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Parish reflects L.A. — and it's thriving

Once largely white, St. Catherine of Siena in Reseda is now mostly Latino. Immigrants and a new priest have revitalized the church; members have high hopes for the archdiocese under new leadership.

May 26, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

He is aware of "surface chatter" that Gomez might be too conservative for Los Angeles, which has developed a reputation as one of the most progressive archdioceses in the country. Gomez is affiliated with Opus Dei, an organization seen as a conservative force in the global church.

"I listen for it; I listen deeply for it," said Griesgraber. But nothing he has heard from Gomez has set off any alarms. "My guess is that he's a deep person with a deep spirituality" who can't be pigeonholed as conservative or liberal, he said.

But then, Griesgraber said, he himself belongs to two groups of priests, one conservative and one charismatic. He is known for charismatic Masses that bring a sort of Pentecostalism to the church, and even speaks in tongues; but he also supports a monthly Latin Mass that appeals to the most conservative Catholics. What's important, he said, is for the church to get back to basics, to its "legacy of love."

"This is our inheritance," he said. "We have to let that back in."

After daily Mass the next day, a group of parishioners gathered in the sacristy, a room behind the altar. They reflected the attendance at the weekday Mass: lots of retirees, some of the church's most devout and longest-tenured members.

John Curti, a retired public school custodian, has been attending St. Catherine's since 1948. He said every archbishop in Los Angeles has been an improvement over the one before; he expects that to continue. Mahony's legacy, he said, will be that he "built up the archdiocese."

Jenny Braun, a parish member since 1951, said Mahony "did a good job in bringing all of us together. I think he's for justice and the poor." But Mary Rodarte offered one of several dissents: "I think a lot of people have been disappointed in him, and I think the change is going to be good." She said Mahony was too slow to react to the priestly abuse scandal.

"I know right from wrong," she said, "and I would have acted right away."

There was near unanimity that it was time for a Latino archbishop, and one who speaks Spanish as a native. Curti noted that when the church dropped an all-Latin Mass in the 1960s, the idea was to adopt "the vernacular language of the people."

"So," he said, "if a parish like this is heavily Hispanic, then the Mass should be in Spanish so these people can understand the word of God in their own language."

Sunday services filled the church this last weekend after a five-hour Pentecost vigil the night before. A late-morning service in English was full; Spanish-language Masses were standing room only.

John Estrada emerged from the English-language Mass, slipped on his sunglasses and strode through the parking lot. The retired Los Angeles Unified School District worker and former gang member had been baptized in the Catholic Church, but left it and bounced around among evangelical churches and then no church at all for most of his life.

Now 64, he said he was "a lost soul" until he came to St. Catherine's about a year and a half ago. As a reinvigorated Catholic, he is optimistic about where the church is headed and has seen "dramatic change" for the better at St. Catherine's since Griesgraber took over. As a Latino, he is proud that the new archbishop shares his heritage.

He said he remains deeply troubled by the sexual abuse scandal. But, he added, "We as Catholics just have to be strong in our faith."

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