Faith in the Northwest

Bishop Sartain set to take the reins in Seattle.

(photo: CNS photo/Mike Penney)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

Bishop J. Peter Sartain of Joliet, Ill., will be installed as archbishop of Seattle on Dec. 1, succeeding Archbishop Alex Brunett.

The youngest of five children, James Peter Sartain was born to Catherine and Pete Sartain in 1952. Their Memphis, Tenn., home was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and was the site for the family’s regular recitation of the Rosary. Interaction with priests and religious sisters was a normal part of his youth, which enabled the young Sartain to be open to his priestly calling. His response to that call was gradual and was solidified in college.

Archbishop-elect Sartain, 58, has degrees from St. Meinrad College in Indiana and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas and the Pontifical Athenaeum San Anselmo, both in Rome. He was ordained for the Diocese of Memphis in 1978 and made a bishop in 2000. He was bishop of Little Rock, Ark., from 2000 to 2006, when he was appointed to Joliet.

Archbishop-elect Sartain spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie in early October.

You were a diocesan vocation director in Memphis. When did you discern your own vocation?

I grew up in an active Catholic family, where the thought of a religious vocation was encouraged but never forced. One of my aunts and one of my sisters were both Dominican sisters as I was growing up, and several priests were friends of our family.  I was blessed with the good example of our parish priests, who directly encouraged me to think about the priesthood. In high school I was involved in our parish CYO and a number of activities at school, and all of these gave me a sense that perhaps God was calling me to serve him as a priest.

I started college at the University of Memphis and began a major in chemistry, but soon the thought of the priesthood grew stronger, and I transferred to St. Meinrad College Seminary my sophomore year. I would say, then, that my discernment was gradual and was not marked by any kind of defining moment. God’s grace at work in our family, our parish, our school, and the priests who inspired me all came together to lead me to the seminary.

Your episcopal motto is from Psalm 27: “Of you [Lord], my heart has spoken.” Why did you choose this as a motto?

Many years ago that verse from Psalm 27 began to emerge time and again in prayer as a simple way of putting in words both what I felt inside and what it seemed God wanted me to do. Since Psalm 27 appears regularly in the four-week cycle of the Psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours, I reflected on it often. Gradually, I began to use it as a kind of “theme” to my prayer, in the sense that I would repeat it quietly again and again as a way to focus on God and tell him what was going on in my heart. When I pray, “Of you my heart has spoken,” the “you” is first of all God — I had discovered that my heart cried out for him spontaneously — but it’s also God’s people, because I realized that he was calling me to love them with his love.

You share the names of two bishops: St. James (patron of the Archdiocese of Seattle) and St. Peter. Do you have favorite passages from the writings of either of these men?

Yes, I do — but first a word about why I received those two saints as patrons. I was named after my maternal grandfather (Edward James Poole) and my father (Joseph Martin “Pete” Sartain). “Pete” was a nickname my father received as a child that stuck for life. The two patron saints whose names I bear have special significance for me.

Providentially, the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Seattle is St. James the Greater. From the Letter of James I have always been drawn to these words: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:7-8). Those words remind me that everything is in God’s hands, and I am to be vigilant, cooperative and patient for his plans to unfold.

From the letters of Peter, I like to be reminded of Peter’s own recalling of Old Testament images fulfilled in Jesus: “But you are ‘a chosen race, royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praise’ of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were ‘no people,’ but now you are God’s people; you ‘had not received mercy,’ but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 29-10). Those words remind me not only of my own identity in Christ, but also of the Church’s identity and how we are all made for God.

You earned a licentiate in sacramental theology What are some of your favorite aspects of the sacramental life of the Church?

I have always been drawn to the concept of lex orandi, lex credendi: the firm and direct relationship between liturgical prayer and what we believe. Worship and prayer are the first and crucial expression of what we believe — our gift of ourselves to the One in whom we believe. If that link breaks down, our faith both as act and as a body of belief weakens. Common liturgical prayer is at the heart of the communion that God has given the Church in Christ.

Another aspect of sacramental theology that I love to ponder is that the sacraments are Christ’s own actions in the Church. It is he himself who feeds us, heals us, forgives us through the priest who acts in persona Christi. This mystery is humbling beyond words for me as a priest and bishop — and should be for us all a cause for awe that Christ himself presides at every liturgy. We pray through him and with him.

Do you have major areas of concern in the administration of the sacraments?

One of our challenges in celebrating the sacraments today is to rekindle our understanding of grace — in part, our recognition that in the sacraments Christ does something. I think that we often overemphasize what we do in the liturgy to the detriment of our realization that the sacraments are first and foremost the work of God. We must recapture and savor the mystery of grace.

You’ve stated that “to be Catholic means to be pro-life.” Do you find that many people still don’t understand that basic fact?

Catholics, like everyone, are affected by the culture. I fear that our culture increasingly wants to ignore the life issue, treating abortion as if it is something settled and decided, something we have to live with. If Catholics adopt that attitude, the foundation of our pro-life stance crumbles to the ground.

Abortion is not just one issue among many. Life is precious; life is God’s gift; life has dignity, from the moment of conception to natural death. If we fail to uphold life from the moment of conception, then the rest of our pro-life stance — which encompasses care for the sick and elderly, the poor and imprisoned, the handicapped, and all those who suffer, and opposition to the death penalty — lacks integrity.

Another critical point in the pro-life stance of the Catholic Church is that we owe it to our culture, our community, to witness to life’s sacredness; we owe it to the unborn, to the poor and sick, the imprisoned, the elderly; we owe it to God to proclaim the gift of life which he alone creates.

What needs to be done for more Catholics to embrace being pro-life?

First, we must persevere in proclaiming the Church’s teaching. But we must do it lovingly and peacefully. Otherwise, we become countersigns to the very tenets we hold dear.

Next, we must not give up. As I mentioned earlier, there are some in our culture who consider the abortion issue settled once and for all — and we must not accept that attitude. If we do, we do so to the detriment of our own lives of faith and the future of our families and our country. There are many, many people who are pro-life but perhaps back away from public witness out of fear of ridicule. By our perseverance, we join forces with others and strengthen the witness.

Next, we must work with our youth and children, teaching them about the Church’s stance on life issues and giving them the language and skills — and the courage — to be pro-life. I find that our young people want to be pro-life and want us to teach them what the Church teaches about life. They are not afraid to stand up for life, and in them I see great hope.

What three things would you recommend to any Catholic to improve his relationship with God?

Daily prayer, weekly participation at Mass and regular confession. I would add to those essential practices regular reading of some solid spiritual book or a biography of an inspiring faith-filled Christian. Being inspired by faithful disciples of the Lord gives us hope and offers us a model to follow. The communion of saints is real, and they spur us on to grow in our relationship with Christ. It’s also important to surround ourselves with friends who seek to grow in faith as we do. We need them and they need us.

And finally, as the Lord taught and as St. Paul and St. James remind us, our faith must be expressed in love. We must live our faith by actively seeking to love others with the love of Christ in concrete ways.

Do you have priorities set for your tenure as archbishop of Seattle, or is there much learning yet to do?

I have much to learn about the Archdiocese of Seattle, and I look forward to getting to know the people of God there. My desire will always be, no matter what pastoral plans eventually develop, to preach the Gospel of Christ clearly and lovingly, and to celebrate the sacraments with devotion.

You enjoy fishing, which is popular in western Washington (where the Archdiocese of Seattle is located). Do you have any hobbies other than fishing?

I like to read, and I am usually reading two kinds of books: one of a spiritual nature and another relating to World War II. That period of history has always had fascination for me, probably because my father served in the Navy in the Pacific during the war and because my own birthday is the anniversary of D-Day. Very often I find that my interest in spirituality is piqued by the heroic witness of many who suffered courageously and gave themselves heroically during the war.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.