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Originally published Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 8:04 PM

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Low-profile Seattle archbishop not afraid of controversies

Despite a glaring spotlight that's currently upon him, Seattle Roman Catholic Archbishop J. Peter Sartain remains somewhat of a mystery to many in Western Washington. But a portrait is emerging of a man who is warm, humble and kind, while at the same time a leader who can be out of touch with the lives and concerns of some in his flock.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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After Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain testified this year before the Legislature, stating his opposition to a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in this state, the pastor of St. Joseph Parish on Capitol Hill asked if the archbishop would be open to meeting with him.

The Rev. John Whitney, a Jesuit priest and pastor at St. Joseph, said he wanted to see if they could discuss how to move forward without causing division in the church.

Over the course of their April meeting in the archbishop's office on First Hill, Whitney confirmed his opinion of Sartain, a quickly rising star in an increasingly conservative church hierarchy who arrived here in 2010 to lead Western Washington's more than half a million Roman Catholics.

Whitney had decided that St. Joseph would not collect signatures to help overturn the law allowing same-sex marriage, as the archbishop had urged all parishes to do in April.

But he respected Sartain as a bishop who was open to talking with those who disagreed with him and who didn't make a person feel less worthy, or less of a Catholic, for doing so. At the same time, Sartain also struck him as someone who was so clear in his own mind of what the church teaches that it may not occur to him to first discuss such matters or to change his mind about them.

"He reflects a trend in the hierarchy that the answers are already there and if you need it, we'll talk about it until you come to my position," Whitney said. "He's just a lot nicer than other people are."

For much of Sartain's nearly two years as Seattle's fifth Roman Catholic archbishop, he's kept a quiet presence, concentrating on priorities that include deepening people's faith and encouraging young Catholics to consider lives in the priesthood or religious orders.

But that low profile abruptly ended this year — first with his decision to encourage parishes to gather signatures to undo the same-sex marriage law, and then, more resoundingly, with his appointment by the Vatican to oversee an overhaul of the nation's largest umbrella organization for nuns.

A report by the Vatican accusing the nuns' group of espousing radical feminist themes and straying from church teachings on homosexuality, marriage and the all-male priesthood set off a furor among Catholics here and across the nation.

The nuns are to discuss their response to the Vatican at their organization's annual meeting, which begins Tuesday in St. Louis.

Significant role

To some observers, Sartain's selection by the Vatican to oversee the reform is a sign of his trajectory up the church ladder.

"For an archbishop in the Northwest corner of the U.S. to be given that kind of nod is a very significant thing," said Rocco Palmo, who follows church dynamics in his Whispers in the Loggia blog. "In some ways, it may be the Vatican's way of auditioning him for greater responsibility."

Despite the now-glaring spotlight that's upon him, Sartain remains somewhat of a mystery to many here — a man who is introverted by nature, hasn't given many interviews and is often away from Seattle because of other responsibilities he holds within the church.

Still, a portrait is emerging of a man who is genuinely warm, humble, kind, deeply rooted in his faith and a good listener. For some Western Washington Catholics, the 60-year-old Sartain has already become a beloved shepherd.

At the same time, the emerging portrait is of a leader who can be out of touch with the lives and concerns of others in his flock — gay and lesbian people and liberal Catholics among them.

When Sartain was appointed to succeed retiring Seattle Archbishop Alex Brunett, some liberal Catholics here feared the Vatican was sending a hard-liner to keep the archdiocese in check. Many still resent the Vatican's investigation in the 1980s of then-Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, whom the Vatican temporarily stripped of some authority, saying he had deviated from church teachings in matters such as homosexuality and birth control.

Within the context of a church that has grown more conservative since the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Sartain is not considered a flame-throwing heavy.

But he has also said it's not his role to challenge church teachings.

"I can't change what the Scripture says or what the church teaches," he says. "But what I try very hard to do is try to show how the Scripture and the church's teachings speak to people's situations."

New to the region

Sartain grew up and later served as bishop in religious and cultural milieus far different from that of the Northwest.

He was born in Memphis, one of five siblings in a devout family. Before coming to Seattle, he served as bishop in Little Rock., Ark., and Joliet, Ill.

Since arriving here, Sartain has invited people to send him their prayer requests so he can pray with them. He keeps them in a box in his chapel at home. It's one way he keeps in touch with people's hearts and concerns, he says. He has also visited all 10 of the archdiocese's deaneries and more than half its parishes, often staying for hours at a time.

When he visited the Church of the North American Martyrs, a Latin Mass parish that meets in Ballard, he "was so gracious. Anybody who would like to meet him may," said parishioner Kathleen Kennedy. "I sent him a card at Christmas and he remembered when he came to visit the parish."

Along with evangelizing and encouraging people to grow in their faith, he has appointed a priest, the Rev. Bryan Dolejsi, as the archdiocese's vocations director, to talk with people about becoming a seminarian, priest, deacon or sister.

The archbishop has "been a good mentor to me and other priests and lay staff as well," Dolejsi said. "He's been a delight to work with."

But it's Sartain's other priority — promoting marriage and family according to the teachings of the church — that's garnered the most attention. That was especially true of his decision to urge parishes to gather signatures for Referendum 74 to overturn the same-sex marriage law.

While participation was optional — and a number of parishes chose not to collect signatures, with no apparent reprisal — it was one of the archdiocese's most forceful thrusts into the political arena in years.

He did it in part, he said, to try to give "all the people of the state a way to weigh in on this, rather than it being just a matter of Legislative decision."

Divisive issue

Reaction among local Catholics varied.

"I was very happy to learn that he was allowing the Catholic churches to gather signatures," said Kennedy, of the Church of the North American Martyrs, who believes the new law redefines marriage. "If we redefine anything, we're just trying to build things on shifting sand. There are no absolutes then."

But Barbara Guzzo, a member of St. Mary's Church in Seattle, was angry and disappointed.

What continues to bother her, she said, is the belief among some Catholics that "if the bishops say it, we have to believe it. That is not church teaching at all.... On all moral issues, Catholics have a responsibility to educate their conscience, then follow their conscience on making their decisions."

Some wonder whether Sartain's handling of the issue reflected his relative newness to the Seattle Archdiocese.

"Every bishop has a learning curve," said James Savage, music director at St. James Cathedral. "The policies or techniques that worked in other places don't necessarily work in a new diocese."

Within the Catholic hierarchy, Sartain is well respected, serving in several high-profile roles.

He is secretary-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and serves on its Committee on Religious Liberty, which has criticized the Obama administration's mandate that employers provide health insurance covering birth control.

But without a doubt, his highest-profile role came in April, when he was charged with overseeing the Vatican-ordered reform of the nuns' organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents most of the nation's 57,000 nuns.

In findings that the group had gone against certain church teachings, the Vatican also accused the organization of espousing "certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." The nuns' group fired back at the Vatican, calling its accusations unsubstantiated and its process flawed.

Sartain is regarded as a good mediator, able to ease tensions rather than ratchet them up, and some consider his appointment by the Vatican a sign that it doesn't want to seem too heavy-handed with the nuns.

Still, among many Catholics, the Vatican's censure of the nuns' group has provoked mainly outrage.

Across the country, demonstrations have been held in support of the nuns, including outside St. James Cathedral, with another set for Aug. 12, when local supporters will march to St. James from Louisa Boren Park in Capitol Hill.

Some wonder whether Sartain really gets the extent of the emotional pain involved.

"I like the archbishop very much," said Whitney, of St. Joseph Parish. "But I think sometimes his desire to find common ground (means) he can sometimes gloss over real differences that need to be seen."

Beyond mediation?

Others feel that tensions between the nuns' group and the Vatican are rooted in larger issues around power and control, and that Sartain's abilities as a mediator are almost beside the point.

Sister Fran Ferder, a Franciscan nun, clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty member at Seattle University, believes some Vatican leaders are threatened by a loss of power and trying to protect their turf by first publicly criticizing the nuns, then telling them that Sartain's appointment gives them the opportunity to talk about their differences.

"This is not how you improve relations," she said. "If good communication had happened earlier, mediation wouldn't be necessary."

Sartain has not said much about how he intends to approach his task, other than to say he'll try to build personal relationships with the leaders of the nuns' organization. "My conversation should be with the leadership of the LCWR," he said. "I made a commitment to them that I would not speak to them through the press or anybody else."

But Sartain does believe that a solution that honors both sides can be reached.

His ideal outcome, he says, would be that a reform of the nuns' group "truly strengthens religious life in the United States, sets the stage for many years to come and that it strengthens conversation and dialogue between the LCWR and the Holy See."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu. Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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