PHOENIX — Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino can serve as an inspiration for anybody in ministry today, ordained, consecrated or lay, said retired Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson.

The bishop made this observation days after a virtual celebration in August of the 375th birthday for Padre Kino, a Jesuit missionary priest known as the “Padre on Horseback” and considered the “Apostle of Arizona.”

The Mass and a ceremony following were celebrated from Padre Kino’s hometown of Segno, Italy, with people connecting virtually from Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora. Kicanas was one of several dignitaries connecting virtually.

“Pope Francis speaks of the priest as someone who needs to have the smell of the sheep, and that certainly was part of what Father Kino had in mind,” Kicanas said. “He learned about the Native peoples, their culture and accomplished a great deal. He was an amazing man with many talents but, most especially in his heart, he was a missionary disciple. He believed in the Lord and he wanted to make the word of the Lord known to others.”

Kicanas said that his successor, Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson, had a conflict with the virtual celebration and had asked him to represent the diocese.

“Having been in the diocese now for almost 19 years and having learned a great deal about Father Kino, it was a real privilege to participate in that celebration and that ceremony,” Kicanas said. “There’s lots of bad news today — it just keeps coming — so, to have a little ray of good news was a joy. And this truly was a ray of good news.”

Father Kino was declared “venerable” in July, the first step in the sainthood process. When he is beatified, Kicanas said it will be a time for celebration for all of the faithful in Arizona.

“Sometimes we think our ministry is difficult or our times are difficult, but Father Kino served in a time when there wasn’t any clear way by which missionary work should take place,” the bishop said. “It was dangerous. He had very limited resources. Father Kino struggled immensely in his ministry, but his faith kept him going. His faith helped him to continue the work despite the difficulties, despite the hardship.

The bishop pointed out that Padre Kino spoke Italian, Spanish and Latin and that he learned the multiple Native American tongues of the tribes he served.

Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, said he was “elated” when he heard the news that Father Kino was named venerable.

“When you grow up in Arizona, he’s one of the figures you learned about as a kid, junior high, high school, even in college,” he said.

Wall said Padre Kino didn’t impose a European system on the Native Americans he encountered, but rather showed a great appreciation for their culture, language and way of life.

“He illuminated their culture with the light of the Gospel,” he said. “With him, he wasn’t distant. He was amongst them, he taught them in their own language.”

Padre Kino’s work among the Native Americans is particularly inspiring for Bishop Wall, whose diocese was established in 1939 as the only diocese specifically established to serve Native Americans in the United States.

“He’s a good and faithful Catholic who showed the love of Jesus Christ to the Indigenous people,” the bishop said, adding that Padre Kino’s example inspires him to “minister to the people, try not to be distant, but be amongst them.”

In the current “cancel culture” that seeks to blame early missionaries for mistreatment of Native Americans, Bishop Wall said it was these priests like Padre Kino and St. Junípero Serra in California that stood up for their rights.

“There’s a tendency in our society to lump everybody together, to take the status of Junípero Serra or take the statue of Padre Kino, and to lump them in with these Confederate statues. That’s not only an injustice to these men, but to history,” the bishop said.

Wall said he hopes to spread devotion to Padre Kino in his diocese. Noting that the miracle recognized for the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha — the first Native American saint — was the healing of a Native American boy, the bishop said it would be appropriate for a miracle attributed to Padre Kino to also be among the Native communities.

“What better way for Eusebio Kino to work a miracle from heaven, than amongst the Native American people,” he said. “These are the people he loved, because he served them so well.”