'The number one priority has been always to center things on Jesus'

Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain reflects on his time in the Archdiocese of Seattle

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain retired September 3 after nearly nine years leading the Archdiocese of Seattle.

A loss of energy and stamina following a series of spinal surgeries led him to ask Pope Francis last September to appoint a coadjutor archbishop, “with a view toward retiring much sooner than typical, because of my health,” as he explained in an April 29 letter to the people of the archdiocese.

The decision came after months of prayer, the archbishop said, and he is at peace because “the Lord has helped me to see that it’s what he wants.”

Keeping the Lord Jesus at the center of everything was the consistent theme of Archbishop Sartain’s ministry in Western Washington.

In the homily at his Mass of installation on December 1, 2010, Archbishop Sartain began by acknowledging his own poverty, weakness and faults, but promised, “What I have, I will offer you: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel who is Jesus Christ.”

Archbishop Sartain sat down with Northwest Catholic on August 29 to talk about his time as the archbishop of Seattle, his plans for retirement, and his hopes for the future of the church in Western Washington.

Archbishop SartainPhoto: Stephen Brashear

As you move into retirement, what are your feelings?

Well, they’re certainly bittersweet, because when I came here in 2010, I wouldn’t have expected that I’d be retiring at the age of 67. But, by the same token, I’m very much at peace, because the Lord has helped me to see that this is the right thing. Because of my health, I just recognized that I simply don’t have the energy and stamina any longer that this archdiocese deserves. So the Lord helped me to see that in a very peaceful way.

When you were ordained a priest 41 years ago, did you ever imagine that your ministry would take the path that it did?

Not for a moment. If you had asked me the day of my ordination in Memphis, I would’ve said, “Well, 41 years from now I will be a pastor in Memphis.” I wouldn’t have thought that I would be anywhere else.

How have you understood your role as a bishop and an archbishop?

Primarily as a pastor, because that’s really what the bishop of a diocese is. He’s the pastor of souls of the whole diocese or archdiocese. So the fact that I was a pastor of a large parish at the time I became bishop of Little Rock, that was my instinctive sense of how I should continue my ministry — to be a pastor, now with a much larger flock than I had before, but nonetheless still a pastor and concerned about individuals and concerned about their spiritual welfare most of all.

You’ve said that from the day you arrived here in 2010, you’ve felt at home in the Archdiocese of Seattle. What do you mean by that?

The fact that that was the third time I had been moved to a different diocese left me expecting that it was going to take a while to feel settled in. But much to my surprise, when I celebrated Mass on September 16, 2010, at the cathedral, as soon as I entered the church and sat down in the presider’s chair, the Lord gave me a great sense that this is exactly where he wanted me to be, and I was at peace from that moment on. I can’t describe it any other way than that, but I knew it was a grace of God that he gave me that day, and it never left me ever since then — I have always felt at home here.

Have there been particular priorities or emphases that you’ve really tried to focus on during your time in the Archdiocese of Seattle?

The number one priority has been always to center things on Jesus. It’s very easy for us to be distracted in daily life — and that means daily personal life as well as daily church life — by the many things that we have to do, even the good things that we have to do. But unless we always keep the Lord Jesus at the center of everything, then we’re going to lose focus. Because that’s the center of everything that we do as the church. And every single ministry — every single one — is because the Lord Jesus calls us to do it as his disciples, and we do it as the body of Christ, not as individuals. That’s been always my number one focus. And so, as a result of that, I’ve tried my best to foster our spiritual lives in the church, individually and corporately as the church. When we’re rooted in a life of prayer in the Lord Jesus, then we are also able to better keep our focus there.

The next thing has been to be of support to our priests and deacons, because having been a priest now for 41 years, I love this vocation and, as I tell my friends, I can’t think of doing anything else. But I also know that every vocation in the church needs support and strengthening. So that’s been another one of my priorities, and that includes promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. So through Father [Bryan] Dolesji and our vocations team, I’ve tried to work very closely with them in formation issues and the promotion of vocations, but also directly in the formation of our seminarians and young priests. So I would say those really have been my priorities.

Archbishop SartainPhoto: Stephen Brashear

What has given you the greatest joy during your time in the Archdiocese of Seattle?

The greatest joy is always being with the people and with our priests. Always being in the parishes, seeing very vibrant parish life and seeing how people live their faith — and sometimes in very difficult and challenging situations. I’m constantly inspired by the people of the archdiocese and by the priests and the ways that they go about being good Catholics and striving very hard in a secular culture to live the Catholic faith fully.

Needless to say, ordaining deacons and priests is another great joy that I’ve had while I was here.

What would you point to as some of the milestones of your ministry here?

Honestly, I don’t think of milestones. I think of just trying to be the good shepherd in the image of Jesus in whatever comes up.

I think we have strengthened vocations promotion, and we issued a strategic plan for Catholic schools several years ago — just a number of other things like that that are part and parcel of the normal work of the church, nothing extraordinary because of me but more part and parcel of what the church should always be doing. And I think we’ve approached all those things with enthusiasm and real concern and real discernment and wanting to do what the Lord wants us to do in each of those pastoral situations that arise.

Is there anything you’re most proud of about your time as archbishop of Seattle?

Honestly, I don’t think in those terms. I’m grateful — that’s mainly what I would say. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this local church for nine years and to witness people’s faith, and to see the challenges are also a blessing. And one of ours, of course, is explosive growth and the number of people, young adults, who are coming here, many of whom are Catholic. So seeing our own people, our young people and our parishioners and priests excited about what we need to do, particularly in the area of evangelization — which, I would say, that’s another one of the thrusts that we tried over the last nine years, to see everything through the lens of evangelization, proclaiming Christ, which is what evangelization is. So trying to promote the lens of evangelization and the engine of evangelization as the main one has been something that I’ve enjoyed expanding in all kinds of ways in the archdiocese.

What have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced as the archbishop of Seattle?

One of them has been, we started three or four years ago a pastoral planning process that looks at the proper distribution of resources, especially clergy resources, around the archdiocese. It’s a challenge when we begin looking at the placement of priests and the placement of parishes. So always balancing those priorities and then also helping our people when we have to make difficult decisions about the closure of a church or the reduction of the number of Masses at a parish or going from a full-time priest to a part-time priest — it’s always a challenge to make sure that we are able to explain to people in a good way why we have to make such decisions.

The interesting thing is that every diocese and every archdiocese, just like this one, has made those kinds of decisions from the very beginning, not just in recent years. I asked for some history from our chancellor’s office about five years ago, about some of the same kind of processes that have taken place since the 1850s. And it’s amazing how so often decisions were made back in the old days, as well as 50, 60 years ago, for the same reasons that we make them today. But nonetheless, you want to make those decisions thoughtfully and prayerfully and then do what you can to promote people’s understanding of why those sometimes-difficult decisions have to be made.

Obviously, the sex-abuse scandal has been a great cross here in this archdiocese and across the country — really across the world — and I feel deeply the pain of that, the pain of the victims most especially. I met with many, many victims while I was here, always issuing to them the profound sorrow and apology of the church — of me personally and the church — for the pain that has been inflicted upon them by somebody acting in the name of the church. The pain is profound, and I have felt it again and again. And that pain has also helped me, I think, in my own growth in compassion and understanding. I’m grateful that the people of the archdiocese, particularly our staff and volunteers and our clergy, do understand and have understood for some time the importance of our Safe Environment programs. Thousands and thousands of hours are put into those programs, and I think as a result, not only has the church been affected positively now that people really are educated about looking for this and for the warning signs of abuse, no matter where it might take place, but I think also the church has been able to help other institutions who are still beginning to tackle the problem of sexual abuse in whatever their environment is. We have still more work to do.

Archbishop SartainPhoto: Janis Olson

What gives you the strength to face the challenges that come to everyone in life, and to an archbishop in particular?

Without question, number one is prayer. If I didn’t have a life of prayer, then I would not have the strength to do what the Lord asks me to do — because the Lord didn’t give me a job to do, he gave me a vocation to minister to people on his behalf. And so I have to make sure that it’s he who is doing the ministering through me, and not some idea that I have. So number one is really the life of prayer.

The second thing is, we have such an extraordinary staff of clergy and lay staff here at the archdiocese and in our parishes. And so to be able to rely on their wisdom and their experience every day and to listen to their counsel when we face challenging things — without them, I don’t know what I would have done.

So those are really the two things: the great amount of expertise we have, but first and foremost, always, trying every day to make sure that anything that I do, especially decisions, comes from a life of prayer.

Do you have any regrets about your time in the Archdiocese of Seattle?

I don’t think I would call it a regret, it’s more of a surprise, and that is that I’m not going to be here longer. And the reason why I say it’s not a regret is because the Lord has helped me to see that it’s what he wants. And so, as a result, that’s perfectly fine with me. I never thought that I would have had such severe spinal problems, because I never did before. So that’s a surprise. But, again, in the course of my illness and the multiple surgeries, God’s hand has been so clear all along that he was taking care of me, even down to the doctors and the people who looked after me and getting to the right place at the right time. I knew without question all along that God was in charge. And so, when it came to making the decision about asking for retirement, I knew that that was also God’s plan. So it all works together. So I wouldn’t call it a regret. A surprise, but not a bad one.

What challenges would you identify that the archdiocese will have to face going forward?

Well, the challenge here — but it’s a challenge that’s completely in line with the mission of the church — is the importance of evangelization. That’s the greatest need here in Western Washington because of the great secularism that’s here and very different from many other parts of the country or other parts of the world. Coming up with innovative and solid ways to continue to proclaim Christ in all the situations in Western Washington is really the biggest challenge. Pope Francis has told us from the very beginning, we have to proclaim the Gospel with joy. And I see the seeds of that in the priests, and especially as I talk with Archbishop Etienne about it, I think that’s exactly what he’s going to be doing, and doing with joy.

What are your plans for retirement? Where will you live, and what do you plan to be doing?

I’ll be living close to my family who are in Memphis. And the Lord is already beginning to show me what he wants me to do. First of all, I hope to continue to write, because I like to write, so I’ve already got some ideas for some projects. And I’ve been asked by a number of dioceses around the country to give retreats for their priests and seminarians already. And so I have a feeling that those things are going to be part and parcel of my life, and also offering spiritual direction to priests and deacons. The important thing about these years of “retirement” is that I’ll have the capacity to do things at my own pace. So when my spine tells me that enough is enough, I’ll know that I can pick and choose what works for me or what doesn’t. And obviously, because I’m going to be close to my family, I can just spend more time with my family, which I haven’t been able to do in 20 years.

What will you miss about the Archdiocese of Seattle?

There are lots of things that I will miss. First, though, are the people, because in these nine years, I’ve developed some really wonderful relationships with the priests and deacons and the staff and the people in the parishes. So when I think about what I will miss, it’s who I will miss — those folks.

In the magazine and before that the newspaper, I’ve always invited people to send me their prayer requests, and I’ve gotten thousands and thousands of those in the last nine years, and that’s drawn me closer to the people. Precisely through those prayer requests, I’ve gotten to know some people fairly well. Because people have been open to share with me their needs and their particular intentions, that has brought me a certain closeness, I think, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Archbishop SartainPhoto: Janis Olson

How have you seen the Archdiocese of Seattle change and develop over the past nine years?

The environment has changed dramatically. The environment, first of all, in the city of Seattle, because, as everyone knows who lives here in the city, rapid growth in construction and new buildings, the influx of people who are coming in town is huge. And sadly, along with that, I’ve seen the growth in our homelessness problem here in the city. And I know it’s true in other pockets of the archdiocese, like in Olympia and Tacoma and Bellingham and Vancouver. And that’s a sad and challenging thing, not only for our state and for our local municipalities, but also for the church. We’re blessed because Catholic Housing Services and Catholic Community Services have all kinds of programs for the homeless; however, it’s a community challenge of which the church is a part. And there’s been really a dramatic increase in our homeless population in the nine years that I’ve been here, and I confront it every day as I walk to the office. It’s heart wrenching, and I hope and pray that better and better solutions can be found.

Again, the rapid growth in certain parts of the archdiocese, not in the city of Seattle, has been really a blessing for me to see. So that’s a good thing for the church, and it presents us with more opportunities.

How do you feel about leaving the archdiocese in the hands of Archbishop Etienne?

I’m delighted. When the papal nuncio called me, he called Archbishop Etienne and me on the same day to tell us that the Holy Father had appointed him. And I was delighted from that moment of the conversation because I think Archbishop Etienne is the perfect choice to be the archbishop of Seattle. He’s got profound love for the Lord. He’s got a deep life of prayer. He’s a good administrator. He’s been a pastor of multiple parishes and director of vocations. And now he’s already headed up two dioceses before he comes here. So he’s got all the requisite experience, but most of all, he’s got the heart to be a wonderful shepherd. So it’s hard to describe how happy I am. He’s going to do a great job.

What are your hopes and prayers for the archdiocese going forward?

First and foremost, that the people of the archdiocese will become more and more centered on Christ, and that that centering on Christ will grow in depth — not just in words, but in depth. So that means growth in holiness, growth in prayerfulness, growth in the quality and reverence of our liturgies. It means that our Catholic schools are going to be not only centers of excellent education — which they already are — but increasingly so, schools where young people are formed as disciples of the Lord Jesus in the church. We have wonderful schools, and I think those are the very things that they are striving every day to do. But that will be an ongoing prayer for me, that that grows even more deeply. We’re not private schools. We are Catholic schools, specifically centered on Christ, specifically called to form disciples for the Lord Jesus and the Catholic Church.

How would you like to be remembered by the people of the Archdiocese of Seattle?

The only thing that I would say is that I would hope people would simply remember me in their prayers and remember me in their heart as someone who tried to be a good shepherd for these people.

Northwest Catholic - October 2019

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.