Monday, May 24, 2010

The Making of the Archbishop

(Originally published 6 April 2010.)
And so, the morning after March Madness reached its end, the ecclesial outbreak of "Arch Madness" fittingly followed suit...

...only here, the long-tipped favorite won.

Some notes on this morning's historic emergence of the figure who'll become the fifth archbishop of Los Angeles... and, far beyond the 5 million-member fold, the symbol of Hispanic ascent in the life of the 68 million-member Stateside church:

A once-in-a-generation appointment -- if even that often -- the nod is beyond significant on several fronts.

First, in the church's nearly five-century history on these shores, no American cleric has ever been thrust headlong into the leadership of a flock as massive as what Archbishop Jose Gomez will inherit next February... and some 70 percent of it Latin, at that. (By way of comparison, LA's runner-up -- the archdiocese of New York -- is but half the Western mega-see's size.)

Already the nation's ranking Latin cleric for a half-decade, the further rise of the Mexican-born theologian shatters the "Anglo ceiling" of the bench's topmost rank as Gomez becomes the first Hispanic prelate who, in time, will receive the cardinal's red hat north of the border. In its broadest sweep, however, the move stands as a signal moment of arrival for the nation's roughly 30 million Latin Catholics -- half of them under age 25, a group expected to become the majority bloc of the 68 million-member US church within the next decade.

Named to San Antonio in late 2004 after less than four years as an auxiliary bishop of Denver, Gomez enters a situation marked by sizable, fairly staggering challenges, above all the continuing fallout of the LA church's 2007 settlement of over 500 clergy sex-abuse cases for $660 million -- by far a record sum, one that's since impacted practically every aspect of the mammoth see's ecclesial life, led by the sale of its Wilshire Boulevard chancery. On a related note, early last year reports emerged that the Angeleno archdiocese's handling of accused clerics had become the focus of a Federal grand jury -- the lone such investigation undertaken into any Stateside diocese.

Humble, prayerful and reserved, theologically conservative and spiritually fervent, Benedict's choice is both a Roman embrace of and evolution from the legacy of the epochal Mahony -- the longest-reigning US cardinal named after Vatican II, whose quarter-century at his hometown church's helm has been marked by a uniquely progressive streak that's made him, depending on who you're talking to, a folk icon or lightning rod amid the ever-polarized American Catholic discourse.

Among other contrasts, while Gomez's record echoes Mahony's commitment to an energized, prominent lay role in the church, the incoming archbishop's focus has largely centered more on the pews' witness in the public square as opposed to the cardinal's strong emphasis on a heavy lay role in ecclesial ministry. Elsewhere, it bears noting that the 850,000-member San Antonio church's current contingent of 28 seminarians is double what Gomez found on his 2005 arrival; the appointee's tenure in Texas saw a sizable boom at his archdiocese's Assumption Seminary -- home to a celebrated bi-lingual formation program -- which opened a new wing at mid-decade as its overall student population boomed from 34 in 2000 to almost 100 in 2007, a figure that's seemingly kept pace since.

In the final analysis, it bears underscoring that, at 58, Gomez could occupy the chair in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for some two decades.

While at least some key players in the selection process were said to have preferred an older candidate in order to avoid lengthy back-to-back tenures (a common concern in appointments to major posts), the choice clearly reflects the pontiff's judgment that -- as at least one of his advisers was dead-set on advancing over recent months -- "the time has come" for a Hispanic prelate to reach the pinnacle of the nation's church leadership, and that the relative youth of the most-seasoned of the group, in the end, only added to Gomez's strengths.

The coadjutor-designate having landed in his charge-to-be late last night, as previously noted, a 10am Pacific press conference will take place in the LA Cathedral -- Mahony's $190 million, 4,500-seat crown jewel, which the cardinal dedicated in September 2002.

In the new Archbishop's Residence adjacent to Rafael Moneo's alabaster temple, the cardinal's said to have already vacated the principal suite in expectation of his successor-to-be, with a full transition plan already prepared, only waiting on Rome's appointee for its execution to begin.

According to several locals who've seen the cardinal at close range over recent days, Mahony was said to have appeared particularly ebullient; during last week's Holy Week rites, the cardinal was showered with waves of affection and appreciation from the gathered throngs at the cathedral liturgies. Across the archdiocese, the first native son-archbishop's final cycle has apparently sparked a tide of emotion of a kind unseen over his quarter-century tenure.

As announced earlier, Gomez's "Mass of Welcome" has been set for 26 May. Given the coadjutor's immediate succession to the cathedra of the Angels upon its falling vacant, no subsequent installation will take place upon his final ascent.

PHOTOS: San Antonio Express-News File