‘I just wanted to be a priest’: Archbishop Jose Gomez elected president of USCCB

By JD Flynn/Catholic News Agency

“I just wanted to be a priest,” Gomez told CNA with a laugh, speaking about his election.

“Somehow God wanted me to do what I am doing, and I’m just counting on the grace of God to be able to be faithful to what God is asking me to do.”

“And also on intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he added, explaining that he has entrusted all of his ministry as a bishop to the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Gomez, 67, was elected Nov. 12 as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The archbishop, born in Monterrey, Mexico, and ordained a priest in Spain, is the first Latino to lead the bishops’ conference. He is also the first immigrant to head the conference.

His election is historic, but it was no surprise. Gomez became vice president of the conference, a central organizing body of almost 200 Catholic bishops with more than 300 employees, in 2016. The vice president is traditionally elected to the top job, so Gomez knew his election was likely.

But, he told CNA, the real surprise was becoming vice president three years ago.

“I was not expecting to be the president. Some people put my name forward for election as vice president [in 2016].”

“To my surprise I was elected vice president, then once you are the vice president, it is more likely that they elect you president. The whole process was a surprise to me, but I see that God is asking me to do it, and I just pray that with the grace of God I can do a good job.”

Gomez laughed, noting that he had never expected to become a Denver auxiliary bishop in in 2001, the Archbishop of San Antonio in 2004, or in 2010 head of the Los Angeles archdiocese, the largest local Church in the country.

The archbishop told CNA that his goal is to “try to live what I preach, and then, also, my ministry to the people — that’s the most important thing.”

His ministry, he said, includes serving “my brother bishops, priests, deacons, and also the lay faithful. Because really my vocation started with ministry to lay faithful.”

Gomez acknowledged that he spends a great deal of time on administrative responsibilities, and will have more of them as his term as president begins. But he said that even amid those responsibilities, and even while exercising them, he has time to build the pastoral relationships he finds so fulfilling.

“The fact that I am the Archbishop of Los Angeles gives me a beautiful opportunity to be with the people, because there are so many people active in the Church in Los Angeles. And also in the conference of bishops, really what’s its all about it serving the people, so I hope that I can have the opportunity to be with people, in events where people are, and that I can continue to be a pastor which is, I believe, my vocation.”

Gomez is the first bishop elected to lead the conference to be associated with Opus Dei, a Church group, founded in Spain and supported by Pope St. John Paul, that focuses on finding holiness in everyday life, and on the call to holiness of lay Catholics. The archbishop became affiliated with Opus Dei as a college student, and was a priest in the organization, formally called a personal prelature.

The archbishop’s vision of the Church, focused on collaboration and friendship between laity and clerics, and on the idea that everyone should be a saint, is informed by his experience in Opus Dei.

“The spirituality of Opus Dei,” he told CNA, “basically is to strive for holiness— personal sanctification — and ministry. Sharing our faith with everybody else.”

“Most of the members of Opus Dei are lay faithful living their lives and working and trying to share the faith and to be holy.”

“Everybody, starting with the pope and going through every single bishop, and priest, and deacon, we all are called to strive for holiness, with the universal call to holiness, provided to us by the Second Vatican Council, and also, as Pope Francis is insisting that we should be missionary disciples, so that means sharing our faith with everybody else,” he added.

Gomez told CNA that groups like Opus Dei, along with other Church movements like the NeoCatechumenal Way and Communion and Liberation that have gained popularity in recent decades, emphasize “the universal call to holiness making a reality in the life of the Church.”

“All of those different institutions that are promoting the vocation of the lay faithful are a blessing for the Church.”

“By the work of the Holy Spirit there have been in the universal Church many groups of people working as a movement just to bring the beauty of the Chirstian life to the presence of the lay faithful all over the world,” Gomez added, comparing Church movements to the diversity of ministries and apostolates in parishes, which he called “the center of Christian life in the United States.”

The archbishop said that in his own ministry as a bishop, he looks to the example of Pope St. John Paul II, and, that among American bishops, he has been influenced and inspired by a number of bishops.

“Obviously in the United States I had the blessing of working together with Archbishop Chaput because I was his auxiliary bishop, so he has been a wonderful example to me. But I have been influenced by many other bishops: Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Archbishop Patrick Flores, and then Cardinal William Levada, who just passed away, he was a good friend.”

Levada, Gomez told CNA, “asked me, when I was a young auxiliary bishop, to be a member of the doctrine committee of the USCCB. So that helped me to get to know the workings of the USCCB.”

Gomez takes the helm of the bishops’ conference in a difficult time.

The sexual scandals that emerged in June 2018, with revelations of abuse on the part of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, have preoccupied bishops and lay Catholics.

The ecclesiastical landscape has shifted too; the pontificate of Pope Francis is different in emphasis, tone, and style from those of his predecessors. Some U.S. bishops have been accused of resistance to Francis, and bishops have responded to his leadership in different ways.

“The reality of the bishops in the United States is that we all are faithful to Pope Francis,” Gomez told CNA.

“I think we all are united. There is some perception that we are not. But the reality— what I see— is that we are united in our ministry and in our Church.”

“Every pope brings some different aspects in the life of the Church that he, by the grace of God, believes are important. And we, the bishops of the United States, are trying to be more aware of what those things are, and try to make it happen in our ministry.”

Gomez acknowledged that Pope Francis’ leadership is not similar to that of his predecessors.

“I think it takes time for people to really understand the spirituality of Pope Francis.”

“I think there are many, many aspects that are different. They are cultural and spiritual; it’s the first time in the history of the Church that there is a pope from Latin America. And some of us, who have that experience, know that it is different from the culture in Europe, or in the United States, or in Asia,” Gomez said.

“It’s also the first time there is a Jesuit who is the pope. So every religious community, and the diocesan priesthood, have different spiritualities.”

“So I think we the bishops of the United States, and I personally, are learning how to appreciate the different aspects of the spirituality and the culture of Pope Francis.”

Gomez added that “every bishop has his own spirituality, and his own ministry in the diocese, according to the needs of the people in the diocese,” he said, noting the difference in his experiences while serving in Denver, San Antonio, and Los Angeles.

“San Antonio was basically a community of two cultures: Hispanic culture and the Anglo-Saxon culture. Now in Los Angeles we have people from all over the world. So my ministry is different.”

“One thing Pope Francis insists a lot is to respect the cultures of people, different ways of worshipping. People in Peru, or in Mexico, or people from Vietnam have different ways of worshipping and living. So the Church in the United States is learning how to address the needs of people from around the world,” Gomez added.

As he begins his term as president, Gomez told CNA he hopes to help the Church “to really understand the cultural realities of the people in the United States. I think it’s important for all of us to be more open to that.”

“With immigrants, what I talk about is not assimilation, but integration: that they be integrated into the life of the United States and the life of the Church.”

As Gomez discussed the importance of understanding the diversity of cultures in the Church, he also emphasized the source of the Church’s unity.

“Obviously I have the same truths as we all have, the teachings of Jesus Christ, in the Catholic Church.”

Featured image by Daniel Ibanez | CNA

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”