Thursday, November 21, 2019 - Updated: 3:02 pm
LOS ANGELES — If Father Jose Gomez needed any encouragement in becoming a bishop, the timing was probably enough.
The day of his appointment as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, Jan. 23, 2001, came exactly a year after the death of his mother, Esperanza.
According to his sister, Maricarmen Celaya, his mother's illness decades earlier led the young Jose to a deeper relationship with Christ in prayer. His mother eventually recovered, but the experience marked him for life, and eventually led him to answer the call to the priesthood, Celaya believes.
"It was too much of a coincidence for that to happen to him on that day," said Celaya.
If he needed any encouragement upon being elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops nearly 20 years later, the overwhelming majority of bishops who elected him on the first ballot — 176 out of the 238 who cast votes — and the standing round of applause that followed, also was probably enough.
Their Nov. 12 vote at the USCCB's fall assembly in Baltimore made the Mexican-born archbishop of Los Angeles the first Latino to hold the highest leadership position in the U.S. Catholic Church.
When asked about their new president, those same bishops used words like "kind and gentle," "respectful," and "great integrity and great faith."
But in the cordial hellos, goodbyes and congratulations from one bishop to another in the ballroom of the Waterfront Marriott Hotel in Baltimore, he is simply "Jose," the man who also happens to be their overwhelming choice to lead the bishops' conference in a crucial moment for the U.S. church.
Since Archbishop Gomez was elected vice president at the conference's fall meeting in 2016 (along with Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston as president), his election on the first ballot was no surprise this time around. The USCCB vice president has traditionally been elected president after his three-year term in that office.
When asked about the 67-year-old prelate, the bishops' personal observations about Archbishop Gomez can be summarized in one word: trust.
"We're in very good hands for the next three years," remarked Bishop Joseph V. Brennan of Fresno, California.
Having served under Archbishop Gomez as vicar general and an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, Bishop Brennan knows a thing or two about his leadership style.
"He will delegate, and he will seek help. And he'll get it. He's got lots of support from us," promised Brennan.
In 1999, then-Father Gomez was a priest in Houston, serving in the leadership of the National Association of Hispanic Priests. That year, St. John Paul II traveled to Mexico City for the proclamation of his apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in America."
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput remembers first meeting Father Gomez on a bus to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe during the occasion. Now Philadelphia's archbishop, he headed the Denver Archdiocese at the time.
The two struck up a friendship, and a short while later Archbishop Chaput called the Mexican-American priest to Denver to help him compile a list for the Vatican of Latino candidates to become the Colorado archdiocese's next auxiliary bishop.
"He went through that list of everyone, and after that, I went away from my meeting clearer," Archbishop Chaput recalled during an interview in Baltimore with Angelus News, the online newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. "The one on the top of my list would be Jose Gomez himself."
"He didn't know that at the time," Archbishop Chaput added with a chuckle.
Fortunately for him, St. John Paul agreed with his recommendation, and in 2001 named the 49-year-old as an auxiliary bishop for Denver.
One of the laypeople whom Bishop Gomez worked closest with in Denver was Teresa Polakovic. During his time there, he and Archbishop Chaput worked with her and other laywomen to found Endow, short for Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women.
It was one of the many U.S.-based lay apostolates born from St. John Paul's call for a "new evangelization" for the already baptized.
Polakovic said the young auxiliary was a source of encouragement to Endow, which aims to form Catholic women through small study groups, even telling them they were the most important apostolate in the Church.
"He was just wonderful," recalls Polakovic. "No matter what he had going on, he would always take my call, even after he moved (to San Antonio)." He was appointed to head that archdiocese in 2004.
Bishop Gomez's approachability sticks out to Polakovic the most. "He would be the person I would call if I had to make a big decision. I would talk about almost everything with him."
Polakovic said she saw up close how he leans on prayer to make important decisions.
"He really has a deep inner strength," she observed. "On the surface he's very kind, gentle and level-headed, and that comes from a deep source of prayer. And that's just obvious when you're around him."
Like Archbishop Gomez, Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange, California, served in Texas before coming to the Golden State.
In 2005, then-Msgr. Vann, from the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, was named coadjutor bishop of Fort Worth, Texas. Bishop Joseph P. Delaney was head of the diocese and as coadjutor, the newly named bishop would automatically succeed him upon his retirement or death.
Bishop Delaney, who was in ill health, died one day before Bishop-designate Vann was to be ordained a bishop. Archbishop Gomez ordained him as Fort Worth's bishop.
"He always helped me because I was a brand new bishop. He gave me a lot of advice on how to proceed," he said, adding that Archbishop Gomez "has a great care for everybody, especially the migrants and the unborn. And he's very kind and gentle, and respectful when dealing with people."
Cardinal DiNardo described his successor as USCCB president as "very warm" and "very straightforward. "He's got a great sense of humor, and he loves the Lord Jesus. That's good enough for me."
Archbishop Gomez is a leading voice on behalf of the country's Latino immigrants.
Since becoming archbishop of the country's largest archdiocese, he has lent his support to several different initiatives, liturgies and advocacy groups involving the immigrant community. And he has built relationships with other faith leaders and politicians from both sides of the aisle to push for commonsense immigration reform.
Privately, he is especially attentive to the spiritual needs of his people, said Diana Gonzalez.
In 2011, Archbishop Gomez worked with Gonzalez to start the L.A. chapter of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, or CALL, a national organization dedicated to inspiring Latino leaders through spiritual and professional formation.
"You don't need to know him long to know that he carries himself with a lot of integrity," said Gonzalez, who until this year was the chapter's executive director. "When you realize what he's managing, and the size, and everything that he has on his plate, he's just very humble."
"I think he has shown by his actions in Los Angeles, and also before that, in San Antonio, and at my side in Denver, that he is a man of the new evangelization," said Archbishop Chaput of the USCCB's new president.
As the church in the U.S. continues to work toward turning the page on the reawakening sexual abuse crisis and prepares to accompany Catholics through what promises to be a tumultuous election year, the shepherd of the country's largest archdiocese knows he can't shoulder the added responsibilities alone.
"It is a challenge, because the administrative requirements of bishop in the United States are huge," the archbishop acknowledged.
Archbishop Gomez said he expects to "rely totally on the people around me." One of those will be his vice president, Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, elected to the USCCB post in Baltimore. He, too, will serve for the next three years.
"The bishops, the priests, and also the lay faithful that are going to help me to really make the decisions that are appropriate for the needs of the church in the United States," he said.