(RNS) Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday (April 6) named Mexican-born Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of San Antonio as the next archbishop of Los Angeles, placing him in charge of the nation’s largest diocese and in line to become the nation’s first Hispanic cardinal.
Gomez, who has served in San Antonio since 2004, was named coadjutor archbishop, or designated successor, to succeed Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony, who reaches the official retirement age of 75 next February.
Because Los Angeles has been headed by a cardinal for the past half century, Gomez can expect to be named a prince of the church and given a vote in the election of a new pope, although perhaps not until Mahony loses his vote at age 80.
With 4.18 million Catholics, Los Angeles is the largest archdiocese in the U.S., according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The new post will make Gomez the highest-ranking Hispanic bishop in the history of the American Catholic Church.
“This is an epic moment in the life of the church,” Mahony said in introducing Gomez to his new flock in Los Angeles at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. “I was so grateful to God for the gift of an appointment of a Hispanic archbishop.”
Hispanics today make up more than 35 percent of all Catholics in the U.S., and more than 50 percent those under age 25, according to the bishops conference. Yet only 9 percent of U.S. bishops are Hispanic.
“Los Angeles, like no other city in the world, has the global face of the Catholic Church,” Gomez said at the press conference, alternating between English and Spanish.
Gomez, 58, was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and studied theology in Spain. A member of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, he moved to the U.S. in 1987, and worked in the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston until 2001, when he was named an auxiliary bishop of Denver, where he served until his appointment in San Antonio.
“I was born in Mexico, my sisters still live there,” Gomez said, “and I’m very proud of the Mexican love for life and family and faith that first turned my heart toward God.”
Gomez, despite his rapid rise in the Catholic hierarchy, has till now kept a relatively low profile in the American church.
“He has a low-key and mellow personality, he’s not at all a firebrand,” said the Rev. John Paul Wauck, an American Opus Dei priest who teaches communications at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
Yet Gomez has taken positions on controversial political issues that stand in marked contrast to those of the man he is now to succeed.
Gomez has said that priests should inform Catholic politicians who support abortion rights that they should not present themselves for Communion, a position contrary to that of Mahony, who has said such politicians should make that decision for themselves.
Both men downplayed Gomez’s affiliation with Opus Dei and their respective reputations, with Mahony saying that “these labels of conservative and liberal are really unhelpful in the life of the church.”
“We are not liberal or conservative,” Gomez added. “We are faithful in Christ.”
Also unlike Mahony, Gomez was one of some 80 active and retired U.S.
Catholic bishops — about one fifth of the total — who publicly protested President Obama’s appearance last May as commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame because of Obama’s support for abortion rights.
As the Catholic Church contends with a spreading international sex abuse scandal, an advocate for abuse victims voiced disappointment Tuesday at Gomez’s appointment, charging that he had downplayed several cases of alleged abuse by members of religious orders in San Antonio.
“If the pope is trying to convince us he’s tough on abuse,” said Barbara Garcia Boehland of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), “he’s shooting himself in the foot by elevating Gomez.”
Gomez is scheduled to be formally welcomed in Los Angeles on May 26 and will assume full control of the archdiocese on Feb. 27, 2011.
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA and LILLY FOWLER
(Francis X. Rocca reported from Vatican City, and Lilly Fowler reported from Los Angeles.)
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