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Bishop Moves With Deliberation in Taking Over San Fernando Region

January 14, 1988|IRA RIFKIN | Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

By his own admission, Bishop Armando X. Ochoa came to the job of San Fernando regional auxiliary bishop for the Los Angeles Archdiocese with little preparation for the task the Roman Catholic Church had asked him to assume.

The expectation was that Ochoa would grow into the job.

Even the geography--part of the region covers Glendale and its surrounding communities--was relatively unknown to Ochoa, despite his having been a lifelong Southern Californian.

"Other than driving through on the 5 freeway or the 101, or a workshop at the seminary, I never had any reason to go to the valley," he said. "I make no bones about it. This was all new territory for me."

There was, however, one important piece of information about the area with which Ochoa was familiar. He knew that the San Fernando Valley, particularly its northeast corner, has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations of Los Angeles County.

It was clear, said Ochoa, one of three children raised in Oxnard by middle-class Mexican-immigrant parents, that a large part of the reason he was assigned to the San Fernando Pastoral Region was because he is Latino.

In the year since his appointment, Ochoa--at 44 a personable but low-key, almost shy man--has set about learning the region. And he has done so the way he does everything--slowly, deliberately and with a minimum of fanfare.

"For me, the past year has been a matter of growing comfortable, of getting to know what is my role," Ochoa said during a recent interview at his temporary offices on the campus of Our Lady Queen of Angels Seminary High School in Mission Hills. (A move to permanent quarters at Our Lady of Peace parish in Sepulveda is planned for later this year).

Signed by Pope John Paul

The "papal bull," or official proclamation, elevating Ochoa to the Catholic episcopate and signed by Pope John Paul II, hangs framed to the side of his desk.

During the first in-depth interview he has granted since he was named a bishop by the Pope in late December, 1986, Ochoa said, "Archbishop (Roger) Mahony has a wonderful ability to deal with the media. I had avoided it till now, because it's just not my style."

In February, 1986, Mahony, then just five months on the job as prelate of the nation's most populous Catholic jurisdiction, announced a plan to divide the three-county, nearly 3-million member archdiocese into five subregions for administrative purposes.

The idea was to bring an auxiliary, or assistant, bishop closer to the people so the needs and concerns of Catholics in the pews would be better served, while also establishing local listening posts for Mahony. Each regional bishop was given broad powers for dealing with personnel and other matters, but final decisions still rested with Mahony.

One such region was called the San Fernando Pastoral Region, which extends from the Ventura and Kern county lines on the west and north, south to Mulholland Drive and east to the communities of Mount Washington and Glassell Park, including Glendale and La Canada Flintridge.

Within its boundaries are about 1.8 million people, roughly a fourth of them Catholic, with 47 Latin and three Eastern Rite parishes, 13 Catholic high schools and two church-connected hospitals.

As bishop for the region, Ochoa said he is concentrating on listening and learning while trying to make friends for the church with his easygoing, down-to-earth manner. His ability to relate genuinely to people is his strong point, he said, and others interviewed agreed.

Like Mahony, Ochoa might be called liberal on social issues, and conservative on the rest.

Ochoa supports the effort by the San Fernando Valley Organizing Committee to create a church and community-based advocacy organization similar to the powerful United Neighborhood Organization in East Los Angeles and the South Central Organizing Committee in South Los Angeles.

"We keep him abreast of what we're doing," said Sister Carmel Somers, who is leading the Valley organizing effort. "He's available."

Ochoa is also mindful, however, of the fears of politically conservative Anglo Catholics that the Los Angeles Archdiocese is paying far more attention to minority needs--particularly those of Latinos--than to their own, more traditional concerns.

But how to reach out to those Anglos is something Ochoa has yet to determine. "It's very difficult," he said. "But we have to educate our Catholic lay people to the social encyclicals of the church. . . . I'm seeing that this is going to be very, very important."

There are some within the local church who believe that Ochoa is too deliberate, that he is taking too long to establish a forceful presence. In the year since Ochoa has been formally installed in the region, he has yet to visit many of the local parishes, and there is some grumbling that his style is just too laid back.

"He's nervous about being Hispanic in a largely Anglo area," said one Valley church official who has worked with him. "He's nervous about how he is perceived."

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