ROME– Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, technically speaking, is just one among more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and, in the U.S., the head of just one of 32 territorial archdioceses, 145 dioceses, an Archdiocese for the Military Services, a Personal Ordinariate for ex-Anglicans, two archieparchies, sixteen eparchies, and one apostolic exarchate.
If all bishops are created equal, however, some are obviously more equal than others, and the 64-year-old Gómez falls into the “more equal” camp.
Among other things, Gómez is the de facto leader of the burgeoning Hispanic/Latino wing of the U.S. church, which now represents one-third of all the country’s roughly 70 million Catholics. More broadly, he’s become a tribune for all Hispanics and Latinos/Latinas, Catholic and not, on issues such as immigration, equal opportunity, and recalling the oft-neglected Spanish roots of American culture.
Gómez has a pitch-perfect résumé to play that role, since he’s immune to being styled as a left-wing firebrand. He’s a priest of Opus Dei, a former CPA by training, and a protégé of Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, whom Gómez served under as an auxiliary bishop in Denver.
To add to the mix, being a native Spanish-speaker born in Mexico is no handicap in the era of history’s first Latin American pope.
Though no one should ever try to guess what Pope Francis is likely to do, many Vatican-watchers regard Gómez as a reasonable bet to become a cardinal whenever the pontiff next decides to hold a consistory, which would make him the first Hispanic cardinal in U.S. history.
Crux spoke with Gomez on Sept. 23, during a visit to Rome to promote the V Encuentro, a two-year process of Hispanic/Latino missionary activity, consultation, leadership development and pastoral discernment in parishes, dioceses and episcopal regions that culminates with a national event, which is set to wrap up in 2018.
What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: You’ve become a strong voice on many issues that many people, dividing everything under the binary code of liberal-conservative or Democrat-Republican, would say are at odds with each other: immigration, religious liberty, pro-life issues from abortion to euthanasia and death penalty. How do you reconcile all those differences?
Gomez: For me, a beautiful example was St. John Paul II. He was elected pope two months after I was ordained a priest. My whole priesthood was 25 years with John Paul II. He was a beautiful example of being able of express the truth of the Gospel. I think it’s sad that we sometimes politicize some of those things, because it’s deeper than that. The Catholic Church is about the human person, life, freedom, justice, loving one another, independent of those political situations.
The challenge we have in the United Sates is that we have two political parties that take some of the truths of the Catholic Church as their own, but not the whole package. So I think that it’s important for us Catholics to identify those differences and to ask for the grace to be able to live faithful to our faith, independent of the politicization of those issues.
To live like that seems almost revolutionary…
Yes. One of the times John Paul II went to the United States I noticed the media weren’t able to put him in that corner, because he spoke to both sides. And I think it’s happening with Francis too.
Jesus was on both sides too!
What are Catholics to do this November?
First of all, we need to pray for our country. It’s important for all of us to pray more, ask for God’s grace and inspiration, to be able to make the best of this electoral process. And then I think that for all of us, it’s calling everyone in the United States to remember that the most important thing is God, and the human person. Our relationship with God, and with each other.
Sometimes all we see are the divisions, the differences, and we need to find a way to reach out to the other and to work together. In every society, to be successful, you have to do that.
And we have to ask for the grace that whomever is the new president of the United States, we all understand that we have to work together as a society. That’s the origins of the United States, and we have to keep doing that.
Not long ago, you delivered a speech on the Hispanic roots of the United States. As a Hispanic-American yourself, how frustrated do you get at the fact that this part of the country’s history seems forgotten?
That’s part of my own family history. My family, on my mother’s side has been in what’s Texas now since 1805. And it was Spain at that time, then it became Texas, and the United States.
I think it’s important for the United States to understand the origins of the country. For some reason, as I said also in my book Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation, sometimes it’s forgotten. And it’s restraining that some people don’t realize how important the history of your country is.
When I published the book on immigration talking about the history of the United States, particularly the Southwest, Cardinal [Francis] George, may he rest in peace, he thanked me for it, and said that he wanted to write a book on the origins of the United States in the Midwest, from Louisiana to Canada, because there was a French Catholic immigration there, from the very beginning, and nobody knows that.
I think it’s important to know that there were Hispanics in the Southwest, Catholic French in the Midwest, and Catholics on the East Coast from the very beginning too, and that all this is an important part of the history in the US.
Is it particularly important to remember it now, when the United States seems to be so polarized on many issues?
Absolutely. It would help us to understand the presence of immigrants, because our country is a country of immigrants, and also of the values that came with those immigrants.
You were just in Colombia, participating in a continental celebration of the Holy Year of Mercy, organized by the Vatican’s Commission for Latin America and the conference of Catholic bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM), but including the participation of prelates from the United States and Canada. How important is it that the Catholic Church tries to work in a continental way?
That was the prophetic idea of St. John Paul II, to call for the Church in America, just one continent.
But through the years, this isn’t so clear anymore, so it’s important that this upcoming year, that we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops for America and the 10th anniversary of Aparecida, we work on this.
It was a blessing that this continental gathering was put together for the Jubilee of Mercy. It’s important for all of us to work together, especially because, as I said in the meeting, the challenges we have in different parts of the continent are becoming more and more similar: the challenges of religious freedom, the challenges of the culture that’s more secular, and Catholics who are becoming cultural Catholics.
There are common struggles across the continent, and also about basic things like peace, since you see situations of violence in Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and also in the United States. It’s important that we stand together as a continent.
Do you see yourself as a bridge because you’re an important Hispanic presence in the Church in the United States, yet for Latin Americans, you’re from the States?
I do. Especially now, that I’m in Los Angeles, where we have people, literally, from all over the world. The Church in Los Angeles is really Catholic, universal.
How many languages do you have Mass in on Sundays in Los Angeles?
Forty-two. We have people from all over the world, but this is a sign of the world in which we live in. It used to take years or months to go from one continent to the other, now it takes hours. People are going to be moving. That’s the reality of the global world in which we live.
In that sense, because of the situation we have in Los Angeles, and my own family history, I think we need to be more aware of the beautiful reality of people from all over coming together. And we need to find a way not just to get along, but to love each other, as is the basic teaching of the Catholic Church.
This is an unfair question, because many point towards you as a strong candidate, but is it time for Pope Francis to create the first Hispanic Cardinal for the United States?
I don’t know. I think the important thing is to have many more Catholics who are of Hispanic origins, and who are totally committed to Christ and the Church. And also more vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. We need more faithful marriages… I think all that is more important than just a cardinal.
It’s been a year since Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. What’s been the impact?
It’s amazing. I was re-reading some of his addresses and homilies recently, and it was just beautiful. I hope and pray that we continue to meditate on them, because he presented us a beautiful challenge of what a Catholic is supposed to be at this time in the United Sates given the fact that we have challenges like secularization, political challenges, or the human challenges.
I think he gave answers to all those things. For me, it was very special, because I had the blessing to concelebrate with him the Mass of canonization of Junipero Serra, one of the founders of California. So it was very, very special. And I think, with time, it’s going to make a big difference on how Catholics are going to be living their faith in the United States.
Those addresses are worth going back to …
Absolutely. I recommend everyone to do that. And I hope that in my homilies and everything I do, I can bring more awareness of those issues.
Something else you would like to add?
I’m talking about the Latino moment or time, and I think it’s even more clear to me, with the election, how important it is to help the values and the Latino culture to make a presence and influence in the United States: Faith, family, community, work, those basic values of the Latino Community are essential for the present and the future of the United States.
Latinos should evangelize the United States before U.S. politics evangelizes them?
It’s a big challenge, because the traditional US culture makes it sometimes hard not to forget where you’re coming from: It assimilates people instead of integrating them. But the values of the Hispanics are so strong, that I hope we can totally integrate in the life of the United States without ever losing our values.