Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, the highest-ranking Latino in the U.S. Catholic Church, was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Tuesday, marking the first time that a Latino bishop has held the position.
Gomez's election, which kicked off the second day of the bishops' fall meeting in Baltimore, was regarded by many observers of the Roman Catholic Church as a fait accompli, a historic milestone set in motion in 2016 when he was selected as vice president of the national conference.
One of 10 nominees, Gomez garnered 176 votes cast both by bishops attending the conference and American bishops in Rome. His victory projected on the screen behind him, the prelate stood and thanked his counterparts, who greeted him with a standing ovation.
The bishops also elected Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit as their next vice president. The vice president traditionally becomes the group's president in three years, at the beginning of the next term.
Gomez, born in Monterrey, Mexico, has in recent years grown into a high-profile and authoritative voice in the American church, advocating for immigration reforms that would include a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. The soft-spoken 67-year-old will begin his three-year term as president just as his tenure as vice president comes to an end.
Gomez's ascendance comes amid Latinos' shifting relationship with the Catholic faith: Latinos in the U.S. are no longer majority-Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Some 47% describe themselves as Catholic, the survey showed, down from 57% a decade ago. At the same time, 23% of Latinos say they are religiously unaffiliated, up from 15% in 2009.
"This is huge," Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst at Religion News Service, said of the election. " Having a Mexican American as the president of the bishops conference sends a real message to Hispanics across the country, showing that not only are they part of the church, they are part of the leadership of the church at the highest level."
Gomez will take up his new position as spokesman for U.S. bishops at a time of bitter division over the Trump administration's immigration policies, he added. The head of the largest and perhaps most diverse archdiocese in the country is himself a naturalized U.S. citizen.
"This is a Mexican immigrant who is going to be the leader at a time when immigrants are demonized," Reese said. "This is a symbolic message from the bishops on the importance of the immigration issue to the them, and the importance of immigrants to the Catholic Church and in American society."
Gomez, the first Latino archbishop of Los Angeles, succeeded Cardinal Roger Mahony in 2011 after he was relieved of public duties over his mishandling of clergy members' sexual abuse of children.
L.A.'s archbishop is at once a conservative and a progressive: staunch in his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage while tenacious in his advocacy for immigrants and the poor.
He is conservative in matters of Catholic doctrine. As the archbishop of the San Antonio archdiocese, Gomez emerged as a leading advocate for doctrinal conformity, determined to stave off what he saw as creeping secularism in the church.
But in 2013, Gomez published a book that voiced his support for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country without legal status. His advocacy aligns with efforts by Pope Francis to raise awareness about the challenges immigrants face.
Gomez has called immigration the "reality of my own family," his ardor for the cause culminating in passionate sermons, visits with migrant children separated from their parents at the border and fervent columns. He has assembled an immigration task force that includes representatives from the dioceses of Orange and San Bernardino.
When a gunman targeting Mexicans killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso in August, Gomez took a public stand against white supremacy. "A line has been crossed in our nation," he wrote.
In September, Gomez led the Mass in Recognition of All Immigrants, during which he told his congregants that "this nation has been a beacon of hope, a refuge for peoples who have no place left to turn." And on Monday night, his archdiocese hosted a rosary and Mass in solidarity with Dreamers, praying for them on the eve of the Supreme Court hearing.
American bishops oppose "enforcement only" policies and support comprehensive immigration reform, a stance that stems from their belief that migration is a humanitarian issue rather than a politically partisan cause.
Immigrants today are the main force preventing a sharp decline in U.S. Catholic Church membership, which some estimates put at about 70 million.
"Basically the bishops are handing him a megaphone that he can use on issues like DACA, family separations and other issues that affect immigrants," Reese said.
Catholics, like the general U.S. population, are divided over immigration, notably along ethnic lines. About 77% of Latino Catholics favor allowing immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally an opportunity to become citizens, compared with 55% of white Catholics, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.