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Courage to live the faith

· A conversation with the Archbishop of Los Angeles ·

U.S. Archbishop José Horacio Gomez came to Rome last week to receive the Pallium from the Pope on 29 June. L’Osservatore Romano took the opportunity to meet with the new Archbishop of Los Angeles and to look  a little closer at the man whom Benedict XVI chose to lead the largest and arguably the most culturally diverse diocese in the United States.

Archbishop Gomez is already well known in American Catholic circles. As Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas (2005-10), and before that as Auxiliary Bishop of Denver, Colorado (2001-05), he is known for his quiet  sense of humour and welcoming manner, as well as his commitment to Catholic formation and the New Evangelization. Archbishop Gomez is broadly noted for his role in the pastoral care of immigrants — a sector of society which he regards, in a certain sense, as “the future of the Catholic Church in the U.S.”. Perhaps these are a few of the reasons why Pope Benedict  named him successor to Cardinal Roger  Mahoney, who led the Archdiocese for the past 25 years.

Los Angeles is the largest Catholic diocese in the U.S. — 4,349,267 Roman Catholics as of 2005 — of whom over 70% are Hispanic. A vast number of other cultures are also served by the Archdiocese — 72 distinct ethnic groups, according to their website. It is a place bustling with new Americans and those hoping to become so. Archbishop Gomez is, himself, an immigrant. A native of Monterrey, Mexico,  he went  to the U.S. when already a priest in  Opus Dei. Though his first language is Spanish, he is fluent in English. His mother had been raised in Texas and the family's roots there stretch back to 1805 (before  the U.S. acquired the territory). Therefore the Archbishop is, in his very person so to speak, a bridge between two worlds.

From the beginning of his priestly ministry in the U.S., the Archbishop has been outspoken as a leader in the Latino Catholic community. He is the founding member of the Catholic Association for Latino Leaders (call), and Chair of the Committee on Migration (usccb) as well as the subcommittee on the Church in Latin America (usccb), to mention a few on the list.

I asked him to talk about one of his priorities in ministry. He immediately said, “Catholic education. Good formation in the faith, in Doctrine, is vital at this time”. The Archbishop said that he was inspired by the zeal he found in the parishes of L.A. “It’s inspiring. Even in comparison to many other places I have been, parishes here are really alive and the faithful are active, thirsty for the Gospel”. That zeal, the Archbishop helped me to understand, together with good formation, makes for a strong pillar in society. “Formation does come, in the first place, from the Church, the Gospel, but it also comes from lay people, from one another... in daily life, in academia, in sports. In every context we have a beautiful message to share for the common good. We shouldn't be afraid of sharing that because it is going to improve the conditions of our society”. He added: “It is one of my dreams to get Catholics to understand as well how important it is for them to participate in public discourse”.

Prof. John Cavadini, McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, is a consultant to the Committee on Doctrine (usccb), alongside the Archbishop who is a member. He told me of the Archbishop’s courage in speaking out on behalf of traditional Catholic values and beliefs. “But he does so in a way that shows his love first”, said Cavadini, “love for the faith is the real forum of formation. He shows people his own love for tradition and that in turn teaches them how to pass it on to others”.

What strikes Cavadini most about the Archbishop is his humble way of relating to people. “He usually chooses to sit with the ‘little guys’ at meals, even official dinners. I remember once, I was sitting next to him at lunch during a committee session. I went to get a cup of coffee and when I came back he had cleared away my dishes. He had even brought over some cookies for me. Who would do that, let alone an Archbishop?”

Cavadini continued: “He is very pastorally sensitive. For example, his concern for Hispanic Catholics is not just a political one. His genuine concern is in protecting and nurturing the daily lives they lead, forming them in the faith, conserving the riches in their tradition, in preserving family life”.

I asked the Archbishop where he found his faith. “At home”, he said. “From my parents and sisters, especially my father”. He told me a story about when his mother became seriously ill when he was a teenager. It was then that his father started going to daily Mass. Years later, the Archbishop said in his homily to a large gathering of young people in L.A. that the moment his life changed forever was the day he decided to centre his life around the Eucharist, that is, the day he started going to daily Mass. And he told me last week, “It was because of my father that I did that”.

“And it really is in the family where formation begins, where vocations come from, everything begins there. That is why we shouldn’t be afraid to live our faith... we don't know how it will effect people, especially our children”. According to the Archbishop, “living the faith” means “loving in little ways” as well. I found a recent column he wrote to fathers on the call website (www.hispanicleaders.net). It was called “Chutes and Ladders and the Virtue of the Golden Rule”; in it he spoke about how important it was for fathers to remember to play games with their children.... Actually, the article was about justice in society but this was its main example. And that is the point: transmitting the faith, just like creating a just society, is first and foremost a habit in our daily lives.

Together with this, Archbishop Gomez emphasizes the virtue of courage, of “not being afraid to live the faith”. In his sermons, blogs, speeches — even tweets — the Archbishop comes back to this central theme.  It is the subject of his recent book, Men of Brave Heart: The Virtue of Courage in the Priestly Life ,  and it was the topic of his doctoral thesis back in 1980, on the cardinal virtue of fortitude according to St Thomas Aquinas.  It is even hinted at in the motto on his coat of arms: “Let us go forth with confidence to the Throne of Grace” (cf. Heb 4:16). “You know what the real meaning of courage is?” he said leaning forward with a smile, “ It is not an aggressive virtue at all, it is the virtue of remaining steadfast, especially in the face of great difficulty; it is the virtue of setting your will firmly towards the good, come what may”.

Asked how he finds the new archdiocese,  Archbishop Gomez again said how happy he was to be there and how inspired he was by the Catholics. Even as a basketball fan, he has succumbed to the L.A. Lakers and pledged his loyalty. Cardinal Mahoney, whom we spoke to just after mass on 29 June, said of his successor: “I had been a bit anxious for him, coming into a such a large diocese with over a thousand priests and not knowing a single one of them. It's a huge transition. But we are thrilled to have him”. And from the priests and pilgrims of his diocese whom I spoke to, it seems the Archbishop is settling in just fine. “He spent the first 6 months in the diocese getting to know the parishes”, Fr Darío Miranda of the Archdiocese told me. “He is very supportive of priests. Before he came, he insisted on sending a letter to each of the 1,200 priests in L.A., introducing himself and encouraging us in our ministry”. Martha Urubio, who along with about 400 others came on pilgrimage to Rome with the Archbishop, summed him up as “a very thoughtful pastor”.

On Wednesday, 29 June, the Holy Father also remembered is own ordination 60 years ago that day. In his homily — before conferring the Pallium of the Archbishops present — he marvelled that God could trust him with the precious vocation of being a priest, let alone a bishop. “He grants me the almost frightening faculty to do what only he, the Son of God, can legitimately say and do: I forgive you your sins. He wants me — with his authority — to be able to speak, in his name (“I” forgive), words that are not merely words, but an action, changing something at the deepest level of being... He entrusts himself to me. “You are no longer servants, but friends”. It is a tremendous responsibility to be an ordained leader in the Catholic Church and, as the Holy Father frequently reminds them, one that depends on the grace of Christ alone.

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