By Richard Rivera, Diocese of Tucson
Waking up early one morning, I sat in near silence as the sun rose over the copper-colored beams that form the wall between Arizona and Mexico. As the colors of the sky changed, life started moving and the warmth of the sun seemed to make itself present in the smiles of people walking past. It was as if an old friend was greeting me, over and over. That is when I recognized that I had fallen in love with the Diocese of Tucson.
Talk to enough people about what drew them to Southern Arizona, and someone will usually mention the dramatic landscape, with its impressive mountains, and the almost alien quality the desert displays at sunrise or sunset. Getting out into the desert, with its splendor and harshness, looking up at the evening sunset, the star-filled sky at night or just staring at the magnitude of a saguaro, can almost be a religious experience. Yes, it’s a cliche,’ but 10 months out of the year the weather is amazing. While it does get brutally hot, I’ll gladly take 115 degrees and dry over 95 with 90 percent humidity.
With its vast space and topographic diversity, it is no wonder such a diverse community calls the Diocese of Tucson home. An area of almost 43,000 square miles, with more than 300,000 Catholics, Tucson is both large and incredibly diverse. The Diocese of Tucson is the fifth-largest in the geographic United States and borders California on the westernmost edge the Diocese of Phoenix to the north, New Mexico to the east, and Mexico to the south. The entire southern border happens to sit on the U.S./Mexico border and contains six of the state’s 10 “ports of entry,” as well as three military installations. Additionally, Tucson is home to several Native American communities, including the Akimel O’odham, the Tohono O’odham, the Piipaash and the White Mountain Apache Tribe of the Fort Apache Reservation.
Around 1687, Father Eusebio Kino, SJ established his first mission among the rural people of Sonora at Nuestra Senora de los Dolores. Eventually, that site became the home base for his explorations, as well as for the establishment of other missions, including Arizona’s San Xavier del Bac, Tumacacori and Guevavi missions. While it was common for missionaries to impose the faith on others, Kino took a different model, one of proposal. The commonly named “accomodationalist model” used by Kino made him a friend who emphasized the good in their native cultures. Through loving service, Kino shared the Gospel with the native people.
Today he is often called the “Apostle of the Southwest” because of his great service and ministry to the people he lived with and encountered. Famously, Kino defended the native people and even risked his life for their good. He introduced new ways of living, adapting their culture and understanding of the world around them. For Kino, mission was found in a simple question: What if Christ was incarnate today, here to these people?
Kino’s style is still the root experience of anyone serving the diocese today. Someone can dedicate their entire lives serving in one of our many reservations, caring for those who first called this place home. In the Tucson desert, we still find a dynamic experience of faith, where two worldviews are still colliding and yet live in harmony.
Mundelein has a tradition of sending men in pretheology to serve at the Tohono O’odham Reservation, in Tucson, for a week during spring semester. During my internship, I had the opportunity to visit a group of my brother seminarians on their mission trip. As I walked around the grounds and became familiar with the Franciscans dedicated to that community, I was impressed to find modern “Father Kinos” at work. Their first concern was to care for the needs of others, building bridges through service. Their example stirred in my heart a deeper understanding of what it means to lay down one’s life for a friend.
I found myself most humbled, and inspired, during the two days we spent working with the Kino Border Initiative, which focuses on service to those seeking to immigrate to the United States.
Just a few weeks later, a member of the seminary faculty arrived to perform a “mid-term checkup.” More than just an evaluation, this visit provided an opportunity to participate in service outside my parish boundaries. I found myself most humbled, and inspired, during the two days we spent working with the Kino Border Initiative, which focuses on service to those seeking to immigrate to the United States.
The missionaries perform their ministry in the spirit of Kino. Everything from food to clothing and even temporary shelter is provided for displaced immigrants. I have experienced ministries like this in the past, but never with such intentional compassion. The comedor, or dining room, filled every hour with a wave of new people, and each time it was the same: The volunteers had the same welcoming spirit, the same high energy, the same intentional care for each individual. Each wave of people had the same experience as the first. Every hour was served as if it was the only hour of the day.
While the landscape draws me into awe of God’s transcendence, the people humble me as they remind me of His immanence.
I’ve fallen in love with the Diocese of Tucson. While the landscape draws me into awe of God’s transcendence, the people humble me as they remind me of His immanence. Someone once told me, “You know you love someone when you see their face everywhere you look.” Thanks to the missionary zeal of Father Kino, I see Jesus in the faces I meet, in a landscape that proclaims God’s glory.
This article originally ran in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.