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

Catholic News Agency
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: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images