BALTIMORE (AP) — Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, an immigrant from Mexico, overwhelmingly won election Tuesday as the first Hispanic to head the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Gómez, 67, has been the conference's vice president for the past three years. He is considered a practical-minded conservative when it comes to church doctrine but is a strong advocate of a welcoming immigration policy that would include a path to citizenship for many immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
In August, after a gunman targeting Mexicans killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, Gómez wrote a powerful statement condemning white supremacy and noting that Spanish was spoken in North America before English.
Gómez succeeds Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, whose presidency was complicated by the church's clergy sex-abuse crisis.
Following the election of Gómez, the bishops chose Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, 71, as the new vice president. By tradition, that puts him in line to become president in three years.
Like Gómez, Vigneron has criticized some U.S. policies he deemed hostile to immigrants, but he is considered a staunch conservative on most issues.
Gomez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and studied theology at the University of Navarra in Spain. He was ordained an Opus Dei priest in 1978 and worked in the Galveston-Houston area and in Denver before being named archbishop of San Antonio in 2004. He become archbishop of Los Angeles in 2011.
"Archbishop Gomez is a quiet pastor with a powerful voice for immigrants," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at a Washington-based clergy network called Faith in Public Life. "The first Latino to lead Catholic bishops at a time when the Trump administration is attacking immigrants won't be afraid to call out racism and nativism."
The Catholic bishops, at their three-day conference that ends Wednesday, are expected to authorize development of a "comprehensive vision" for Hispanic ministry, to be completed over the next few years.
While Hispanics account for about 37% of all U.S. Catholics, they are no longer a majority-Catholic group, according to the Pew Research Center. A recent Pew survey said 47% of Hispanics in the U.S. now call themselves Catholic, down from 57% in 2009.