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First Latino Archbishop In U.S. Takes To Pulpit


Today marks an historic moment for Catholics in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It's the first Sunday for their first Latino archbishop, Jose Gomez. He now leads the largest and most diverse group of Catholic flock in the country. From member station KPCC, Sanden Totten reports on what the new archbishop brings to the job and the challenges he'll face.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Our Lady Queen of Angels Church sits in downtown Los Angeles. It's modeled after an old California mission, complete with a bell tower and adobe walls.

(Soundbite of church singing in Spanish)

TOTTEN: Most of the masses here are in Spanish. Father Richard Estrada says his congregation represents the future of the Catholic Church in L.A.

Rev. RICHARD ESTRADA (Associate Pastor, Our Lady Queen of Angels, Los Angeles): We're 99 percent immigrant church, Latino church. On Sundays, we'll have maybe two, three thousand people that come in through the day.

TOTTEN: Latinos make up 70 percent of all Catholics in the archdiocese - and that number is growing. Keeping the Latinos engaged is crucial for the long-term survival of the church. And that might be part of the reason Pope Benedict XVI named Jose Gomez as the new archbishop.

Gomez was born in Monterrey, Mexico and he's a longtime advocate for immigrant rights. He says when the Vatican called with his new assignment, the conversation was straight forward.

Archbishop JOSE GOMEZ (Archbishop, Archdiocese of Los Angeles): They asked me but they didn't give me a chance to say no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOTTEN: That's Gomez speaking during a conference call shortly after the announcement last year. It was a humorous moment from a man not known for his sense of humor.

Bishop OSCAR CANTU (Auxiliary Bishop, Archdiocese of San Antonio): I think he recognized that people perceived him as being overly formal, and he lamented that.

TOTTEN: Bishop Oscar Cantu worked with Gomez for two and a half years at his previous assignment in San Antonio. Cantu says, humor aside, Gomez was known for his devotion to the church, his love of the Green Bay Packers, his lactose intolerance and his decided tolerance for tequila. Gomez studied business at the National University of Mexico and Cantu says he was blessed with a talent for financial planning.

Bishop CANTU: Most clerics run away from the accountants, rather than run to them. He was one who embraced that, you know, of course 'cause, you know, that was part of his background. And he was able to really use that for the good of the church.

TOTTEN: That love of numbers will come in handy in Los Angeles.

Rev. THOMAS RAUSCH (Chairman, Department of Theology, Marymount Loyola University): He still has the debt to pay off from the sexual abuse settlement and that is a sizable amount of money.

TOTTEN: That's Father Thomas Rausch. He teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University, and he's referring to the $660 million that the archdiocese paid to victims of clergy sex abuse.

That debt is part of the legacy left behind by outgoing leader Cardinal Roger Mahony. Mahony was also known for taking the church in a more liberal direction, including reaching out to gay and lesbian Catholics. Gomez will no doubt have to take a stance on that issue given the ongoing legal battles over same sex marriage in California.

But as Rausch points out, Gomez is a member of the conservative Catholic order Opus Dei.

Rev. RAUSCH: There's certainly a lot of challenges in dealing with the diversity of the people who make up the church, including gays and lesbians. Will he move in more conservative directions? In some ways, he's going to be probably more conservative that Cardinal Mahony has been.

TOTTEN: For now, many of Los Angeles' 4 million Catholics are celebrating their new leader and giving him the benefit of the doubt. It's likely the Pope will eventually elevate Gomez to the post of cardinal, as he did his predecessor. It would be another milestone for the church. Gomez would become the first Latino cardinal in the U.S.

For NPR News, I'm Sanden Totten in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

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