Cardinal Roger Mahony was smiling widely Saturday as he navigated the crush of immigrant rights supporters rallying in downtown Los Angeles, enlivened by the throngs of adoring supporters who kissed his hand and asked to be blessed.
"Thank you, Arizona," he said, to no one in particular. "Thank you, Arizona."
For the cardinal, the thank-you was two-pronged.
Mahony compared Arizona to Nazi Germany after the state passed a strict new law that allows police to check the legal status of anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant.
But Mahony said the Arizona legislation might turn out to be a net positive, hastening the passage of federal immigration reform. It also gives the Catholic church a welcome break from criticism of its handling of sexual abuse allegations against priests.
"When we have internal problems, we have to deal with them, but this allows us to continue our outreach," Mahony said. "This is an important part of moving on."
After chanting with protesters from atop a flatbed truck at the march's starting point, the cardinal and his handlers ducked out on Broadway and took a detour through Hill Street to reunite with marchers toward the end of their trek to City Hall.
"Actually, the fastest way is down this alley," the cardinal said.
On his way, Mahony gave a sideways glance to a vendor grilling bacon-wrapped hot dogs on a hot plate. He dodged another vendor who tried to persuade the cardinal to buy a trendy "Legalize L.A." T-shirt.
"You gotta buy one!" the man pleaded.
"He's already got one," one of his handlers deadpanned.
Mahony called the Arizona legislation unconstitutional. He also challenged Gov. Jan Brewer to release a set of clear criteria defining what constitutes "reasonable suspicion" that an individual might be undocumented.
"They can't," he said. "Because you'd come up with ‘brown skin, black hair and listens to ranchera music.' "
Midway to City Hall, the cardinal crossed paths with actor and devout Catholic Martin Sheen.
"Martin Sheen, come join the Cardinal," one of Mahony's handlers shouted.
"No, no. I'm gonna go this way" the actor called back apologetically.
Before rejoining with the marchers at the head of the procession, Mahony greeted attendees under the shade of a check-cashing outlet on Broadway. He placed his palm on the foreheads of followers, blessing them and offering words of support in Spanish.
"Sí se puede," he told one. "Yes, we can."
Once he got to the rally's main stage, he gazed up in awe toward the horizon, a sea of jubilant supporters filling Broadway for blocks.
"See what I mean?" Mahony said, pointing at the crowd. "Thank you, Arizona."