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The Plugged-In ARCHBISHOP : Roger Mahony Ministers With Computers, a Helicopter and Friends in High Places

December 17, 1989|PAUL CIOTTI | Times staff writer.

IT'S 10 O'CLOCK in the morning at Van Nuys Airport. Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger M. Mahony settles into the cockpit of his blue-and-white Hughes 500D four-passenger jet helicopter, offers a brief silent prayer, then fires up the turbine, eases up on the collective and lifts lightly off the flight line. He rotates right, pours on the power and climbs out to the northwest at maximum torque into a warm, hazy morning. Ten minutes later he's zipping along 1,000 feet above Interstate 5 on his way to Bakersfield, pointing out landmarks like a Hollywood tour guide.

Mahony says his frequent flights over the 8,300 square miles of his archdiocese reveal a growing gap between those who have jobs and houses and opportunities and those who don't. "I see this anomaly from the air. The inner city seems more like a war zone. You look at whole burned-out blocks and wonder how anybody can survive in that area. Then you see them rearranging mountains and valleys to put in new houses, and I think, geez, why are we taking all those mountains down and filling up the valleys when we really could do something in our communities? The opportunities for the residents are so different in those two areas. The gap is wide and getting ever wider."

Four-and-a-half years into his job as head of the largest archdiocese in America, Mahony has grown adept at negotiating that gap between the rich and the poor. Unlike some of his predecessors, he has rejected the ornate trappings that accompany his post and lives downtown at the rectory of St. Vibiana's Cathedral with five other priests, in the heart of Skid Row. His goal for Los Angeles, he says, is to reawaken an appreciation for God in a society inundated with material goods. "The Church has set out a vision of the responsibilities of society to the poor," he says, "and we really do fall short of many of those challenges and goals." He is passionate about what he sees as one of his primary missions: addressing the needs of immigrants and refugees and making them feel welcome.

But he has also chosen to court, not chide, the high-finance power brokers of Los Angeles whom he can call upon when, for instance, he needs food and medicine for an emergency airlift to El Salvador, a $100-million endowment for the parochial schools--or the $395,000 helicopter that critics regard as a galling symbol of how comfortable he's become with wealth and power.

"I model myself on the example of Christ," says Mahony. "He moved freely among the lepers and the outcasts on one hand, and had dinner with the Pharisees and leaders of the community on the other, and felt very much at home with all people."

"He's a rare mixture of an organization man and a populist," says attorney and venture capitalist Richard Riordan, who put together the financing for Mahony's helicopter after Mahony got caught in gridlock one too many times. "He's very pragmatic. He understands that you don't help the poor by destroying business. And that you have to create wealth before you redistribute it." Furthermore, Riordan says, Mahony enjoys wielding his authority. "You have to enjoy power to be in the position he is in."

It is clear, as Mahony looks out over the city and reflects on his ability to change it, that he does enjoy his job and the direct way in which he can apply his influence. In a governmental system of competing interest groups and overlapping bureaucracies, he asks, "what kind of power do you have in terms of being able to get things done?" By comparison, the archdiocese can act swiftly. "I can cut through red tape very quickly," he says, "and I don't think there is any equivalent position like it. I don't have to deal with the City Council or the county Board of Supervisors. I have the ability to make a phone call, write a letter and get something moving." When it comes to getting things done, he says, "there is something to be said for a hierarchical system."

DESPITE THE aplomb with which he functions today, Mahony wasn't someone who was tagged for greatness early. "He wasn't real dynamic," says Gerald Fallon, a former priest and theologian who attended St. John's Seminary in Camarillo with Mahony. "Roger was just a hard-working guy. He looked like he would do a good job. But I don't think anyone imagined that he would be the archbishop of Los Angeles."

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