Reporting from San Antonio and Los Angeles — When Archbishop Jose Gomez introduced himself to the faithful Tuesday morning, he described Los Angeles as "the global face of the Catholic Church." He might as well have been talking about himself.
FOR THE RECORD:
New archbishop: In the April 7 Section A, two news stories and a graphic about the selection of Jose Gomez to succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony used conflicting numbers for the size and ethnic makeup of L.A.'s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The correct membership figure is 4.6 million, according to the 2009 Annuario Pontificio, the official statistical yearbook of the Catholic Church, although the L.A. archdiocese estimates that more than 5 million people attend Mass locally, including those who are not formally registered. About 70% of the members of the archdiocese are Latino. —
Gomez, 58, who will succeed Cardinal Roger Mahony, is a reflection of the future of American Catholicism. Born in northern Mexico, now an American citizen, he is one of the millions of Latinos who will make up the majority of Catholics in the United States within the next 10 years.
And like many of those Latinos, he is at once a conservative and a progressive: unyielding in his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, passionate in his advocacy for immigrants and the poor, confounding to those who try to wedge him into the traditional right-left political paradigm.
During his six-year tenure atop the San Antonio archdiocese, Gomez emerged as a leading advocate for doctrinal conformity, determined to stave off what he saw as creeping secularism in the church.
He denounced one Catholic university when it invited then-Sen. Hillary Clinton to campus, because she favored abortion rights, and another when it invited a Benedictine nun, because she had advocated the ordination of women. Under his reign, a local Catholic high school ended its relationship with an organization that raised money to fight breast cancer, because the same organization gave grants to Planned Parenthood. After a 17-year-old lay advisory commission created by his predecessor suggested that gay marriage might be a human rights issue under one reading of the church's teachings, Gomez disbanded the commission.
"The doors were closed for collaborative communication," Mary Moreno, one commission member, said in an interview Tuesday. "We just got a letter. And when things are done like that, it kind of leaves a sting."
Yet in Denver, where Gomez served as a bishop, he was the driving force behind the creation of Centro San Juan Diego, both a formation center for lay leaders and a social services center for immigrants. Roughly 30,000 adults visited the center last year to learn English and computer skills and obtain free legal advice to gain citizenship and fight deportation.
Gomez has marched for immigrants' rights and worked to bridge the complex cultural gap between long-established Mexican American communities and newly arrived immigrant communities from elsewhere in Latin America.
He is a leader of a church that, ideologically, "is kind of everywhere depending on what the issue is," said Father David Garcia, the former rector of San Antonio's storied San Fernando Cathedral and a longtime collaborator with Gomez. But Gomez has made it clear that he sees no contradictions. In a homily he delivered a few years ago, he said the Catholic faith should be lived "without excuses" -- which can often mean, he said, "defending the poor and the immigrant and the prisoner on death row."
"He is with the Latino community on all of these issues," said Centro San Juan Diego Executive Director Luis Soto. "He is a great man. He is a great priest. And we are very proud of him. . . . I think you are going to like him very much."
Indeed, many Los Angeles-area Catholics hailed the selection of Gomez.
Art Herrera, 73, who was born and raised in Boyle Heights and is now a Eucharistic minister in his parish, said that because there will be a Latino at the head of the church, "lukewarm Catho- lics are probably going to come back."
Gomez was born in Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest and most affluent city, the fourth of five children of devout Catholic parents. He still visits frequently because his four sisters and many of his 16 nieces and nephews live there.
"He knew from a young age he wanted to be a priest. He was very dedicated and our parents were a good example," said Gomez's sister Maria Eugenia Gomez de Saldivar, 54, in Monterrey. "I don't remember him ever talking about getting a girlfriend. He always knew what he wanted."
He earned degrees in accounting and philosophy from the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, and was ordained a priest there in 1978, under the Prelature of Opus Dei.
Latinos are the fastest-growing segment among the 65 million Catholics in the United States and make up more than two-thirds of the 5 million Catholics in the Los Angeles archdiocese.