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CNA Staff, Jul 17, 2020 / 12:11 am (CNA).- Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix praised the Holy Father’s decision to advance the cause of canonization for Venerable Eusebio Francisco Kino, a Jesuit missionary priest who mapped the southwestern United States and evangelized native populations.

The pope’s recognition that “Padre Kino” lived a life of heroic virtue is a step on the road to sainthood and grants him the title of “Venerable.”

Olmsted said he received the news of the advancement “with great joy.”

“The history of the Catholic Church in Arizona is synonymous with the growth and history of the State of Arizona, and Padre Kino is one of the foundational figures in that great history,” said the bishop in a statement.

Born in 1645 in the Tyrol region of northern Italy, Kino studied in Germany with the Jesuits and was ordained to the priesthood in 1677. It was in Germany that he fell terribly ill and promised to embark on the American missions if he received healing through the intercession of St. Francis Xavier. When he indeed recovered, he headed to New Spain, arriving in the Americas at the age of 36, according to the Kino Heritage society.

In the Americas, Kino quickly earned his nickname “Padre on horseback” as he transversed Mexico and the southeastern U.S., baptizing over 4,000 natives. He zealously defended the native populations from European powers, who exploited the indigenous people in silver mines. On one occasion, he rode 1,500 miles in one week from his mission headquarters to Mexico City to advocate for the oppressed native populations to the highest Spanish officials.

Due to his work in service of oppressed populations, Olmsted said that Kino “remains a wonderful example of the mission of the Church lived in solidarity with the poor and marginalized.”

“As a faithful member of the Society of Jesus and a missionary priest, Padre Kino was a tireless advocate for the native peoples of the Southwest. He devoted tremendous energy to meeting their spiritual and temporal needs, founding 21 missions and numerous native-run rancheros, and willingly sharing in the poverty and hardships of those he served,” Olmsted said.

Not only were Kino’s expeditions in search of souls, but the missionary priest also explored the region with a view to the natural sciences. Kino mapped regions of the American south-east previously unknown to civilization, creating the definitive maps for the region for more than 150 years after his death.

Kino taught the native populations agricultural and ranching techniques, equipping them with a stable food supply and schools for the local children.

“As an explorer and a man of science, Padre Kino introduced cattle ranching and advanced agricultural techniques to the Southwest and mapped vast regions of northern Mexico and modern-day Arizona,” said Olmsted. “His unique combination of missionary zeal, scientific knowledge and practical wisdom is a beautiful illustration of the fruitful union of faith and reason.”

Olmsted’s praise of Kino’s cause for canonization joined that of other leaders in the Church.

Bishop James Wall of the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico, said that Kino is “a true son of the Church, and model of the New Evangelization for our modern day.”

As a native of Arizona, where Kino lived and worked, Wall said that Kino’s life strikes a special chord with him.

“The example of the life of the ‘Padre on Horseback’ has played a large part in strengthening my own Catholic faith – especially the love, care, and sensitivity he showed to the indigenous people of Arizona,” Wall said.

Olmsted prayed that the newly venerable will intercede for an increase in the missionary zeal in the Church today.

“Through the intercession of Venerable Eusebio Francis Kino, may we treasure and live faithfully the rich heritage of our Faith. Like the Catholic missionaries, let us make a commitment to living as true disciples of Jesus Christ, passing on to future generations the Faith which has become an essential part of our culture and history here in Arizona,” he said.

The Vatican’s recognition of Kino’s life as one of heroic virtue follows the recent vandalism and destruction of several statues of another missionary central to the history of the region. In recent weeks, demonstrators have attacked statues of St. Junipero Serra, who founded a string of missions across California and was known as a vigorous defender of rights of indigenous peoples.

The recognition of Kino’s heroic virtue was made Saturday morning in Rome, when Pope Francis advanced the causes of five possible candidates for sainthood.