As Archbishop of Los Angeles, José Horatio Gómez is shepherd to the single largest flock in the United States. Nearly 5 million Catholics fall under his see: more than the entire Church in England and Wales. A week after Donald Trump was elected President, Gómez was elected Vice President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Except for Cardinal Timothy Dolan, he may well be the most influential prelate in the country.
Not bad for a boy from Monterrey, Mexico.
Obviously, there were certain expectations when Gómez was chosen to deliver a homily at the Red Mass in Washington, D.C. Celebrated annually in the nation’s capital, the Red Mass is attended by Supreme Court justices, legal scholars, law students, and anyone in whom the fair exercise of justice is entrusted.
It’s not for the faint of heart. (Liberal Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, who’s Jewish, used to accompany her Catholic colleagues, but swore them off after one “outrageously anti-abortion” sermon.) And Gómez didn’t hesitate in criticizing the prevailing mood in Washington.
But this wasn’t a rehashing of the old “WWJD” sermon that drive pro-Trump Catholics (like Steve Bannon) nuts. His homily recalled St Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan now called “the Apostle to California”. St Junípero used his mission to the indigenous peoples of the American West to assert their humanity in the eyes of the colonial government. “He even wrote a ‘bill of rights’ to protect them,” said Gómez. “And, by the way: he wrote that bill of rights three years before America’s Declaration of Independence.”
The Archbishop followed Pope Francis, who canonized St Junípero, in declaring him “one of the founding fathers of the United States.” He reminds us that
America’s first beginnings were not political. America’s first beginnings were spiritual. The missionaries came here first – long before the Pilgrims, long before George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Long before this country even had a name.
These missionaries… laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for a nation that remains unique in human history: a nation conceived under God and committed to promoting human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of a diversity of peoples, races, ideas and beliefs.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this homily. American Catholics have long struggled to establish a coherent political identity because they’ve always thought of themselves as transplants. Some, like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, take their cues from Latin American liberation theologians. Others, like L. Brent Bozell, emulate European reactionaries. Most follow Orestes Brownson’s idea of the Founding Fathers “building better than they knew”. (If nothing else, it minimizes friction with their Protestant and atheist neighbours.)
But what if we were to rank St Junípero alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton? What if the Catholic idea of commonwealth is as much a part of the American constitution as liberalism and republicanism? These could be the seeds of a new Catholic witness in American politics, one that unites justice-minded progressives and tradition-minded conservatives.
It seems the USCCB’s willing to give it a go. Will America’s Catholic lawmakers?