Upon first glance, José Horacio Gómez doesn’t look like one of the most important bishops in the U.S. Catholic Church. The soft-spoken, diminuitive, Mexican-born man often makes self-deprecating jokes about his height. “You probably didn’t see me arrive,” he says to his friends with a laugh.
But once he stands at the pulpit and speaks, that all changes.
“The size of his message dominates the room,” says Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic legal scholar and former U.S. ambassador who lives in Los Angeles.
Immigration reform is increasingly drawing Catholic political activism.
Gómez, 62, is currently the archbishop of Los Angeles, and he’s on his way to becoming the first Hispanic cardinal in the United States.
“He represents the face of Latino Catholicism,” says Christopher Hale, senior fellow at Catholic Alliance for the Common Good. Hale says Gómez is known as a voice of moral authority on immigration reform, which is increasingly drawing Catholic political activism. “Going forward, Gómez is going to be the No. 1 bishop on immigration reform.”
Gómez himself comes from outside of the United States and became a naturalized citizen in his 40s. As a child he frequently traveled across the border between his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, and his uncle’s house in San Antonio, Texas. “It was easy to cross in those times,” Gómez told the Los Angeles Times. “I guess my first impression was that people could live in both countries at the same time.”
Now Gómez leads the largest archdiocese in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world, with 4.4 million Catholics.
“He was in San Antonio before, where you have a large number of poor, migrant, undocumented people living in the shadows,” says Michael Sean Winters, a writer at National Catholic Reporter. “He has found ways in both places to let people know he is their archbishop and that the Catholic Church is standing with him.”
In 2010, Gómez went to L.A. to work with and eventually replace Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was also strong on immigration reform but whose leadership style varies greatly from that of Gómez. Mahony was nicknamed “Hollywood” for his numerous media appearances and was known as one of the most progressive bishops in the U.S. Gómez, on the other hand, is a conservative pastor who prefers to stay behind the scenes. He was ordained as a priest in Opus Dei, an organization often stigmatized as being extremely orthodox. (Apparently, a lot of people took The Da Vinci Code as fact.)
His Opus Dei connection caused some concern among people in L.A., similar to those voiced in San Antonio when Gómez took over as archbishop in 2004. “He certainly dispelled those fears in San Antonio and in L.A.,” says Father Virgilio Elizondo, a well-respected Hispanic Catholic theologian who lives in both San Antonio and Notre Dame. “He’s not an ideologue, he’s a practical man.”
The end of Cardinal Roger Mahony’s career was marked by an investigation into whether he intentionally covered up clergy sex abuse scandals in Los Angeles, and Gómez ended up publicly distancing himself from Mahony.
Still, Gómez had his share of conflicts in San Antonio during his six years there. He disbanded the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission after it opposed a state amendment banning same-sex marriage. He also denounced St. Mary’s University for hosting pro-choice Hillary Clinton when she was running for president. Nevertheless, his stance on immigration was well-received. In 2006, he led hundreds on a downtown march for immigration reform, asking people to “recognize Jesus in the face of all immigrants.”
He approaches individuals after Mass, asking, ‘What good have you done for someone today?’
While in California he has been moderate, bringing attention to issues such as evangelization, euthanasia and pro-life advocacy, but also refusing to shut down programs and workshops involving causes like gay rights or training women for roles in the church.
He’s been largely well-received in the archdiocese, and not only does he speak at mass, but he also has a weekly Spanish-language radio and TV show, as well as a bilingual print column, where he covers a multitude of Catholic teachings. He also makes sure his churchgoers are following in Jesus’ footsteps, going up to them individually after Mass and asking, “What good have you done for someone today?”
Winters says Gómez’s rise in the ranks stems from two factors. The first one is that he is a “doctrinal conservative with a pastoral heart.” He will defend the church’s teachings but doesn’t “use those teachings as a wet rag to throw in people’s face.” He is also Latino in an increasingly Latino church.
The archbishop’s sway with Hispanic Catholics is not to be overlooked. Catholics and Hispanics are both key voting blocs for presidential candidates. The two are also not mutually exclusive. As of 2012, 47% of Catholics under 40 are Hispanic, and the number seems to be growing. Immigration reform has already been identified as a key political issue this year, and the spotlight will likely only brighten ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Last year, Gómez published a short book entitled Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation, dedicated to Pope Francis. He melds personal stories with historical context and his main point is a call to “humane witness.” Winters explains that Gómez asks people to “remember the humanity, not the citizenship status, of immigrants first and foremost.”
Gómez is the chairman of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and a papal appointee to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
Tim Rutten reviewed the book in the Los Angeles Daily News and called it an “intellectual train wreck of a book,” critiquing Gómez for attempting to “make the case for immigration reform according to the values and historical fantasies popular on the American right.”
“I understand why they want to build more walls to secure our borders,” writes Gómez in the book, admitting he has sympathy for Americans who argue against immigration. ”I agree when they say we should look more closely at who we let into our country. Opponents of immigration are trying to express something admirable and patriotic. They are trying to defend this country they love.”
Winters, while agreeing Gómez was making a conservative case, has a completely different take than Rutten. “Those are the people that need to be convinced,” he says. “The liberals were already onboard. It was brilliant and heartfelt. He’s an immigrant, he knows from where he speaks. He challenges everyone and has this quality we see in Pope Francis. He doesn’t close doors.”
It seems that Gómez, in his writing, mimics the experience of being on the end of his pointed questions after mass. “Do we really believe that America is one nation under God, made up from every other people?” he writes. “Or is America instead a nation that is essentially white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, but permits the presence of peoples of other races, colors and religions?”
Nothing small about a question like that.
Why you should care
Archbishop Gómez is the highest-ranking Latino bishop, and he’s becoming the Catholic face of immigration reform.