Archbishop Jose Gomez is set to become head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
On a Sunday morning soon after he arrived in Los Angeles, Roman Catholic Archbishop Jose Gomez celebrated Mass in Santa Maria. In his telling, it was an epic journey.
Santa Maria lies 160 miles northwest of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the seat of the archdiocese in downtown Los Angeles, but still within the boundaries of the territory Gomez is about to inherit. The drive there took two hours, he remembers. The drive back in afternoon traffic took four.
"That was my introduction to Los Angeles traffic," Gomez said in a recent interview, laughing and shaking his head. "On a Sunday!"
Since he arrived in Southern California last May, the archbishop has put thousands of miles on the Ford Taurus he brought with him from San Antonio. He has crisscrossed the region, seemingly determined to meet every one of the 4 million to 5 million Catholics who make the Archdiocese of Los Angeles the most populous in the United States — more than six times the size of the one he left.
Gomez has been learning his new turf, which encompasses Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. In a sense, he has also been trying to sell himself to his parishioners and priests. Some of them were wary of his history as a member of Opus Dei, a controversial Catholic organization with a reputation for extreme orthodoxy.
Gomez appears largely to have calmed fears that he might be too conservative for an archdiocese like Los Angeles, which, under Cardinal Roger Mahony, has gained a reputation as one of the most progressive in the Roman Catholic Church.
"As we've come to know Archbishop Gomez, all that concern has been put aside," said Father John Provenza, pastor of Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Pedro, where Gomez celebrated Mass in December. "We see him as very open and understanding of the needs of our church and community."
Gomez has also won hearts by projecting warmth, humility and deep spirituality; by standing patiently in endless receiving lines; by laughing often and talking to the many Spanish-speaking Catholics in the language of his native Mexico.
It has been a quietly auspicious start. But no one knows with any certainty how Gomez will proceed when he takes over as leader of the archdiocese Feb. 27, the day Mahony turns 75, the standard retirement age for an archbishop.
"I certainly see a man who is willing to hear and learn and understand," said Deacon Dave Estrada, who as head of the archdiocese's office of synod implementation has met with Gomez several times. Still, Estrada said, "it would be hard for me to label him."
Gomez, 59, is in an unusual position. He bears the title of "coadjutor archbishop," a term that applies to a prelate-in-training. In that role, he has worked alongside Mahony, learning the complexities of the archdiocese. The two live together, sharing the archbishop's residence, occasionally ordering takeout food and watching a game together on TV.
It is not exactly a relationship of equals. For one thing, as a cardinal, Mahony is a member of the church's international governing elite, and he will retain that title and role even after he steps down as archbishop. For another, until he retires, he's still in charge.
When the archdiocese recently announced plans for local Catholic schools to expand the length of the academic year, it was Mahony who led off a news conference by reading a statement in English. Gomez came next, repeating the same words in Spanish.
Gomez then stood to the side as Mahony and Catholic school officials answered reporters' questions in English. Finally, as the event was ending, a reporter for a Spanish-language television station asked if Gomez could say something — he didn't specify what — in Spanish.
"What's the question?" Gomez said, sounding slightly annoyed.
It is, presumably, a humbling experience for a man who, in San Antonio, has already been an archbishop. Then again, Los Angeles is not San Antonio.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles serves the largest and probably the most ethnically diverse population of U.S. Catholics. As head of the archdiocese, Gomez will instantly become one of the most important voices in American Catholicism, listened to and — as Mahony can attest after the firestorm of sexual abuse scandals — intensely scrutinized.
Already, as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, Gomez has been speaking out nationally as an advocate for immigration reform. It is one of the subjects on which he and Mahony share a passion.
Closer to home, Gomez has stressed a few simple themes: He is an agent of continuity, not change. His highest priorities are evangelizing new Catholics and training additional priests. He supports efforts to give lay leaders a stronger role in the church.
In the recent interview, conducted at the archdiocese's headquarters in Koreatown, Gomez talked about his sense of what local Catholics may be seeking from him.