An interview with Archbishop Jose Gomez
Here is a transcript of The Times’ interview with Coadjutor Archbishop Jose Gomez, conducted the week before Christmas. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What I primarily wanted to talk to you about is what you’ve been doing since you’ve been here, and how you’re getting to know the archdiocese — and what a coadjutor archbishop does.
[Laughing] I wish I knew.
So let me just begin with that general question: What have you been doing to learn your way around this huge archdiocese?
When I came, the cardinal and I and the auxiliary bishops decided that it would be good to have deanery Masses, so, Mass in each one of the 20 deaneries of the archdiocese. So that is what I have been doing these past months. Basically, what happens is, we have a Mass in one of the parishes of the deanery and then representatives of all the other parishes come to that Mass. And then after the Mass there is a reception, so that is an opportunity for me to meet some of the representatives of all the parishes in the archdiocese. And I’m really enjoying it, because it’s just a beautiful archdiocese. When people ask me, you know, what is it that has impressed you the most, I always say just how active the people are in the parishes.
And then, what’s been a big surprise to me, coming from the outside, is the diversity — you know, the different cultures that are here. We have a lot of Hispanics, but a lot of Vietnamese and Filipinos and Koreans — every single country of the world is represented here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. You know, we have the Mass for Cultures at the cathedral, it was in September, I think, and I was the main celebrant at that Mass, and that’s when I realized that I was not in San Antonio, Texas [laughing]. This is Los Angeles! It was beautiful.
And I assume you’ve spent a good bit of time with Cardinal Mahony, talking to him about the affairs of the archdiocese.
Absolutely. We live together at the cathedral rectory, so we talk all the time. We are working together, and I’m learning a lot from him. You know, I was thinking the other day that I’ve been blessed to be the successor of Archbishop Flores in San Antonio, Texas, who was the first Hispanic archbishop and who is an institution in the Catholic Church in this country. He was the archbishop for 25 years over there. And now I’m going to be the successor of Cardinal Mahony, who has been also archbishop of Los Angeles for 25 years. Both of them are great examples for me of how to be a bishop.
You have to tell me a little bit about what it’s like living with the cardinal. It’s an unusual situation. Do you ever order a pizza and watch a basketball game?
We do, yeah. Actually, last night, we had dinner with the others — we are six people living together in the house — and there were two priests visiting from San Antonio. So we had dinner together, and then we were watching the game last night, there was the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings. Brett Favre and the whole thing. [Laughing] My football team, by the way, is the Green Bay Packers, so I’m not happy that Brett Favre went with the Vikings. So I’m happy that he’s finally retiring. Hopefully. We all hope so.
So as you travel around the archdiocese and meet with people, what are you hearing in terms of people’s concerns, people’s hopes? What are they looking for from you?
I think they are looking for, on the one hand, for continuity with the ministry of the cardinal and also the auxiliary bishops. You know, change is always difficult for everybody, 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. You know, in my homilies I like to talk about the readings of the Mass and try to kind of come to some spiritual advice for the people, and I feel that they like that.
Then I think it is clear to me that people are eager to be a part of the new evangelization. You know, I talk a lot about that, because I think it’s time for all of us — for priests, deacons, laypeople, religious — to feel that we are really one church and that we are part of the evangelization mission of the church. We have to bring the beauty of the Gospel to the people of our time.
One person I spoke to said that he thought two of your biggest priorities, if not the biggest priorities, would be evangelization and vocations. Would that be accurate?
That’s correct. Education in the faith is a priority for the bishops of the United States, and I think it is a priority for me. And the way to do it is to educate the priests. I mean, they are well-educated people and they need to bring that to the parishioners, you know, the education in the faith. We all know the teachings of the church, but we can learn more because it’s so rich, the Gospels are so rich. I’m still learning and I have a doctorate in theology.
And these are areas that have been a big challenge for the church in recent years, right?
Absolutely. So those are kind of my priorities. You know, another aspect is to educate people in the social teachings of the church, because I think it’s important to know what the church teaches on immigration or charity or work, how it’s possible to sanctify your work; I mean, how to make an impact on society being faithful to the church. With freedom and responsibility, but just knowing what the church teaches.
Which leads me to another question about the role of the laity: Is that something you want to advance?
Absolutely. You know, I think of myself as a priest of the Second Vatican Council, because I became a priest after the Second Vatican Council, and the main call of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. Pope John Paul II, in “Ecclesia in America,” has a beautiful description of the roles of the lay faithful. And he talks about how some are called to participate kind of in the ministry of the church, like Eucharistic ministers and readers, but also many, or some, are called to influence the world just in their ordinary work. And that’s a beautiful kind of way to summarize how everyone, no matter what your position is, should participate in the life of the church.
Cardinal Mahony has been known for having brought a lot of women into prominent roles in the archdiocese. Is that something you see yourself continuing?
Absolutely. I have four sisters! [Laughing] Yes, absolutely. I mean, women are equal and have the same dignity as men and they have to participate in the life of the church. Obviously, the structure of the church calls for some distinctions between the participation of men and women, but absolutely, every place that I have been, women have been important in my ministry.
Can you say if there are areas in which women in the church in Los Angeles have overstepped the bounds that the church establishes?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen any. I mean, the chancellor [of the archdiocese], Sister Mary Elizabeth Galt, she’s a wonderful sister and she’s done a wonderful job and that’s an important position in the life of the archdiocese. I mean, every single department in the archdiocese has the participation of women, and in the parishes too, so I don’t see any conflict or anything.
There’s a presumption that you are somehow more conservative than Cardinal Mahony. Do you see any grounds for people saying that? Are there ways in which you might be?
No, I really don’t like to talk about — you know, those are kind of political terms, conservative and liberal. I think we all are called to be faithful to the teachings of the church and to the Gospel. You know, obviously my background in Opus Dei sounds like a more conservative. But I’m as conservative as Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict.
You know, I give you an example: 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. Which, you know, those terms don’t really apply to the Gospel. I don’t know, I think it’s artificial. I’m totally committed to the issue of immigration. 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.
But theologically, I suppose one can speak of someone who is more traditional or less traditional. Where would you put yourself on that spectrum?
That’s a good question. On some issues I’m traditional. On some issues I’m more — like, participation of the lay faithful, that’s not typically considered a more conservative issue.
I mean, what I’m trying to do is be faithful to the Gospel. The Gospel is both conservative and liberal.
Since the subject of Opus Dei came up, can I just ask you — what is your affiliation now with Opus Dei? Do you have a formal affiliation with them?
No. No, now my ministry is to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, so I don’t really participate in the activities of Opus Dei. You know, obviously my spirituality as a priest is the spirituality of Opus Dei, but I don’t actively participate in any of the activities of Opus Dei. My commitment is to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and I’m trying to minister to every single person in the archdiocese and every single religious community or movement or any people in the archdiocese.
I have to ask you one question about the sexual abuse scandal in the church. Pope Benedict was quoted yesterday speaking about that, and saying, “We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen.” I wonder how you would answer those questions.
Well, I think the bishops of the United States have been [investigating] for a number of years, since 2002, the causes and contexts of the sexual abuse crisis, and I think we are coming to the point that we are learning about it and understanding what happened. Obviously as the pope has done, and Cardinal Mahony and all of us, we have apologized and been open in our asking for forgiveness to the victims of sexual abuse, and we are trying to do as much as we can in the healing process of victims of sexual abuse.
And as you know, we have started programs since the beginning of protection of children, and here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles we have the Virtus program, and I think my understanding is that there have been 160,000 people who have been part of that program and 190,000 children who have received education on the protection of children. So we are actively working on preventing these things in the future. It is also a part of the formation of seminarians, you know, they participate in those programs and also we try to educate them in the different aspects of human formation, intellectual, human, spiritual and apostolic or missionary.
Has the church been as open as it should be? There are people who say it hasn’t.
Well, I think we are doing all we can. We have different ways of protection of children, and ways that people can talk about it. We are providing all kinds of services for people to talk about it, and I think the church has been open. I mean, it’s very painful, but I think we are doing our best, and I think it is one of the institutions in our country that has addressed this issue in a more open way, a more practical or efficient way.
I asked some priests what questions they would ask you, and so here are two of them. What saints are you devoted to, and how do you pray?
Well, obviously, I have a great devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I have entrusted my ministry as a bishop and specifically here in the archdiocese to Our Lady of Guadalupe. So I feel that I’m very close to her. I also have a great devotion to St. Joseph — first, because he’s my name saint, but also because he’s the patron of the universal church. He’s a great model for holiness — quiet and simple holiness. Doing God’s will and listening to God, it’s for me, it’s — I don’t know how to say this — kind of the type of holiness and sanctity that I would like to have, somebody who is just good and solid. Then I have devotion to all kinds of saints, but it’s a long list.
Now lately, this cross [indicating the cross hanging from his neck] is a copy of the cross that St. Rafael Guizar Valencia had — a bishop who was made a saint in Mexico. He’s the first American-born bishop to be canonized. So it took 500 years [laughing] to make a saint out of a bishop, so I’m praying to him, you know? And it has a real relic of the saint here, inside. You cannot see it, but the inside has a little relic, a little piece of his bone. So that’s what I have. [His cellphone rings.] Oops, the pope is calling me. [Laughing.] In my homilies, I talk a lot about the saints. I’m kind of following the lead of John Paul II, who canonized a lot of people, because I think the saints are a beautiful, human model for us.
You’ve mentioned Pope John Paul II several times. He obviously is someone who has been very important to you.
Absolutely. Because I was ordained a priest in August of ’78, and he was elected pope in October of that year, if I remember correctly. And he was — my whole priesthood, he was the pope. He appointed me auxiliary bishop in Denver and then archbishop in San Antonio. And I really love his connection with the people and his pastoral ministry. I think it was a big, new way of doing things, and I hope I can do a little bit of what he did.
I asked you the question about prayer.
I usually get up in the morning and have a holy hour, from, I guess, 7 to 8 every morning. And then during the day I try to be in the presence of God. You know, I usually try to pray the Angelus at noon, that’s an old tradition of the church. And then when I can, I try to spend some time in prayer in the afternoon too, before the Blessed Sacrament, as I do in the morning. I celebrate Mass every day. We have a chapel there at the rectory, and when I don’t have Mass outside I usually say Mass over there.
I try to read the Gospels every day, at least one chapter. It is so I will keep my spiritual life alert, thinking about it. I usually try to do some spiritual reading, depending on my schedule. Like, right now, I’m reading the book of the pope. [“Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times” by Peter Seewald.] And I just finished a book of St. Augustine, one of the biographies of St. Augustine, by Peter Brown. It’s a huge book.
And the books you read, do you read mostly in English or Spanish or both?
English. English, mostly in English.
And do you have non-theological books that you like to read?
Yeah, actually I was reading a book on the history of Los Angeles. What is the name? It’s an old book from the 1920s. I mean, I don’t think the book is that old, but it talks about the origins of the city of Los Angeles. I’ll send you the name because I don’t have it. Because I wanted to know more about the history of the city of Los Angeles. [The archdiocese later says the book is “The Fragmented Metropolis: Los Angeles, 1850-1930” by Robert M. Fogelson.]
Finally, I just have to address the issue of your basketball loyalties. I know that you have an attachment to the Spurs. Have you been to any Laker games?
No, not yet. No, I’m dying to go to a game. So I need an invitation. But I’m — you know, I went to San Antonio for the installation of the new archbishop over there, Thanksgiving week, and that’s when I realized I’m a Lakers fan.
Yes. But unfortunately, the Spurs are playing better than the Lakers, so they’ve got to do something.
I was at the Mass you celebrated in San Pedro, at Mary Star of the Sea. And I noticed that you still have a car with Texas plates.
Not anymore. No, I just got my California license plates and my California driver’s license. So it’s a big identity crisis. [Laughs] So I’m a Californian now.
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