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A young priest's passionate calling

Jose Gomez felt the pull of the Catholic Church early on. In Los Angeles, the stern traditionalist with a genial disposition inherits an archdiocese much different from the one he led in San Antonio.

April 11, 2010|By Scott Gold, Louis Sahagun and and Ken Ellingwood

First of two parts

After homilies at their handsome, twin-steepled cathedral, the priests of San Antonio often throw open the doors to a public plaza, stepping over a bronze cross that by legend marks the precise heart of the community. City Hall is across the square, and by tradition everyone sworn into office -- believers or not -- walks across, beneath the elms and oaks, for a benediction.

"A blessing of goodwill," Councilwoman Elisa Chan, who was raised a Buddhist, said with a smile and a shrug. "We all need that."

"The Catholic Church in San Antonio holds a sacred, fundamental place in the city's dynamic, because it was here at the founding -- literally," Mayor Julian Castro said. "It was kind of the beginning of the city."

Last week, Jose Gomez, the 58-year-old prelate atop the Archdiocese of San Antonio, was appointed the next archbishop of Los Angeles, heading the nation's largest Catholic community.

Gomez will inherit an archdiocese very different from his home of the last five years. Here, the church is but one voice among many, and the sacred and the secular do not intermingle so effortlessly. His congregants will embody the contradictions and struggles of the American Catholic Church, an institution torn over when to accommodate and when to challenge an increasingly secular culture.

Mexican-born, educated in Rome and Spain, Gomez brings to his new task a genial disposition and an impish sense of humor. He has a fondness for rioja wine, smothered steak and pro sports. He can be disarmingly regular. The other night he was spotted at a swanky restaurant with three friends -- none clergy -- en route to an NBA game.

None of it shields the fact that he is an assiduous theologian and a stern traditionalist. And in his mind, the church in San Antonio wasn't just the beginning of the city. It was the beginning, he believes, of the evangelization of America.

'A very good boy'

Jose Horacio Gomez was born the day after Christmas in 1951, the only boy among five siblings. He was raised in Monterrey, Mexico, a business hub at the foot of the Sierra Madre Oriental. His late mother, Esperanza, was a homemaker and his late father, Jose, was a physician who treated workers at a local brewery.

The family lived in a hilltop neighborhood called Vista Hermosa, where the children of upwardly mobile families bicycled and roller-skated down tranquil streets. In an interview, Gomez's four sisters described a devout household defined by family unity, honesty and a sense of gratitude to God.

The local parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, was 10 blocks away. Gomez's father attended Mass each morning; his mother ran the parish bookstore. Gomez soon became an altar boy.

Today, his sisters refer to him as El Arzobispo -- the archbishop -- but back then he was known by the nickname Pepe. He was a typical kid, kicking a soccer ball with friends, fishing with his father in southern Texas, joining his family on annual vacations in Acapulco. Family photos show a skinny boy in the embrace of his family. One shows the future archbishop dressed up as cowboy; another was taken when he made honor roll.

"A normal boy," said one sister, Alicia Gomez de Torres. "He fought with us. But he was a very good boy."

As the only son, he had a "very special place" in the family, said another sister, Maria Eugenia de Salvidar.

Soon, he thirsted for religious education; he never had a girlfriend and often watched, transfixed, as his grandfather read a prayer book late into the night. But he'd always been an ace student, and his father insisted that he obtain a professional degree. Gomez forged a compromise of sorts.

"He went to study and study and study," said another sister, Maricarmen Gomez de Celaya. By 1975, he had earned degrees in accounting and philosophy from the Autonomous National University of Mexico -- and become a lay member of Opus Dei.

A place to learn

The storied and guarded organization has often been surrounded by controversy; critics have linked it to the far-right movements of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Francisco Franco in Spain. Gomez never publicly described the organization through a political prism. Opus Dei, he said in a 2005 interview with Today's Catholic, simply "helped me learn how to practice my faith."

The organization is not a breeding ground for priests; only 2% of Opus Dei's 90,000 members are priests. So Gomez, still yearning for a greater connection with the church, set off for Europe, earning a doctorate in moral theology from the prestigious University of Navarra.

He was ordained a priest in the summer of 1978; the quiet ceremony was held in Spain, before the alabaster altar of the Torreciudad shrine to the Virgin Mary. He then embarked on his vocation, doing pastoral work with students in Spain and Mexico before serving at parishes in Texas.

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