The legacy of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino

Michael M. Canaris and other visitors are pictured at the Mexico-U.S. border during a visit to the Kino Border Initiative, a ministry that provides food, pastoral care, medicine and educational opportunities to those in need.
(CNS photo/ courtesy Kino Heritage Society)

While in Southern Arizona and Nogales, Mexico, this week, I was privileged to spend time working, eating and praying with the staff and migrants who are served by the Kino Border Initiative, a ministry providing everything from food and pastoral care to medicine and educational opportunities to those who so many in society deem “disposable.” The work is named for legendary 17th century priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, a beloved figure in the area.

Kino is actually an españolized version of his birth-name Eusebio Chini, as he was from what is today Northern Italy but was then part of the German-Austrian Holy Roman Empire. He studied in Innsbruck and Freiburg, before eventually moving to Spain and then being missioned to the first European expeditions to the Baja Peninsula in California. He was instrumental in proving that Baja was in fact connected to the mainland and not an island.

Father Kino established Christian communities and worked with the indigenous populations, particularly the Cocopa, Tohono O’odham, Maricopa and Apache tribes.

He is often depicted on horseback because he is thought to have traveled over 50,000 miles in the American and Mexican West. Part of his efforts in all these treks was to work to abolish the practice of slavery and compulsory labor for natives in the silver mines, which was common in the colonial period. Fans of Willa Cather’s breathtaking novel “Death Comes for the Archbishop” may find a familiar figure in the artwork representing this rugged pastoral cowboy. A sculpture of Father Kino represents Arizona in the United States Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.

The missionary’s care for native peoples is emulated in the work that Jesuit Father Sean Carroll leads today as the executive director of the Kino Border Initiative. Our local tours, conversations, and time of service with him and Sister Tracey Horan were memorable and transformative experiences, which I hope to find creative ways to bring into the classroom back in Chicago. They are fully embedded in the bi-national community of the frontera, where a day may involve cooking rice and beans for hungry women and children from Honduras, El Salvador or the increasing flows of people from the violent Pacific Guerrero state near Acapulco.

It might just as likely involve protesting deportations or working to advocate for policy changes in state and national government offices on either side of the fenced area separating the two countries. They cross the border countless times per year, as normally as someone in South Jersey may work in Philadelphia or visit New York City and return. Both the privilege that they (and I) experience in being able to do so, and the powerlessness to humanize migration policy were palpable for all of us.

Father Kino’s work generations ago, during the first era when lines of globalization were being established around the planet, inspires many of us today experiencing the second and more profound epoch of a shrinking world, where too often those connective lines encircling the globe seem to be made of barbed wire. Roughly one in seven people living across the globe today is a migrant. Most leave out of unfathomable desperation which we heard firsthand.

Our era, even more than the expansions that took place in earlier centuries, will undoubtedly be known as the Age of Migration by future historians. The choices that Americans and all Christians make in deciding how to respond to this inescapable reality and the groans of humanity arising from it will not only play a role in how we are viewed by history; it will without question also arise when God comes to judge the living and the dead. I know that Tracey and Sean will be on the right side of history, and of the Lord.

I told them in awe that they seem to me to be contemporary Peter Claver’s, Father Kino’s fellow Jesuit who ministered in the horrific holds of slave ships for year after discouraging year. Hope in these scenarios takes on eschatological and theological import, more than a vision of the situation changing overnight. Presence and solidarity thrive and grow on so little, like cactuses in barren wastelands, watered by small joys and the realization that their crucified Lord knocks each day on the comedor’s door in the faces of those seeking refuge and rest. Their lives of service interrogate my own conscience on how to more fully dedicate myself to a culture of encounter and accompaniment with the forgotten and despised each and every day.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.