Archbishop José H. Gomez

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the highest- ranking Latino in the U.S. Catholic Church, has been elected president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops — the first time a Latino bishop has held the position.

Gomez’s election, which began the second day of the bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, was regarded by many observers of the Roman Catholic Church as a fait accompli, a historic milestone set in motion in 2016 when he was selected as vice president of the national conference.

One of 10 nominees, Gomez garnered 176 votes cast both by bishops attending the conference and American bishops in Rome. His victory projected on the screen behind him, the prelate stood and thanked his counterparts, who greeted him with a standing ovation, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I am humbled by this vote and my brother bishops’ trust in me,” Gomez said in a statement. “This election is an honor for me, and it recognizes the beautiful diversity and the missionary spirit of the family of God in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. But it is also a recognition of the essential place that Latino Catholics hold in the life of the church and in the life of our great nation.”

The bishops also elected Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit as their next vice president. The vice president traditionally becomes the group’s president in three years, at the beginning of the next term.

Gomez, born in Monterrey, Mexico, has in recent years grown into a high-profile and authoritative voice in the American church, advocating for immigration reforms that would include a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. The soft-spoken 67-year-old will begin his three-year term as president just as his tenure as vice president comes to an end.

Gomez’s ascendance comes amid Latinos’ shifting relationship with the Catholic faith: Latinos in the US are no longer majority-Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Some 47% describe themselves as Catholic, the survey showed, down from 57% a decade ago. At the same time, 23% of Latinos say they are religiously unaffiliated, up from 15% in 2009.