Cardinal Roger Mahony walked slowly across the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, leaning softly on his shepherd’s staff as he completed one of his last public acts as archbishop of Los Angeles. Passing the altar on one side and his assembled bishops on the other, he finally reached the man who was taking over his position as head of the nation’s largest Roman Catholic archdiocese.
Mahony handed the crooked staff, known as a crosier, to Archbishop Jose Gomez, symbolizing one of the most ancient traditions of the church, the transfer of authority from one bishop to another.
“It makes me want to cry,” whispered Yolie Ramos to her husband, Manny. The Ramoses were seated in the transept to the right of the altar, among about 3,500 Catholic faithful who packed the cathedral on Sunday for the first of two Masses that ceremonially passed the staff.
The ceremonies fell on Mahony’s 75th birthday, the day he was obligated to submit his letter of resignation to Pope Benedict XVI. That was done by fax, and a letter from the pope was expected to be faxed back on Tuesday, at which point Gomez officially will become archbishop of Los Angeles.
In recognition of the demographic changes that have transformed the archdiocese in the 25 years since Mahony became archbishop in late 1985, the first Mass was conducted in English, the second in Spanish. It seemed a fitting end for a cardinal who dedicated much of his career to the cause of Latino immigrants and a fitting beginning for an archbishop, Gomez, who is an immigrant from Mexico.
In his homily Gomez paid tribute to Mahony and brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation when he said to the cardinal: “So, thank you very much. Muchas gracias. Well done, good and faithful servant.”
He then led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.”
The transition marks the end of a tumultuous quarter-century during which Mahony earned a reputation as a progressive prelate dedicated to immigrant rights, economic justice and an expanded role for women and the laity — and then saw that record sullied by a scandal that led to a $660-million settlement with victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Many wonder what it will mean to have an archbishop who was ordained in Opus Dei, a Catholic organization that takes a traditional approach and has a reputation — ill-deserved, its supporters insist — for secrecy and association with the political right.
Gomez has said he will build on Mahony’s accomplishments and is “inspired by his love for the immigrant, for the stranger in our midst,” a reminder that he shares his predecessor’s dedication to immigration reform.
Gomez, 59, was appointed as coadjutor archbishop in May, meaning that he has spent nine months working alongside Mahony, learning the management of the archdiocese. Gomez, known for a love of sports, was previously archbishop of San Antonio but declared Sunday that “the people of San Antonio are not going to be happy: I can say that I am a Lakers fan now.”
After Sunday’s Masses, Gomez and Mahony stood in the plaza outside the cathedral greeting the faithful, some of whom came with birthday gifts.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be here,” said Kevin Corcoran, who had waited in line with his wife, Adrianne, to have their photo taken with Gomez. “You don’t see history in the making that often.”
Another attendee, Jose Cambronero, a Department of Water and Power inspector who was with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, gestured over his head to the cathedral that loomed behind him — a landmark that Mahony pushed to build over considerable opposition. “This is his legacy, man,” he said. “This is it.”
Mahony was honored during the Mass with an announcement that a panel would be placed on the side of the cathedral recognizing him as its founder.
Cambronero said he was deeply impressed by Gomez, especially by his “very humble” demeanor and way of speaking.
“It really hits your guts, as a Latino, the way he speaks,” he said.
Although Mahony is retiring as archbishop of Los Angeles, he will remain part of the global church’s elite as a cardinal and is scheduled to fly to Rome on Monday for meetings with other cardinals.
With Mahony retaining his status as a cardinal, Gomez is not likely to be similarly elevated for at least five years. Once Mahony turns 80, he will no longer be eligible to vote for a new pope with the College of Cardinals. Until then, the Vatican is not likely to want two voting cardinals from a single city.