BALTIMORE — At a conference where Catholic bishops worked on their recommendations to voters in the 2020 presidential election and fretted over the sharply declining number of refugees admitted to the United States and the plight of migrants crossing the border, the leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church made a symbolic choice for their next president.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, who emigrated from Mexico and became a U.S. citizen, was elected Tuesday morning as the first Latino bishop to become president of the American bishops’ conference.
“It will be very meaningful,” said San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, who is also one of the highest-ranking Mexican American Catholic leaders in the country. “He’s a symbol of opening roads for leadership for more Latino Catholics.”
García-Siller, who has known Gomez since they were both priests in the 1990s, cautioned that Gomez’s election should not be seen as a referendum on President Trump from the American bishops. After all, Gomez has been somewhat in line for this position; for the past three years, he has been the vice president of the conference, during the presidency of Galveston-Houston’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is heavily involved in politics and public affairs. The conference has little authority over individual dioceses across the United States but maintains a high profile in Washington: filing amicus briefs in major court cases, lobbying Congress on behalf of the church and working with presidential administrations on Catholic priorities.
On Tuesday, Gomez’s first comments at a news conference were about the Supreme Court debate on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which was transpiring at the same time as his election. “We are praying for the good result of the Supreme Court decision, in favor of the possibility of the Dreamers to be in the United States, obviously in a legal way,” Gomez said, after a reporter noted that five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices are Catholic.
Under DiNardo’s leadership, the conference has appeared much more hesitant to criticize the Trump administration than it once was about the Obama administration. A side-by-side comparison of statements shows that when critiquing the Trump administration, the bishops vaguely referenced “the administration” or “the federal government,” while they named President Barack Obama specifically in their criticisms.
Gomez, 67, is known for being quiet in person, but he is outspoken on the subject of immigration, which he wrote a book about in 2013.
In August, after a gunman who police say was targeting Latinos killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Gomez wrote a statement condemning white supremacy. In the United States, he wrote, “it has become common to hear migrants talked about and treated as if they are somehow beneath caring about.”
That statement, several observers said, was noteworthy in its forcefulness for a Catholic bishop.
“He called it for what it was, how it was racism,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute. Corbett, whose wife and children are Hispanic, used to work for the conference.
He said that with the re-eruption of the sex abuse crisis last year and with poll numbers showing Latinos are leaving the church, the Catholic Church is scrambling to shore up Latino membership.
Latinos in the United States are no longer majority-Catholic, according to a new Pew Research Center survey released Oct. 17. Forty-seven percent of Latinos identify as Catholic, compared with 57 percent a decade ago.
“To elect a Latino would send a huge message to the rest of the church,” Corbett said. “To elect a Mexican at a time when Mexicans are demonized and Latinos are being demonized, it’s a huge opportunity I hope isn’t lost.”
Gomez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and became a priest in the multinational institution Opus Dei in 1978. He moved in 1987 to a parish in San Antonio, where he had relatives, and has lived in the United States ever since.
He was made a bishop by Pope John Paul II in 2001, when he became auxiliary bishop of Denver. He then led the San Antonio archdiocese before moving in 2010 to Los Angeles, the nation’s largest diocese.
As the bishops ended a day of meetings Monday, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City called Gomez the right person for this time.
“It’s an exciting time [to have] a Hispanic leader at the helm,” he said. “He’s been one of our most articulate spokesmen on the situation facing migrants, and that situation’s not going to go away anytime soon. We need his clarity.”
Gomez entered the election heavily favored to win and received 176 votes; the next closest of the 10 candidates received just 18 votes.
David O’Connell, one of his auxiliary bishops in Los Angeles, described him on Monday as a leader who particularly energizes Latino Catholics. O’Connell described Los Angeles’s huge annual parade honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, which winds through heavily Latino housing projects.
“That’s where I see him most relaxed,” O’Connell said about Gomez.
“You see the joy of the people of L.A. to have an archbishop who is one of themselves. You see his own personality and joy coming out when he’s with them,” O’Connell said. “He’s much more relaxed and playful. He laughs easier.”
O’Connell, who immigrated to the United States himself, said he was moved to hear Gomez speak of America’s founding myth. White settlers at Plymouth Rock weren’t the only ones who arrived to build a new nation, the archbishop is fond of reminding parishioners. Those who came up from Latin America to settle in the Southwest built America as well. “This Catholic faith tradition moving into California and Texas is another founding narrative of this country.”
Bishop James Wall of Gallup, N.M., pointed out another advantage of electing a bishop whose native tongue is Spanish: He shares a first language with Pope Francis and can speak directly to the pontiff without an interpreter.
“They’ve got a gift going there that none of us have,” he said.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported from New York City.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article described Opus Dei as an order. It is an institution, not a religious order.