He is a man of prayer. That is what many have said about Bishop J. Peter Sartain.
His mother, the late Catherine Poole Sartain, said this about her son in a 2000 interview with Arkansas Catholic. "Peter's greatest strength is that he is very prayerful, but does not parade it."
Along with his uncanny ability to remember names and be completely present when talking with someone, the bishop's humility and devotion to prayer came with him when he made the move to Arkansas. And the fruits of his ministry, rooted in prayer, are apparent six years later.
"When Bishop Sartain first came to us in 2000 it was clear that no task undertaken, no responsibility accepted, no decision made, was ever done without prayer," said Msgr. Francis Malone, a former vicar general and pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock. "Beyond that, he called us to prayer, so to clarify that the decisions we as clergy and faithful alike make from day to day, are best made with a prayerful heart."
Bishop Sartain revealed the kind of shepherd he wanted to be in a 2001 Arkansas Catholic column.
|Role models in faith |
Bishop's joy, hope
"Anyone who has been associated with Bishop Sartain knows that here is a man who enjoys being a priest," Msgr. Malone said. "That joy, which emanates from one being rooted in prayer and devotion to the Lord in the Eucharist, touched everything he did during his six years as our bishop."
Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey said of the bishop, "We all know that prayer is important, but I have the impression from his example that it really is a very important thing in his life."
Abbot Kodell described Bishop Sartain as "very hopeful, joyful," signs that "he is faithful to what he says."
"He does not brood over the hard times ... rather he trusts God, he realizes that he is not the one in charge, that he is a minister, he is an agent of God and that he has to stay close to God. And if you stay close to God then you will be hopeful, and he is hopeful."
Sister Eileen Schneider, OSB, said prayer is necessary for Church leadership.
"From that prayer time emerges the strength to do what you have to do," she said. "I think that's true for the bishop and I know he was very faithful to (prayer)."
Bishop Sartain appointed Sister Eileen the diocesan minister for religious in 2005. Before that she was prioress of Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro for six years.
Msgr. Scott Marczuk, rector of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, recalled how the bishop always prays before he celebrates Mass.
"Before every Mass he always tries to find a quiet spot in the church where he can close his eyes and meditate in prayerful recollection before the Mass begins," he said.
Noting how much the bishop enjoys visiting with people after Mass, Msgr. Marczuk said the bishop's "main vocation would be that of a pastor."
Power of a bishop's prayer
As the shepherd, the bishop's commitment to pray without ceasing, has affected priests, religious and laypeople alike.
"By and large we are a peace-filled diocese now, in spite of the fact of losing this bishop whom we love. At the same time we know that the peace we enjoy now is the fruit of a man whose motto to God and to us has always been, 'Of You My Heart Has Spoken,'" Msgr. Malone said.
Father Erik Pohlmeier, pastor of St. John Church in Hot Springs, said the bishop affects people "through just the simple power of prayer."
For the priests, knowing that Bishop Sartain was a man of prayer, when he "spoke of prayer or challenged people to pray, it was backed up by his own actions," he said.
As for the diocese as a whole, the priest said, the effect of the bishop's prayer is most powerfully experienced in ways most don't realize.
"That God works in their lives, that they may see. They may not make the connection to the fact that it's assisted by the prayers of their bishop," he said.
Seeking prayer intentions
From the day Bishop Sartain learned he would come to Arkansas he offered his new flock to God in his prayer.
"Since I learned of my appointment as your bishop on Dec. 22, 1999, you have been in my prayers each day ... already I have commended you to the powerful grace of God and the wisdom of the Gospel. That is something I will always do," he wrote in his first letter to the diocese.
The bishop has stayed true to his word. Throughout the last six years, whether through his columns or on parish or school visits, he repeatedly asked for prayer intentions. In July 2004 he formalized the effort by giving readers an address to send their prayer needs.
"Prayer brings me back where I need to be," Bishop Sartain wrote. "It's the life-blood of the Body of Christ, the sustenance of my relationship with God, and the deepest expression of my love for fellow parishioners, especially those who are hurting." (Feb. 24, 2001 column)
Msgr. Malone said the bishop kept a special place for prayer petitions in his chapel.
"Before the Blessed Sacrament each day he would lift up in his heart and in his voice the needs of those who asked, and the thanks of those who received," he said.
Bishop Sartain said in a recent interview that the response to his prayer petition request has helped him in many ways.
"It truly has given me a closeness to the people of the diocese and has also very often given focus to my prayer," he said in early June.
The prayers have also given him "greater insight into the needs of the people of the diocese."
"It has an impact on my preaching. It has an impact on my columns ... It also has had an impact on the kind of attention that I give when I visit parishes," the bishop said. "My prayer list has expanded my awareness of the individual lives of parishioners. As a pastor of a parish, that is something that you have everyday."
He said he would immediately ask for prayer intentions from the people of the Diocese of Joliet.
"To be sure there are countless numbers of people who have been touched by the prayerfulness of Bishop Sartain, each of us has a story or two to tell," Msgr. Malone said.
He recalled how his dying father, on his last visit to Arkansas, received anointing of the sick from Bishop Sartain.
"A few days later, reflecting on that private moment with the bishop, my father told me, 'When Bishop Sartain anointed me, I felt at that moment that I was truly ready to be with the Lord,'" Msgr. Malone said. "Every time I replay that tape, I see the emotion in my father's voice, but I feel the peace of a man who was touched by a truly prayerful man of God."
Challenge for priests, religious
Bishop Sartain asked the priests and religious of the diocese to make a deeper commitment to prayer as well.
"He asked his priests to take an additional day off each month, just for prayer," Msgr. Malone said. "He challenged us to make a holy hour at least once weekly. He led by example, and when he led us in prayer at the altar, it was abundantly clear that he is a man with a joyful heart for God."
In the spring of 2003, Abbot Kodell said the bishop called all the men and women religious superiors from around the diocese to meet with him in Little Rock for a day of prayer. "It was very wonderful."
"That really touched me," Sister Eileen said. "It was a very enriching experience for all of us."
The bishop's example was also apparent at the annual Fall Dialogue with religious, she said.
"We always gathered with prayer and ended with prayer," she said. "It was very obvious in the comments he would make that he was a very prayerful person, that prayer entered into his daily living."
Teaching his flock to pray
Bishop Sartain has also extended the invitation to pray in his homilies and Arkansas Catholic columns.
"He encourages people to pray and brings a lot of examples of prayer and he brings quotes from the Church's prayer tradition. He brings them into the people's lives," Abbot Kodell said.
In the bishop's Aug. 24, 2002, column he shared nine steps to improving one's relationship with God. They are: "Speak to God;" "Listen to God;" "Read what God has to say;" "Learn the faith;" "Become true disciples of God's Son;" "Call on the Holy Spirit;" "Seek out the presence and actions of God;" "Love the Mother of God;" and "Make friends with the friends of God."
He went on to explain, "Knowing and loving God is the vocation of every human person, the key to happiness, the answer to every question. Its greatest nourishment is prayer, and its greatest fruit is love."
In the May 12, 2001, issue the bishop summed up his instruction.
"Take five minutes every day whether on your knees, in your favorite chair, or before the Blessed Sacrament, and quietly give yourself to God. If you would like to use words, make them simple, something like, 'I love you, I am yours.' That's it."
And on June 30, 2001, he said simply, "Pray always, and do not be afraid."
Prayer was always a vital part of Bishop Sartain's life. He learned to pray from his family's example while growing up in Memphis. In the March 4, 2000, issue of Arkansas Catholic, his mother explained that the family always prayed the rosary together and that their home was consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Through the years Bishop Sartain developed a spiritual connection to many who he considers role models. These include Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Blessed Karl Leisner, St. Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena.
In his Nov. 12, 2005, Arkansas Catholic column, Bishop Sartain called these saints, "Friends and guides (who) know just how I need to grow closer to the Lord. They pray for me and offer inspiration through their writings and example."
In fact, the bishop's relationship with these saints was the first thing he talked about when he introduced himself to the priests in 2000, Father Pohlmeier said.
"The type of saints that they were gives some indication of how he prays but also the fact that it was very natural for him to say that these saints were included in his daily prayer, seeking their intercession, seeking their guidance, stood out to me from the very beginning," the pastor said.
Bishop Sartain has written about these Christian models in numerous columns in Arkansas Catholic. In some cases he devoted the whole column detailing the story of their lives. That was the case with Blessed Frassati and Blessed Leisner.
Blessed Frassati was an Italian mountain climber and skier born in Turin, Italy, who died when he was only 24 years old. He was known for his care for the poor and intense spirituality. The bishop attended seminary in Rome and there he learned a lot about the young man.
"I first learned about him when I was about the age he was when he died," Bishop Sartain said in early June. "There are many things about his life and spirituality that impressed me from that moment forward."
Blessed Leisner was a German priest who was imprisoned for five-and-a-half years in the Dachau concentration camp where he was secretly ordained a priest by a French bishop. He celebrated Mass only once before dying of tuberculosis at age 30.
In his Aug. 14, 2004 column the bishop asked for Leisner's intercession.
"Blessed Karl, pray for us! Like you, we want to love in imitation of the Lord Jesus. We want to be holy. We want to bring joy wherever we are."
St. Thomas More was a 16th-century English martyr who refused to bend to demands by King Henry VIII that he authorize the king's elevation as leader of the Church of England.
"He has been a model for me as long as I can remember. He was a figure in British history, but he was a man of prayer and integrity," the bishop said recently.
The bishop visited the Tower of London once and was granted permission to view the room where St. Thomas More was imprisoned.
"Those kinds of models inspire me to be a better person and a better priest, particularly they inspire my spiritual life," he said.
Click here for the index of stories about Bishop J. Peter Sartain's six years in Arkansas. For the complete report, see the June 24, 2006 print edition of Arkansas Catholic.
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