help the archdiocese to grow," Smith said. "I think he's genuinely a very holy man, and he's probably doing his best to be guided by the Holy Spirit."

Father Chris Ponnet, pastor of St. Camillus Center next to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, hosts the archdiocese's gay and lesbian ministry and HIV-AIDS ministry and has been deeply involved in peace and justice movements.

At first, the priest said, he had some apprehensions, based partly on concerns he'd heard about Gomez from peace and justice groups in San Antonio.

But after meeting with the archbishop, Ponnet said, he found Gomez "very responsive and very affirming."

If there is one group that has found an especially kindred spirit in the archbishop, it is the region's large Latino immigrant population, especially those from Mexico, where Gomez was born and raised.

That was clear in December, when Gomez celebrated a Mass in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe before thousands of people who filled much of the football stadium at East Los Angeles College. It was an overcast day filled with colorful costumes, the smells of tacos and fresh churros, the pomp and grandeur of Catholic ceremony.

Midway through Gomez's homily, it began to rain. Juan Bautista Cantillo, a deacon from St. Thomas the Apostle Church who helped organize the event, was standing near the archbishop.

"He said, 'OK, it's not too much.' And when somebody brought an umbrella, he said, 'I'm OK, I'm OK.' People said, 'OK, if he can be wet, I can be wet too.'"

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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