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Red Hats

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Around five million Catholics live in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (which includes Los Angeles County and Ventura and Santa Barbara counties). The archdiocese is commonly thought to have the largest Catholic population of any diocese in the nation . . . a population that is growing, despite the inroads made by evangelical Protestant churches in Latino communities.

Catholic Los Angeles is the "second city" to New York "? historically the American diocese with the greatest political significance to the Vatican. From the perspective of Rome, Los Angeles is only a step behind in significance, partly because Los Angeles in the mid-20th century successfully transitioned the church from urban ethnic enclaves to suburban all-American assimilation.

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And now, in the 21st century, Los Angeles is where a new mestizo church will "? or won't "? be made. Approximately 70 percent of the total membership of the archdiocese is thought to be Latino.

That makes the choice of a new archbishop for Los Angeles "? who inevitably will become a cardinal "? an extraordinarily sensitive process for the Vatican.

That process is underway. Cardinal Roger Mahony will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 next year. He turns 74 on February 27.

As these things are done, Mahony's successor will be named as a "coadjutor," probably at the end of the month, and will serve with Mahony during his final year. And when Mahony retires in 2011, a new archbishop "? and red-hatted cardinal "? will sit in the cathedral chair of Our Lady of the Angeles.

The failures of Mahony's stewardship "? the sexual abuse and cover-up scandals, the $660 million in lawsuit settlements, the fiscal chaos "? will overshadow Mahony's successor, at least initially. And that may make it hard to see how important the successor will be.

He may oversee a further division of the archdiocese that will spin off the Ventura/Santa Barbara components as a separate diocese, just as Orange County was in 1976. He probably will represent a major shift in how the diocese presents Catholicism to itself and the larger community "? and be an implied rejection of Mahony's relative liberalism. And he probably will be Latino himself, making him the first Latino cardinal in the United States and spokesman for Latino Catholics nationwide.

A new cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles will have a long reach into the future of the Catholic Church in America. And we'll know his name, probably in a matter of weeks.

The image on this page was made by Flickr user Eric Chan. It was used under a Creative Commons license.

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