Sunday, February 27, 2011

Leaving the Chair... and Doubling His Flock: On Transition Day, Cardinal Mahony's "Retirement Plans"

At this hour, with the reins of the nation's largest local church -- the 5 million-member archdiocese of Los Angeles -- passing to Archbishop José Gomez in bilingual Masses of Transition on Cardinal Roger Mahony's 75th birthday, the curtain falls on one of the monumental episcopates in the four-century history of American Catholicism... while, far beyond Southern California, a new era begins for the faith on these shores.

Though embattled in recent years over his handling of clergy sex-abuse cases -- a chapter on which the outcome of a Federal grand jury, convened in 2008 and still believed to be ongoing, will significantly hinge -- smart money would still bank it that, when history recalls the longest reign of an American cardinal in the post-Conciliar age, the first native Angeleno to head the city's church will be recalled at least equally, and likely far more, for paving the path toward the Stateside fold's next epochal transition in its makeup, birthed by the most seismic change the 68 million-member American church has undergone in nearly two centuries.

Of course, in LA, the future has already come; no less than 70 percent of its Catholic population is Latino, now led by the figure set to become the first Hispanic cardinal north of the border, himself an immigrant. Yet even as the latter reality -- for which Mahony ardently lobbied during the selection process that tapped Gomez -- is sufficient on its own to cement the cardinal's legacy, as the demographics stand, it's only the capstone.

In a way no one could've envisioned as the young cleric raised on a chicken farm literally worked the fields and marched alongside Cesar Chavez and his band of migrant laborers, self-identified Hispanics comprise some three-fifths of the American Catholic faithful under 30, stand within striking distance of forming a plurality of the at-large fold nationwide, and -- beyond their supermajority in the City of Angels -- are now de facto majorities of the church in such "traditional" outposts as New York and Chicago as well as the faith's newer, rapidly-booming bastions in California, Texas, Arizona, Florida, the Carolinas, and the list goes on...

...and in a word, whether they're in California or beyond, whether they know of him or not, for the better part of four decades as a bishop -- and even before -- Mahony's literally been the priest, prophet and king of their ascent.

To be sure, the ad intra flashpoints that've seen fairly unique interpretations in LA Catholicism over the cardinal's quarter-century at its helm -- liturgy, ecclesiology, the role of women, and on and on -- have long been debated within these walls, and you can bet they'll continue to spark arguments for as long as there's a Congress. Still, whatever one's side of the aisle, today's a watershed moment -- the lone American cleric ever to land in the crosshairs of South Park, dubbed "Hollywood" by John Paul II; a figure novelized, lionized or scrutinized by the masses, as Mahony hands over the chair in the Cathedral he built, the American church's last folk icon leaves the stage.

For his next chapter, though, now freed from the burdens of administration, beyond more time to "smell the roses" -- and, of course, enjoy the company of his Archangel cats (whose pictures he keeps in his wallet) -- the cardinal's looking to return to the heart of his fifty-year ministry, and has begun toward it with a flourish.

In late January, Mahony circulated his "retirement plans" with a post on his blog. So before we turn to the fifth archbishop of Los Angeles, here below is the fourth archbishop's closing statement.

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Welcoming the Strangers in Our Midst

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony
Archbishop of Los Angeles

As I near formal retirement in a few weeks, many people have asked what I plan to do after retiring. Because my roots and most of my time in ministry have been in Los Angeles, I plan to remain in the city I know with the people whom I love.

I have spent our annual Bishops’ Retreat in early January praying and reflecting on where the Lord Jesus is calling me to focus my time and energy over the coming months and years.

When Archbishop José H. Gomez becomes the Archbishop of Los Angeles in the last days of February, I will be free from the demanding administrative duties which are part of serving as Archbishop of the largest Archdiocese in the country. Each day I shall continue to pray for all of the people of our Archdiocese, as well as pray for and support our Archbishop.

With fewer duties, I am eager to give more emphasis to my ministry as a priest—celebrating the Eucharist as needed, hearing confessions, as well as having more time for hospital visits.

In reflecting back on my years in ministry as a priest and as a bishop, I have come to see that so much of that ministry brought me in touch with immigrant peoples, regardless of how they came to this country. While growing up in the San Fernando Valley I came in contact with those Mexican-American men and women who worked for my parents at their plant. They became my friends. During my years as a seminarian at Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo, several of us seminarians were able to accompany priests to the farm labor camps where Mass was offered for the braceros, the temporary farm workers mostly from Mexico.

After my ordination to the priesthood, I served in the San Joaquin Valley and was always deeply touched by the faith, traditions, and commitment to family on the part of countless immigrants across the Valley—a large number of whom were involved in agriculture. Their hard work and sacrifices were evident at every turn. The efforts of Cesar Chavez to improve the salaries and working conditions of thousands of farm workers in our State greatly inspired me.

After being ordained bishop, my ministry continued with immigrants in the Dioceses of Fresno and of Stockton. Again, I was attracted to these people because of their faith and love for the Church. They were always anxious to help whenever asked, whether by assisting others in need or by lending a hand in the parish or the Diocese.

With my appointment as Archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, this relationship expanded as Asian Pacific and other immigrant peoples from different parts of the world became part of my ministry as well.

Over these many years, I have been constantly called and challenged by the words of Jesus: “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35), echoing God’s mandate to his people in the Old Testament.

Over the years immigrant peoples have become very dear to me, and Jesus continues to call me to walk with them on their journey. I intend to spend the coming months and years walking in solidarity with the 11,000,000 immigrants who have come to the United States to improve their own lives and the life of our country and to advocate on behalf of the silent millions. In a special way I look forward to collaborating closely with our United States Bishops’ Conference and the Committee on Migration and Refugees which is now chaired by the next Archbishop of Los Angeles, the Most Reverend José H. Gomez.

For so many immigrants in the United States today, life is not easy. With the terrible downturn in the economy the past two years, millions of people have lost jobs in every field of employment. Many have had to give up their homes and to make deep sacrifices to keep their families going. So many voices blame immigrant peoples for our economic woes. This is unjust and flies in the face of the facts.

Some 11,000,000 of our immigrant brothers and sisters are misunderstood and maligned. Without legal documents, their livelihoods and their very lives are at risk. They live in the shadows of our society. They are easy targets of blame for everything that has gone wrong, and is going wrong, with our country. But a little historical perspective sheds light on our current situation and gives hope for the future, helping us to see immigrants not as “those people,” but as brothers and sisters living in our communities with the same longings and aspirations as all Americans.

If we would refresh our memories as a nation, we would see that the presence of immigrants—with or without legal documents—is never a cause of concern when the unemployment rate is low and our economy is sound and expanding. For example, in December 2000 the nation’s unemployment rate was 3.9%. Those were the heady years of the technology and construction booms, and we needed everyone available to fill the jobs. But after the financial and housing collapse of early 2008, the unemployment rate has grown to the point of 9.8% in December 2010. As the economy improves, gradually, the need for workers will also increase.

I am encouraged by the prospects of helping these silent millions in our midst. A review of major national polls since 2007 shows the reason for my optimism: a majority of people polled believe our borders need to be made more secure, and that illegal immigration needs to be controlled. But the same polls reveal that a majority of people polled [63% in one poll, 81% in another] are open to a structured path to earned citizenship for those who are here in our country without papers but who pass background checks, pay fines, and have jobs.

These high percentages tell me that our Catholic Gospel values and the American spirit are still alive among us. I suspect that many anti-immigrant feelings and sentiments arise from frustration with the seeming inability, or the unwillingness, to fix our broken immigration system. Three websites are useful to come to a deeper knowledge of immigration issues: The Justice for Immigrants organization sponsored by the Church; the Faces of Immigrants site sponsored by our Archdiocese; and the Migration Policy Institute.

I would like to focus on the positives and encourage all of us to get to know our immigrant neighbors more personally. We will discover that their core values are the same as ours, and that they are here to help enrich, not diminish, our fine country. Once we put a human face on an immigrant, the stereotypes and across-the-board characterizations begin to dissolve.

When the disciples ask the King, “When did I see you a stranger and welcome you?” Jesus responds: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:38, 40). Let’s begin a deeper conversation among ourselves without the harsh accusatory rhetoric which has so clouded this debate in recent years.

Across the country we have so many immigrants who are invisible and strangers. I have great hope in working with our Catholic people at the parish level in order to understand Jesus’ invitation “to welcome the strangers in our midst.”

But there is more. We need to engage our Catholic business and professional leaders, our Catholic colleges and universities, and our national Catholic organizations, urging them to put a human face on the immigrants in our midst and to give assistance to immigrant peoples as they struggle to find their rightful place in our society by becoming active participants in our communities, working jobs and paying taxes, and giving their very best for our country.

As I move forward to the next stage of my journey in faith, I ask that you join me in prayer and mutual support as I seek to live more wholeheartedly the answer to the call I have heard from Jesus: When did you see me, a stranger, and welcome me? When I looked into the faces of the eleven million who all bear the hopeful face of Jesus Christ!

PHOTOS: Getty(1,3); Reuters(2)