Texas Priest Set To Become First Hispanic Cardinal In U.S.

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Earlier this week the Vatican named Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio, Texas as the new Archbishop of Los Angeles — one of the country's largest Catholic dioceses. The position puts Gomez on track to become the first Hispanic Cardinal in America. Guest host Audie Cornish discusses the significance of the appointment with Rocco Palmo who covers the politics of the Catholic Church via his blog Whispers in the Loggia.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

And now it's time for our weekly Faith Matters. That's the part of the program when we discuss issues of religion and spirituality. On Tuesday, the Vatican named Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio, Texas, as the new archbishop of Los Angeles. Gomez, who was born in Mexico, will take office next year when the current cardinal, Roger Mahony, leaves his post. Los Angeles is the country's largest Catholic diocese. And this position puts Gomez on track to become a cardinal in the coming years.

Joining us to discuss the significance of the appointment is Rocco Palmo. His Web site, Whispers in the Loggia, covers the politics of the Catholic Church. Rocco, welcome to the program.

ROCCO PALMO: Thanks for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: So, to start, what makes this appointment one to watch?

PALMO: Well, this is easily the most significant appointment that the Vatican has made in the U.S. in the last 25 years. I mean, first off, L.A. is, by far, the largest diocese, five million Catholics. But Archbishop Gomez now essentially becomes someone who's able to reach half of American Catholics, Hispanics, in a way that no leader of the American church has been able to do before.

CORNISH: Right. Hispanics make up more than half of that diocese alone.

PALMO: Seventy percent, actually. It's a staggering number. But Hispanics are also half of other major archdioceses like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, which is a rising diocese in the South. It's been a staggering shift in the life of the American church.

CORNISH: So, what does this appointment tell us about the state of relations between the Vatican and the Latino community in the U.S.?

PALMO: Well, as I said to a family the other day, I think they just got a lot warmer. But the Vatican has been concerned for years about the issue of immigration in America in terms of calling for a just, humane, comprehension immigration reform.

For example, Cardinal Mahony, it's been his signature issue, the outgoing archbishop of Los Angeles. And now he hands it over to Archbishop Gomez, who's actually going to become has already been elected chair of the U.S. bishop's migration efforts. So, it's placing one strong voice with someone who, as an immigrant himself, could even be a stronger voice on the issue.

CORNISH: At the same time, the previous archbishop cardinal, Roger Mahony, he was also known for being a little bit more liberal in terms of his approach. And tell us about Archbishop Jose Gomez as a faith leader, 'cause you've been covering him for like - more than five years now.

PALMO: I think what sticks out for a lot of people, especially in L.A. the last couple days, is the fact that he's the first and only American bishop who is a full member of Opus Dei. But I think, you know, it shows Dan Brown's effectiveness. People had kind of visions of the DaVinci Code dancing in their head the last couple days.

CORNISH: Can you give us a little brief us a little bit on what it is outside of the Dan Brown character?

PALMO: Yeah. Well, and that's the thing, he'll easily share the stereotypes. He's very relaxed. He's very humble. I mean, the greatest contrasts of style isn't so much that Cardinal Mahony seems progressive and Archbishop Gomez is seen as a bit more traditional, it's that for a time, Cardinal Mahony used to fly a helicopter around the archdiocese to bypass the traffic. But Archbishop Gomez drives a Ford Taurus, which he'll probably stick with.

So, but I guess the best way to describe him would be a pastoral conservative, you know? He's completely faithful to the teachings of the church, especially on, you know, the hot button topics of sexual morality and everything. But there's a pastoral style, honed from having worked in Mexico and in Texas, that, you know, is able to kind of reach people and bring people together.

CORNISH: This appointment has had some controversy because, within hours of the announcement, you had leaders from SNAP, that's the group of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. They were alleging that back in San Antonio, Gomez was silent about clerics accused by sexual abuse and was not responsive to them. How has he responded to these allegations?

PALMO: Well, I think the question was actually asked in Spanish on Tuesday at the press conference and he said he had no idea about the cases they were talking about. A case has emerged yesterday, a suit was filed in which the archbishop was named as a defendant. But the priest was a priest of a religious order, so the archbishop of San Antonio would've had limited supervision over him, first part, but as soon as an allegation was placed with the archdiocese, the priest was removed from ministry. The church conducted its own investigation and now officials are declining comment, in light of the legal proceedings. So...

CORNISH: But in the very short time we have left, has Gomez taken any kind of stance on the sex abuse scandal that is still facing the Catholic Church right now?

PALMO: Well, his stance is, basically, what the stance of every leader in the church is, that it's the prime it's of prime importance to work for healing, to seek reconciliation with the victims; and most of all, to keep working toward a safer church, but beyond that, a purer church, a church that's renewed from this whole experience and comes out stronger and more faith-filled than it was in the beginning.

CORNISH: Rocco Palmo's Web site is called Whispers in the Loggia. It covers the politics of the Catholic Church. You can find it online at WhispersintheLoggia.blogspot.com. He was kind enough to join us from Philadelphia. Rocco, thank you.

PALMO: Anytime, Audie, thank you.

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