Archbishop Gomez addresses AJC

Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez spoke about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as pope of the Roman Catholic Church, immigration reform and Catholic-Jewish relations during a dialogue organized by the American Jewish Committee of Los Angeles (AJC) on March 19.

“I know there’s a long history of cooperation between Jewish and Catholic communities in Los Angeles,” Gomez said during the event held at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel near Westwood. “I know that the AJC has been at the center of this. As we go forward on our journey together, I look forward to deepening our friendship and deepening the mutual ties that unite us in truth, respect and goodness.”

A 61-year-old native of Monterrey, Mexico, Gomez called Bergoglio — who took the name Francis upon his election as pope just days before the AJC event — “a humble and holy priest with a deep love for the poor” and “a faithful friend to the Jewish people.”

On the topic of immigration, Gomez, spiritual leader of the largest diocese in the United States and the first Latino to serve in the position, said he supports “comprehensive reform.”

The AJC event, “Bonds of Friendship and Fellowship: An Evening With the Most Reverend Jose H. Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles,” paired Gomez with Rabbi Mark Diamond, regional director of AJC Los Angeles.

During the gathering, Gomez and Diamond, who are both members of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders, delivered remarks and participated in a Q-and-A with the audience.

Approximately 150 people attended the program, including AJC leaders and lay leaders; partners of the diocese and AJC; community leaders and diplomats. Clifford Goldstein, AJC Los Angeles regional president, gave introductory remarks; Bruce Ramer, an attorney and former national president of AJC, moderated the Q-and-A and David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, also spoke.

Immigration was a major point of discussion. As a group of senators in Washington hash out a bill on immigration reform, Gomez and Diamond said they support instituting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, among other changes.

“AJC is a leader, along with the church, in national efforts to fix our broken immigration system, and that must include family reunification, full path to earned citizenship for those in the country, employment-visa reform and effective main border patrols that safeguards our national security,” Diamond said. “Archbishop, AJC pledges to work side-by-side with you, the archdiocese, to promote, to achieve and to implement bipartisan immigration reform.”

Gomez said that he had participated in a meeting focusing on the immigration issue with President Barack Obama at the White House just two weeks before, along with Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

“I think we all walked way from the meeting feeling like the president agreed with our concerns,” Gomez said.

A problem with the immigration debate is that “we have lost our ability to talk about issues in religious and moral terms,” Gomez said. “We have become more and more a secular society.”

When Gomez said that when he hears that the Obama administration deported more than 400,000 illegal immigrants in 2012, he thinks, “These are not statistics, these are souls.”

Diamond, as the head of AJC’s local chapter and as the former executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, has established robust interfaith relationships and has served as a Jewish liaison to international consulates in Los Angeles.

“This evening’s program is the latest manifestation of our [Jews and Catholics’] evolving and maturing relationship,” Diamond said.

The once-fraught relations between the two religious groups underwent a turning point after World War II, especially in 1965, when the Second Vatican Council issued “Nostra Aetate,” a declaration that said that Jews could not be held responsible for the death of Jesus, that Jews and Christians share patrimony and also denounced anti-Semitism, Diamond said.

In Los Angeles, rabbis and priests participate in dialogues and study seminars and there has been a joint exhibition of Christian and Jewish and art at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Passover seders for Jewish and Catholic clergy and laity have taken place and interfaith missions have traveled to the Vatican and Israel, he added.

Siegel said that he participated in negotiations between the Vatican and the Israeli government 20 years ago as a young diplomat.

“Since that time, I’ve seen this relationship evolve, strengthen and prosper, and I have to tell you, this moment in our history [with the election of Francis, the first pope from the Americas] is truly extraordinary,” he said.

After Gomez spoke for about 20 minutes at the event, Diamond delivered a response of about the same length. Then questions from the audience explored several topics.

Gomez declined to speak for the church on several topics. When asked if the Catholic Church has a role in bringing about negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Gomez responded, “I am just the archbishop of Los Angeles.”

His answer was the same when an audience member wanted to know if the church was concerned with “Islamic Jihadism.” But, he added, “We need to make clear that violence has nothing to do with religion.”

Diamond chimed in, saying that Catholic-Jewish relations should be a model for Jewish-Muslim relations and for Muslim-Catholic relations.