Los Angeles Catholics welcome future leader of nation's most populous archdiocese

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The future leader of the nation's most populous Roman Catholic archdiocese was welcomed Wednesday with standing ovations in a religious service marked by clear indications that support for immigrants will be a priority.

The Mass of Reception marked the start of Coadjutor Archbishop Jose H. Gomez's ministry as an assistant to Cardinal Roger Mahony, who will retire next year. Gomez then automatically becomes the archbishop without ceremony.

"I cannot believe I am here my friends, this is — awesome," Gomez said in a humorous attempt at LA-speak before the packed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Mahony appeared eager to turn over the reins, inviting Gomez to sit in his chair to see if it fit.

"Mahony goes; Gomez comes. But Christ alone endures," Mahony said in his homily.

Other cardinals, dozens of bishops, more than 400 priests and representatives from 288 parishes throughout the nearly 8,800-square-mile archdiocese participated in a service incorporating a half-dozen languages to reflect the diversity of the region.

Mahony, who became archbishop of Los Angeles in 1985, has said he urged Pope Benedict XVI to select a Latino to replace him when, under church law, he retires in February at age 75.

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Gomez, 58, will become the first Hispanic archbishop of the Los Angeles archdiocese at a time when illegal immigration from Mexico is a heated political issue.

In a homily delivered in English and Spanish, Mahony directly set the stage for Gomez on that issue.

"A good shepherd here will of necessity work tirelessly for just immigration policies and for the protection of the dignity of all our immigrants," Mahony said.

Gomez responded in his remarks: "May this church always be a sign that God is with us and that in his own eyes no one is a stranger ... and no one is an alien for any of us."

The congregation cheered.

Gomez is the newly elected chair of the Committee on Migrants and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. His new position in Los Angeles will give the former archbishop of San Antonio, a more visible platform on immigration while reflecting a large segment of the U.S. church.

More than a third of the 65 million Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, as are nearly three-quarters of the 5 million-plus members of the three-county archdiocese.

Gomez will also inherit remaining elements of the clergy sex abuse scandal that has dogged the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for years.

In, 2007, Mahony agreed to a $660 million settlement with more than 500 alleged victims of clergy abuse, and a federal grand jury is investigating how the archdiocese handled abuse claims.

Mahony is not a target of the investigation, according to his attorney.

Mahony made no direct reference to that issue or any other problems. He did say the ongoing life of the church does not depend on him and added, "This does not relieve me or any of us of the responsibility to conform our lives more fully to Jesus, our Good Shepherd."