In a coming-of-age moment for the U.S. Hispanic community, Pope Benedict XVI named a Mexican-born, naturalized citizen on April 6 as coadjutor archbishop of Los Angeles, San Antonio’s Archbishop José H. Gómez. Archbishop Gómez, 58, will automatically become head of the archdiocese upon Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s retirement or death. José Horacio Gómez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, Dec. 26, 1951, and became a U.S. citizen in 1995.
“I welcome Archbishop Gómez to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with enthusiasm and personal excitement,” Cardinal Mahony said in a statement. “The auxiliary bishops and I are looking forward to working closely with him over the coming months until he becomes the archbishop early in 2011.” Archbishop Gómez is currently the highest-ranking prelate of the 27 active Hispanic Catholic bishops in the United States. When he succeeds Cardinal Mahony, he will become the first Hispanic archbishop of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest archdiocese.
The Rev. Virgilio Elizondo, a pastor in San Antonio and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, said the decision to appoint Archbishop Gómez is a “great recognition” of the Hispanic community’s contribution to the United States. “As we grow in numbers, we also have to grow in responsibility,” he said. According to Elizondo, Archbishop Gómez’s appointment offers the church a “great sense of unity...across ethnic distances.” Father Elizondo described the archbishop as a deliberative leader, willing to “listen to the people and to the priests” before making decisions.
He will probably need those listening skills. The polyglot reality of Los Angeles may be a little different for the archbishop. “We don’t have all the complications in San Antonio of a Los Angeles in every sense: linguistically, politically, ethnically culturally,” said Father Elizondo. “How to be a church leader to that very large metroplex, a city that is truly a microcosm of the world” may be his biggest challenge, said Elizondo. The Los Angeles Archdiocese covers about 8,800 square miles. It has a total population of 11.6 million, 4.2 million of whom are Catholic.
Carmen Aguinaco, president of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry, worked with Archbishop Gómez when he served as the council’s treasurer. She says the archbishop’s skills as a certified public accountant should serve him well in Los Angeles, an archdiocese still reeling from a $660 million settlement in 2007 with more than 500 victims of clergy abuse. In San Antonio Archbishop Gómez clashed on occasion with Catholic progressives—he disbanded the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission—but Aguinaco did not expect such conflicts in Los Angeles. Archbishop Gómez is no micromanager, according to Aguinaco, and is more likely to step in on diocesan affairs only when absolutely necessary. And though doctrinally conservative (Gómez was ordained a priest of Opus Dei in 1978), he has proven to be a supporter of social justice efforts. “He’s a quiet man, almost shy really,” Aguinaco said. In recent years, however, “despite being a man of few words,” she said Archbishop Gómez has proven to be a strong voice for the Hispanic community when leadership was necessary.
Like many Hispanic Catholics, Aguinaco is already looking forward to the next ecclesial transition Arch-bishop Gómez is likely to experience in California. “In our minds [the Los Angeles] position is always linked to a cardinal, so people are already saying that he will be a cardinal,” Aguinaco said. “Beyond just the honor, that would be a recognition that we are coming of age as a voice and as strong leaders in the church.”