Learning on the Fly
New Joliet Diocese Bishop Still Learning about His Parishes Six Months into the Job

Daily Herald [Joliet IL]
January 6, 2007

He has a sweet tooth and a taste for college sports. He's also the spiritual shepherd of more than 650,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Joliet.

Bishop J. Peter Sartain arrived in Illinois six months ago after having led the Diocese of Little Rock since 2000.

A born-and-bred Southerner who lived around the corner from Elvis Presley, Sartain's coping with a colder climate and getting to know a flock spanning seven counties. He's also dealing with a diocese recovering from controversy over clergy sex abuse and challenged by issues such as immigration and the economy.

Daily Herald staff writer Marni Pyke recently spoke with the diocese's fourth bishop about his background and experiences in the past half-year.

The following is an edited transcript.Q. What was it like growing up in the South in the 1950s?

A. I grew up in a Memphis suburb called White Haven, which is the area where Elvis' mansion is. I grew up on Graceland Drive, just around the corner from Elvis' house.

Growing up in the South ... there are many fewer Catholics. Most of my neighbors were not Catholic. It happened that in our suburb, the parish was large and our life as a family was centered around the parish, so I had many Catholic friends. But the neighborhood in itself was not majority Catholic, so I grew up with this sense that I was in a minority.

I didn't experience discrimination as I did experience misunderstandings about Catholics.

I also grew up in the South at a time when the civil rights movement was very strong. I was in high school in the 1960s - so when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, I remember the day very well.

It was a very difficult and painful time for the city. A time of violence and fear on everybody's part. It was a time of real foment. One of my best friends in high school was African-American, but (King's assassination) didn't affect our relationship at all - probably because of the way we both were raised.

Q. Talk about your calling to the ministry.

A. It was gradual. And I would describe the call as more of a tug. Of all the things I thought about doing when I was a kid, the one that kept coming back most often was that.

I also thought about majoring in chemistry and being a science journalist.

But I was very involved in church activities. I was blessed with a great example from the priests in our parish who were very good with young people. So that tug went out. At a certain point after my first year in college, I realized it was a tug I needed to pay attention to.

It was gradual, no thunderbolt. It was part of growing up.

Q. Describe the tug. Was it a desire to serve people or to lead a spiritual life?

A. It was a combination of both. To me the most important thing is having a relationship with God. I had an intuitive sense that God wanted me to have a close relationship with him.

And in that same context, I felt God wanted me to serve the people. Because I grew up in a family where helping people was the natural thing, I think that was in my psyche, anyway.

Q. Scandals involving child sexual abuse by priests have rocked Catholics across the nation and in the diocese. How do you respond to this?

A. First of all, it's always a very sad thing to hear that any child was abused by anyone, and to hear that it was a member of the clergy or someone acting on behalf of the church is even more sad - precisely because the clergy are given the responsibility for the care of children, and to think they come to harm is a very bad symbol.

My reaction to that has always been deep sadness and regret and prayers for the victims who have been hurt so that healing will come.

For the last four years, the diocese has done a number of things. We've instituted safe environment programs in every parish in the diocese. Everyone who has care or contact with children has to have a criminal background check and has to attend a mandatory child-environment safety program that educates them on child abuse and how to recognize the signs.

All dioceses are required to be audited, which means ensure every diocese is complying with national standards.

Q. Your predecessor, Bishop Joseph Imesch, was criticized for being unresponsive to sex abuse victims. What will be your role?

A. Just to make sure I'm really doing everything I can to pay attention to the issues of child abuse in every church and to do what I can. In many ways, what I find is that you don't necessarily do this by a program as much you do by personal presence and leadership. I want to do everything I can to bring healing and peace to everybody.

As the new guy on the block, that involves getting to know everybody. That's why I'm trying to get around. It's important for the people to have a relationship with me.

Q. Catholic bishops in America have called for an immigration policy that provides a humanitarian solution to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants here. What are your thoughts on this?

A. Arkansas has a huge immigration of Hispanics. As a result, I'm learning Spanish, a word a day.

I enjoy being with immigrant communities because of my family background and my parents' openness. My dad, in a part-time way, was raised by his Jewish neighbors. As a result we grew up with a natural affection for the Jewish people.

That was expanded in my family in a broader sense of having an appreciation for learning a language and getting interested in other cultures.

Then, I lived in Rome five years as a student. That opened me up to the experience of living in another country. You open yourself to a whole new world.

As a priest, I began to experience immigration among my parishioners. Although it was different being a student, I had some insight into being in a foreign place.

When I went to Arkansas and saw how many people were immigrating to the state ... from my perspective, it was a pastoral, family issue. Folks, for the most part, are coming to find a better life for their families. This was exactly what the church needs to be doing - helping people reconnect with their families and having respect for human dignity.

Q. Did you have legal and illegal immigrants in the diocese?

A. Both. The diocese of Little Rock sponsors two immigration offices to help people become legal and to help unify families. I bring that same pastoral concern and desire to help people.

It's important to help find ways in our country to solve our immigration dilemma and help people who are here illegally to find a legal way to earn their citizenship. It's not a matter of just blanket amnesty; it's a matter of finding legal avenues.

Q. What have you learned in your six months?

A. I've learned I have a lot more to learn. I've shaken literally thousands of hands and I have a lot more people to meet. Every day, I learn something I need to know. I can't assume I know the diocese. I have to learn and listen and watch - that's why it's important for me to get to parishes.

One thing I've learned is its great diversity, which I think is a wonderful thing. What a great thing it is for a diocese - that universality of the church is displayed right before our eyes.

In the Joliet Diocese, there are huge numbers of Hispanics. Polish immigration is very large. And, I (attended) a Mass for the Filipino community called Simbang Gabi. It's a series of nine Masses leading up to Christmas.

I installed one of our new pastors in Romeoville who is Slovenian. In his parish, they have Mass in English, Spanish and Polish, and the liturgy I celebrated was trilingual. To me, that's just terrific.



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