Meet Archbishop José Gomez, the first Latino president of the U.S. bishops

Archbishop José H. Gomez takes part in a Día de los Muertos celebration Nov. 2 at Calvary Cemetery in East L.A. (Photo by J.D. Long-Garcia)

A crowd of lay faithful engulfed Archbishop José H. Gomez after the Día de los Muertos procession Nov. 2 at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles. The archbishop had celebrated a bilingual Mass, blessed the altars commemorating loved ones and followed matachines as they danced around the cemetery. Now it was time for pictures.

Despite the midday sun and his warm vestments, he posed for photos with anyone who wanted one, including babies and the elderly. He even recorded a special message and blessing for a woman on her iPhone. (It took at least three takes to get it right.)

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“He’s a man of faith,” Doris Quinania, who attended the celebration with a group from St. Frances X. Cabrini in Los Angeles, told me. “He has a heart for all the poor, but in a special way for the immigrants.”

On Nov. 12, the U.S. bishops elected Archbishop Gomez to be the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the first ballot. It is the first time the conference has elected a Latino as its leader.

On Nov. 12, the U.S. bishops elected Archbishop Gomez to be the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the first ballot.

His election was widely expected and kept with tradition—Archbishop Gomez had been serving as vice president of the conference for the last three years. The archbishop has also been elected to head the bishops’ migration committee twice and has chaired the committee on the church in Latin America and the cultural diversity committee. Since 2016, he has headed up the U.S. bishops’ working group that develops spiritual, pastoral and advocacy support for immigrants and refugees.

Archbishop Gomez, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, was ordained to the priesthood in the Opus Dei prelature in 1978. In 1980, he received a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of Navarra, in Spain. He served as a priest in Texas from 1987 to 2000.

In 2001, he was ordained an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Denver. St. John Paul II appointed him as archbishop of San Antonio in 2005. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2011. He succeeded Cardinal Roger Mahony as archbishop about a year later, in 2012.

After Archbishop Gomez was elected vice president in 2016, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., told me he was “a very caring person and a man who is a quiet leader and someone who will get things done.” I had the opportunity to report on that election when I worked for Archbishop Gomez as editor in chief of Angelus, the news platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“I think it is clear that we need to find a way to get across the beautiful message of the Catholic faith. The fact that we are children of God, that God really cares about us.”

Earlier this month, I interviewed Archbishop Gomez in a conference room at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. While he did not address questions specifically about being president of the U.S.C.C.B., he did address a number of issues facing the church in the United States.

“The main issue [the church is facing] is the New Evangelization and how to continue what Pope Francis is asking us to do in ‘The Joy of the Gospel,’” he said, referring to the pope’s 2013 apostolic exhortation.

“I think it is clear that we need to find a way to get across the beautiful message of the Catholic faith. The fact that we are children of God, that God really cares about us, that we are also called to love God and love one another,” the archbishop said. “But somehow I think we need to make it more attractive to people and more realistic. The challenge we have in our society is how to make it clear to the people of our time.”

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles prioritizes its digital communications department and supports Catholic parishes and schools “so they can be more realistic in what is happening in society,” Archbishop Gomez said. “The church has to be more up to date with our evangelization programs.”

Rather than simply focus on its teachings, the church must lead by its mission and example, he said. “The first step is to show what the church is doing.”

Rather than simply focus on its teachings, the church must lead by its mission and example, he said. “The first step is to show what the church is doing,” he said. “I think that’s what young people are looking for—mission, going out, helping people, living their faith. That takes them to an encounter with Christ, and they start learning more about the teachings of Jesus.”

In September, Archbishop Gomez led a delegation that presented Pope Francis with the findings of the V Encuentro, a four-year initiative from the U.S. bishops intended to better serve the growing Latin American community. He said the Encuentro, which means “encounter,” exemplifies the synodality that the pope is calling for in the church.

“It was about listening to the lay faithful and forming small communities in the parishes,” he said. “It’s been an extraordinary success. The challenge now is the follow-up!” If approved at the November bishops’ meeting, a subcommittee on Hispanic Affairs will develop a “comprehensive vision for Hispanic/Latino ministry” in response to the Encuentro process.

“It’s really creating that sense of mission and ownership of the lay faithful as we are all trying to make real the Second Vatican Council’s universal call to holiness,” Archbishop Gomez said. The V Encuentro process is similar to what the church in Latin American experienced during the Fifth General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, he said. Jorge Bergoglio, then a cardinal, oversaw the crafting of the Aparecida document.

“Another beautiful thing that Encuentro has shown the church in the United States is the active presence of Latinos in our country,” Archbishop Gomez said. “And I think it has given leadership to the Latinos, who can be of great benefit to the church in the United States.”

“Another beautiful thing that Encuentro has shown the church in the United States is the active presence of Latinos in our country,” Archbishop Gomez said.

That has a lot to do with Pope Francis, he said.

“The fact that the pope is a Latino makes us feel a responsibility for the church,” he said. “He has been a great blessing for me and for the church. For Latinos, it’s easy to understand some of the wonderful things Pope Francis is doing to reach out to people.”

During his apostolic visit to the United States in 2015, Pope Francis canonized St. Junípero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan missionary who served in Mexico and modern-day California. Archbishop Gomez called the canonization “a great blessing for Latinos because it recognized the beginnings of this country and the great blessing that the missionaries that came to the United States were and are in this country.”

Pope Francis’ visit to the United States came shortly after he had appointed three auxiliary bishops to Los Angeles. When the pope saw Archbishop Gomez, he asked him, “How are the triplets?”

“He wanted to meet them!” the archbishop said. “He has an extraordinary memory. He’s amazing. He remembers everything.... For me as a bishop in the United States, I have a really good relationship with him—because he likes to speak to me in Spanish!” the archbishop laughed.

“The fact that the pope is a Latino makes us feel a responsibility for the church,” he said. “He has been a great blessing for me and for the church.”

Andrew Rivas, the executive director of the California Catholic Conference, has known Archbishop Gomez for the last 13 years. He described him as supportive of “Laudato Si’,” as standing up for those who have been harmed by sexual abuse and as a person who is “more comfortable out there with the people than in a boardroom.”

Yet Mr. Rivas, who previously served as the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, said the archbishop surprised him at first. He had made certain assumptions about him because he knew he was an Opus Dei priest.

“His mindset is that everyone is a child of God,” Mr. Rivas said. “We love everyone and we’re willing to work with anyone—in any political party.”

On immigration, Archbishop Gomez said leaders have to continue to work toward a solution despite what seems like a legislative impasse in Washington. Some immigration reform has to be handled one dimension at a time, he said, from refugees to the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“In my ministry as a bishop, I have always tried to rely on the advice and direction of the lay faithful. Because we are all the church,” Archbishop Gomez said.

“Historically, the United States has been a country that is open and welcoming to people in those difficult situations. That’s our identity,” he said, touching upon a major theme in his 2013 book Immigration and the Next America. “When we think of the United States, we all agree that this is a country of immigrants. Absolutely, the church supports the protection of our borders and also an immigration system that allows people to move.”

The bishops are committed to working toward an immigration solution that addresses the needs of the people in the United States, Archbishop Gomez said. He believes there is a solution that addresses border protection, the workers needed by the economy and the “families that strengthen our society.”

“Most of the immigrants that come to our country want to actively participate in the building of a society that is just and that offers them security and that makes the United States the best country in the world,” he said.

On end-of-life care, Archbishop Gomez said he “tries to share with elected officials that life is a gift of God and that we should respect that and support people who are in difficult situations.”

Archbishop Gomez: “We are not following the Democrats, and we are not following the Republicans. We are following the plan of God.” 

“Part of the mission of the church is to be there with people at the end of life,” he said. “We don’t want to impose things on other people or force them to do anything they don’t want to do, but I think it is important to see that God has given us the gift of life and is calling us to support each other in every single moment of our life.”

Archbishop Gomez said that support begins with unborn children but includes all children, including those in foster care. That support also extends to the homeless, he said, noting a number of ongoing outreach efforts in Los Angeles including St. Vincent de Paul and the St. Francis Center.

“We are not following the Democrats, and we are not following the Republicans. We are following the plan of God,” he said. “My role is not political. My role is spiritual and humanitarian—in support of the human person.”

A little over a week before he was elected president of the U.S.C.C.B., Archbishop Gomez told me he never expected to be a bishop.

“I just wanted to be a priest because that’s what I felt that God was asking me to do,” he said. He said his prayer life and his relationship with God are primary. He also said he entrusted his ministry to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Throughout his ministry, he said, he has felt the support of “the lay faithful.” In Los Angeles, he noted the support from his staff at the chancery as well as from lay, ordained and religious Catholics throughout the archdiocese. Then there are his four sisters. “They tell me what to do,” the archbishop said with a laugh. He often visits his sisters, their husbands and his nieces and nephews in Mexico.

“In my ministry as a bishop, I have always tried to rely on the advice and direction of the lay faithful. Because we are all the church. Hopefully they feel that I am doing that,” he said. “Because that’s a priority for me. It’s a challenge, obviously. I never expected to be here, in this beautiful archdiocese. Or just to be a bishop. I don’t know how I’m doing it, but I feel the help of the grace of God and of the people and this sense that we are doing it together. It’s not just myself. It’s the church working together.”

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