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U.S. Catholic Bishops Elect Their First Latino President: Archbishop José Gomez

Archbishop José Gomez, 67, was elected to lead the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Tuesday. He's seen here blessing a dog with holy water during the annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony in Los Angeles last year.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Archbishop José Gomez, 67, was elected to lead the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Tuesday. He's seen here blessing a dog with holy water during the annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony in Los Angeles last year.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops selected Archbishop José Gomez as their next president Tuesday, making him the first Latino leader of a group whose roots stretch back more than 100 years.

"I promise to serve with dedication and love, and to always try to follow Jesus Christ and seek his will for his Church here in the U.S.," Gomez said, calling his election an honor.

Gomez, 67, has been the archbishop of Los Angeles, the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the U.S., for most of the past decade. His previous posts include stints in Denver and San Antonio, Texas.

He will replace Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, who is the archbishop of Galveston-Houston. Gomez's term officially begins Wednesday, when the USCCB concludes its general assembly in Baltimore. He has served as the body's vice president since November 2016 — a post that was set to expire under the group's standard three-year terms.

In addition to making history as the conference of bishops' first Latino leader, Gomez is also "the first bishop elected to lead the conference to be associated with Opus Dei," according to the Catholic News Agency.

Gomez joined Opus Dei while he was in college, the USCCB says. The future archbishop studied theology in Spain — the historic home of Opus Dei — and he was ordained a priest of Opus Dei in 1978, several years before the group gained the status of a personal prelature in the Catholic Church.

Within the Catholic Church, Gomez is seen as a bridge between its conservative-liberal divide, according to The Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck of Loyola Marymount University.

"He's very focused on the kinds of issues that are vital to the Latino community," Deck tells KPCC reporter Aaron Schrank in Los Angeles. "On the one hand, a community that's more traditional than some other groups in the Catholic Church — but also one that has very serious social, economic and political issues that need to be fought."

A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Gomez became a U.S. citizen in 1995. And while he attended to his duties at the general assembly in Maryland this week, he also issued tweets in support of immigrants on Monday, saying he was praying for a good outcome in the Supreme Court, where justices will decide a case involving the legal status of some 700,000 young immigrants.

"In a special way, I pray for #DREAMERS, the day before #SCOTUS hears oral arguments on the legality of DACA," Gomez said.

The USCCB has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. And on Tuesday, it issued a statement from Bishop Joe S. Vásquez about the Supreme Court hearing.

"DACA youth are leaders in our parishes and significant contributors to our economy and communities," Vásquez says. "They are hard-working young people who know the United States as their only home. We continue to urge Congress and the President to work together to find a permanent legislative solution to the plight of all DREAMers, including DACA beneficiaries."

In recent years, Gomez has also spoken out to condemn racism and violence after events like the 2015 attack on a church in Charleston, S.C., and the attack on counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

"There is no place in the Church and in American society for racism; for prejudice against people based on their race or nationality," Gomez wrote in one tweet after the Charlottesville rally.

In response to the El Paso, Texas, attack that targeted Latino shoppers at a Walmart in August, Gomez wrote an essay for Angelus News in which he said, "With El Paso a line has been crossed in our nation."

"If 'white nationalism' is on the rise," Gomez wrote, "it is a sign of how far we have fallen from the Christian universalism of our nation's founding ideals."

The USCCB's incoming president also is the author of several books, including a 2013 book about migration titled Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.