A Vibrant, Energetic Church: An Interview with Bishop Gerald Kicanas

Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson greets men entering the Kino Border Initiative soup kitchen Nogales, in northern Mexico, in 2014

This week in the print magazine Jim McDermott, S.J., writes about the unique character of "The Church in the West." As part of that project he had the opportunity to interview a number of bishops about their experiences in their own dioceses and within the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. This article is one of a series of six presenting those interviews.

Bishop Gerald Kicanas, 73, has served as the Bishop of Tucson since 2002. Originally from Chicago, Bishop Kicanas spent over 25 years working in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s seminary system, including as rector of Mundelein Seminary, before being appointed as an auxiliary bishop in 1995.

As well as serving as Bishop of Tucson, Bishop Kicanas has served as Vice President of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the USCCB’s agency for responding to international humanitarian need. He also wrote recently for Americaabout the immigration crisis in the United States.

The Diocese of Tucson covers nine counties extending along the southern border of Arizona. At 42,707 squares miles, it is the fifth largest diocese in area in the United States, and has 300,00 Catholics.

What are some of the main issues in your diocese?

Tucson of course is very different than Chicago. We have rattlesnakes and scorpions and Gila monsters. But in many ways it’s very like Chicago. I’ve met some fabulous and very dedicated priests here. We have some very engaged religious, so many very service-oriented deacons and a very wonderful group of lay women and lay men involved in so many different kinds of ministries.

We’re a mission diocese, which means we don’t accumulate adequate resources for our parishes. So we’re indebted to the Catholic Extension Society—about a third of our parishes can’t pay the stipend of their priests but for the gifts of Extension.

A major area of engagement for us would be immigration. The Diocese of Tucson covers the whole border between Arizona and Mexico. The Sonora Desert is an absolutely beautiful desert, unique in the world; about 1200 species of higher plants grow only in the Sonora Desert. But it is also a place where many migrants have died crossing over from Mexico into the United States. So immigration remains a key priority for us in terms of encouraging and prodding our president and Congress to pass immigration reform to fix a broken system.

There’s been some initiatives across the border—we have Posadas on both sides of the wall, and there’s been opportunities for the community to come together. We’ve always had a program called “Dioceses Without Borders,” which involves the dioceses of Phoenix, Tucson and our Mexican neighbor Hermosillo. There’s a new Mexican diocese being formed just for the border, the Nogales diocese.

One of the most powerful experiences here was when Cardinal O’Malley [of Boston] came to celebrate Mass at the border. It was a powerful event—his talk was fabulous and so was his presence. It was all part of a larger project, too, there were about ten bishops here who walked in the desert, we went to the Kino Border Initiative, which we’re also proud of in this diocese, it’s run by the Jesuits on the border. Here in Arizona they provide opportunities for colleges and high schools to come down and learn about life at the border, of its challenges and blessings, and then on the Mexican side they run programs to help people who are deported and offer a shelter for women and children. It’s a tremendous initiative that has benefited the community.

Another important ministry in the diocese is prison ministry. We have a huge number of incarcerated people in the diocese, in fact there’s one town, Florence, that probably has more prisoners than it has residents. So there’s a great need here to be present pastorally to people who are incarcerated. And so many of the men and women in prison here are people who are dealing with addiction issues--the flow of drugs across the border is quite worrisome. How to respond to those needs is a very important part of the social mission of the church here.

Tucson is also about the eighth poorest city amidst cities of its size. How to provide education opportunities for young people so they can work their way out of poverty is a key priority for us. We have 25 schools, 19 of them grade schools. One of the great blessings here is that the state provides funding for school choice, so individual donors can give up to fifteen hundred dollars of their tax liability to a Catholic school. We also have empowerment scholarships, which mean that parents whose children are being sent to a failing public school can have their children go to a Catholic school and have fifteen hundred dollars go towards their tuition.  

We’re also very blessed to have the first of the Notre Dame ACE Academies, a partnership with the University of Notre Dame and under-resourced schools. It’s been a great blessing for us. Two of our schools were really faltering but with the partnership now they’re thriving and we’re trying to figure out how to build more classrooms. The Academies help with formation of teachers, marketing of the schools. It’s been a true blessing.

So has our county’s ability to gather people from various spheres to work together to address problems that are very complex and probably impossible for any one dimension of the community to address. We had a program to try and address meth amphetamine use in the community which involved religious leaders, civic leaders, business leaders in the community. We had a program called Arizona Speaks that was a program that took place in Phoenix and Yuma and Sedona to try and speak up about immigration reform, and again that was a coalition of all the different spheres of the community, educators, religious people, business people. We’re in a similar initiative to try and look at homelessness. (The climate here is very accommodating, so there are many homeless in the community, and again, very limited resources in the southern Arizona area to address that.) Working together in these various groups has been another true blessing.

And like everyone, we have Catholics that are not practicing, people who have kind of left the church, who have fallen away from the church; we’re asking how to help them feel welcome and come back home. We’ve had a couple initiatives that have had some fair success to bring them back.

What kind of initiatives?

We had a program during Lent two years ago called “Come Back Home” where people were invited from all the parishes to come to the cathedral to pray together and hear the invitation to come back home. I think we had about 120 people. It was an encouraging experience.

Several of our parishes are also doing kind of a program for alienated Catholics or Catholics who have grown angry with the church in one way or another. Our Mother of Sorrows, they have a long standing pastor, one of our finest, and each year they have a program where they invite people who might feel alienated from the Church for whatever reason, and the team that runs the program are people who have themselves returned to the church. That has been a very encouraging effort.

Another movement that’s been kind of successful especially for vocations is a youth program called Arcoiris—“We are the Rainbow.” It’s like Cursillo but for young people. One of the fascinating things that’s a part of the program is the kids put on a retreat for their parents. Parents always want their kids to be a part of the church, but here the children are helping lead the parents into a deeper relationship with Christ. It’s kind of an amazing experience.

Another program that we’re hopeful for is Strong Catholic Families. It didn’t originate in the diocese, we’ve brought it in, but it’s to help families to develop ways of coming together and finding support in one another. Because family life is under great duress today, great stress. We’re doing a pilot program in six of our parishes to see how the program works and to see if we can replicate it in other parts of our diocese.

Are there things that you feel like the press doesn’t understand about the church in the West? Or that you wish the church elsewhere knew better?

There’s a vibrancy to the church in the Southwest. In many of the Midwest and Eastern dioceses there is diminishment happening, schools closing, parishes closing. The blessing we have here is that we’re opening parishes. We’re growing. So that brings a certain vibrancy and energy.

It’s a young Church. The Hispanic presence is a young presence, and the faith of the Hispanic people is amazing. Really, their interest in formation, their interest in learning about the faith, the programs we have for the formation of lay people, the Hispanic response is always amazing.

So there are some differences I think. There’s always been a rich diversity to the Southwest. That also has its challenges – people are sometimes fearful of immigration, fearful of the growing Hispanic community. So that has to be addressed, too.

Would you say there are differences in image of the Church or religious perspective out here?

I think there’s a little difference. Chicago being a huge city, I think there’s a much more secular tone to the city. Here many generations of Hispanics have lived in the city, and there seems to be a little greater closeness to the church than I might have experienced in Chicago. Not that people aren’t close to the church there, but the church here has a greater, more prominent role in this community.

The other thing that I think is a little different is somehow the people here have a greater sense of the history of the church in this area. So for example Father Kino, one of our first missionaries, is highly regarded in the community. There are statues of him in Tucson and Phoenix (and Washington, D.C., representing the state). There’s the Kino State Stadium, Kino Boulevard named after him.

The Church in the West is a quite historic church, and its history is very rich, especially in our communities where all the early bishops were French, they came to this area to Santa Fe with Archbishop Lamy. Probably in Chicago the history gets a little lost over time as the city develops, grows. Here there’s that deeper sense of historicity, with the fact that the church has been richly engaged with this community from the very beginning.

What it’s like connecting with the larger bishops’ conference from here in the southwest?

There are a couple of challenges. Many of the conference meetings are in Washington, which is a long way. The center of things is still in Washington where the conference meetings are, though we meet in Baltimore and often in the spring in other locations. But for committee meetings and those kinds of things, it’s all in Washington.

Plus the number of bishops in the Midwest and the Northeast is quite significant. I went from a province in the archdiocese of Chicago where there were sixteen bishops—Cardinal Bernardin once said “I have enough bishops, I need more priests”—to here, where we just had our Arizona Conference meeting and there were four of us. So numbers wise there’s quite a difference.

But I think the bishops in the West certainly have a voice and bring a perspective.  And we have regional meetings and opportunities to talk to each other about the issues that matter to us.

Are there any suggestions you might have for the national conference?

[I would make the suggestion] that as bishops we have more dialogue about our pastoral experiences and really engage in some of the pastoral challenges that we have. The conference is very big and it’s very difficult to do in depth dialogue about the experiences that we’re engaged in when we come home. It’d be good to have structures that could allow more in depth dialogue.

There have been advances—more regional meetings, which used to be dreadful but the topics and discussion have improved quite considerably. A lot of bishops really appreciate them because there are a lot of issues to explore and it’s hard to do that in a general session where the numbers are so large and only a few bishops get to speak.

So any opportunities to dialogue about the issues that we face, the joys that we’re experiencing would be beneficial.


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