‘A quiet leader’: Archbishop Gomez begins serving as the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
JD Long-Garcia Dec 9, 2016
Election Day did little to put aside divisions within the nation. While some felt vindicated by the outcome, others took to the streets in despair.
Heated campaign rhetoric between two largely unpopular candidates resulted in a lower percentage of registered voters turning out. Yet the rhetoric did stir deep emotions among partisans. Among the immigrant community, the election results ignited a deep-seated fear.
“We need to start building bridges and bringing people together,” Archbishop José H. Gomez said during an interfaith prayer service two days after the election. “We need to reach out to those who are hurting. Now is the time to build unity and heal communities, through our love for our neighbor and our care for those in need. That’s what tonight is about. Not politics. It’s about people.”
The Nov. 8 prayer service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels included addresses from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as well as Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders. The New York Times, the Vatican and media outlets the world over reported on this quiet call to unity amid a city that had erupted in protest.
Exactly one week after the national election, a very different election took place in Baltimore during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops annual fall meeting. In keeping with tradition, then-vice president Cardinal Daniel N. Dinardo was elected president of the conference on the first ballot. No surprise there. There was no recount.
Next, the bishops voted for their vice president. The process took a little longer — maybe five minutes — but the bishops elected Archbishop Gomez to be their vice president. The archbishop, who had twice been elected to head the bishops migration committee, is the first Latino to serve as the vice president of the U.S. bishops.
This, too, drew much media attention. Some in the secular press concluded that the election of Archbishop Gomez was a response from the Catholic hierarchy to President-elect Donald Trump.
But Archbishop Gomez didn’t think so.
“This is really about the whole family of God in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, not only me. I think this is recognition that the Church is alive and growing in Los Angeles and that we are doing great things in spreading the Gospel and serving our brothers and sisters in need,” the archbishop said.
“I also think this is a recognition of how important Latino Catholics are to the growth and the future of the Church,” he added. “We also need to continue our important work so that our society respects the sanctity and dignity of every human person — from the child in the womb, to the immigrant who does not have ‘papers,’ to the elderly and the terminally ill.”
Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Gomez to serve as coadjutor of the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 2010, serving for nearly a year alongside Cardinal Roger Mahony before the cardinal’s retirement. Those 11 months served as a transition of leadership in the largest archdiocese in the United States.
Before coming to Los Angeles, Archbishop Gomez led the Archdiocese of San Antonio for five years. During that time, he and Cardinal DiNardo co-chaired the Texas Catholic Conference, which represented the voices of 27 bishops.
“We fought off a lot of bad state legislation,” according to Andrew Rivas, who was the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference from 2006-2011. He now serves as director of government relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
He described their approach as a “mindset to evangelize.” The Texas bishops dealt with many end of life issues at the time, but also advocated for immigrants, Catholic health care and Catholic education.
“The archbishop has an expertise to speak powerfully on behalf of those families who have come to build a better life in this country,” Rivas said. Archbishop Gomez’ book, “Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation,” offers a comprehensive, nonpartisan examination of the issue.
“They called for all Catholics to be a part of their local communities, to have an impact — to be more Catholic, more Christian, more loving,” Rivas said, adding that he always found Archbishop Gomez to be a patient man.
“Isn’t that something we all need right now? Patience?”
Led by Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Gomez, the U.S. bishops are calling for Dec. 12 to be a special day of prayer with a focus on migrants and refugees. Every year, the Church celebrates Our Lady of Guadalupe on that day.
“So many families are wondering how changes to immigration policy might impact them,” Archbishop Gomez said in a Dec. 1 statement. “We want them to know the Church is with them, offers prayers on their behalf, and is actively monitoring developments at the diocesan, state and national levels to be an effective advocate on their behalf.”
Archbishop Gomez begins each day with prayer, spending an hour before the Blessed Sacrament. He joins fellow priests in residence at the cathedral for Morning Prayer, meditates on the Gospel each day and prays the rosary.
“The more you grow in your knowledge of the faith, the more you love God and the more you love your neighbor,” the archbishop said in a 2014 interview with The Tidings.
His prayer life and his dedication to living out the Great Commandment made an impression among his fellow bishops.
“I know him to be a very sensitive man, a very caring person and a man who is a quiet leader and someone who will get things done,” said Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, who was part of a prayer group for several years with Archbishop Gomez.
Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú, whom Archbishop Gomez ordained a priest in San Antonio, said his friend was well respected among the bishops.
“I think all of us understood that it’s a particularly symbolic gesture of the part of the Catholic Church to place in a high leadership role someone who was born in Mexico and someone who’s eloquent, insightful — a great leader who speaks with an accent,” Bishop Cantú said. “This is America. We don’t have to be afraid of it.”
The bishop, who leads a border diocese, said many Americans are suffering. Some have lost their jobs and industries are vanishing. From that place of pain, people are looking for scapegoats — including politicians and those not born in this country.
“We don’t have to be afraid of people who are different from us. It has always enriched this country,” Bishop Cantú said.
Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores is also encouraged by the archbishop’s election.
“Archbishop Gomez is a man I have respected and our people have respected because of his wit, his intelligence and his heart. He has a great pastoral sense,” he said. “I think that’s why he was wisely chosen to be archbishop of Los Angeles. He is a man of the Church who has a particular story to tell in terms of his people. He is the right man at this moment to step into leadership in the conference.”
In interviews and statements, the archbishop said his election was recognition of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where Masses are celebrated in 42 languages. In an interview with Catholic News Service, he called those troubled by the election results to prayer.
“Pray for elected officials, pray for one another and trust in the love of God” that everything is going to be OK with trust in the grace of God,” he said.
Some might see prayer as a quiet way — but powerful nonetheless.
“These are challenging times for the Church in our society,” Archbishop Gomez said. “But we go with God and every Catholic knows that we have a great mission — to share the good news about God and to tell our brothers about his mercy and his beautiful plan for our lives and our world.”