After 12 years with St. Mark Catholic Church in Richmond, the Rev. Jim Sichko will leave June 30 to become an evangelistic speaker across the country. He will continue to live in Madison County, but his last Mass at St. Mark will be this weekend.
Sichko, 49, and St. Mark are perhaps best known to non-Catholics in Central Kentucky for the periodic “An Evening Among Friends” performances/fundraisers that attracted entertainers such as Dolly Parton, Natalie Cole, Harry Connick Jr. and Jay Leno to the Richmond church.
In the past seven months, Sichko and St. Mark also invited people to special Masses held for Richmond police officer Daniel Ellis, who was shot and later died from his wounds, and for those who perished June 12 in the gay nightclub in Orlando.
As Sichko spoke about his time at St. Mark, the morning sun blazed through stained-glass windows and his 1 1/2 -year-old bloodhound, Gracie, snoozed on a couch in his parish office. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q. Wendell Berry once said, “A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time.” You seem to understand that, in that you tried to get out into the community and tried to invite the community in. So I’m interested in knowing: How do you define community?
A. My whole life as a priest is based around community. My whole life as a priest is based around the Eucharist, which is Mass, communion, which is community. Community has to involve a welcoming, merciful spirit. It can’t be exclusive. We have to be willing to invite all people, and by doing that, you in essence ruffle feathers. You cause people at times to be uncomfortable.
The other thing about community, inviting people from the outside in, you really see the face of God in all forms. One of the things I most admire about Pope Francis is … instead of saying “You’re not welcome” or “Our church believes this of your lifestyle and the way you operate,” he simply says, “Come and be one with us and learn, and let us learn from you.” Because it’s a give-and-take in community. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one of us rejoices, we all rejoice. That’s why I’ve had people at these special Masses, because even though we may not know them, they’re still part of our community.
Q. I think it was Lee Cruse, correct me if I’m wrong, who once compared you to boxing promoter Don King, I suppose because of your ability to promote and attract people like Dolly Parton and Harry Connick Jr. and Jay Leno for the series of concerts at St. Mark. How were you able to get these people to come to Richmond, Ky.?
A. Let me first say that people see “An Evening Among Friends” as a fundraiser for the church. That’s the farthest from the truth, at least in my concept. “Evening Among Friends” was based solely on the whole message I’ve tried to live and that is “Give and Receive.” In other words, bringing people of all faith traditions, of all walks of life, into the community, into a church, who normally would not be in church.
The second thing is, I felt that part of whatever we raised (to retire debt for church and school building projects) should go back to the greater community of Richmond. Every “Evening Among Friends,” regardless of what we made, at least 10 percent of whatever we raised went back to the community. … For instance, when Jay Leno came, money went to the Daniel Ellis Foundation for a scholarship for his son, Luke … .
Q. So how were you able to get these performers to Richmond long before Eastern Kentucky University had a performing arts center?
A. It’s called persistence. I always tell the celebrities, don’t give me your cell phone number. Because I will call you. Even Jay Leno said, he said, “I can guarantee you this won’t be the last time I hear from Father Jim.” My secretary says it’s hounding. But it’s persistence. That entertainment world visits with one another. Word got around that, “If he calls you, just go ahead and accept. Because he’s not going to take no.” That’s basically what happened.
Q. So you have kept in contact with the people who came here?
A. All of them. All of them.
Q. Will these concerts, these performances, continue with your departure?
A. I doubt that. I highly doubt that.
Q. So about your future: Is this a reassignment from church hierarchy or is this something you chose?
A. It is a reassignment from church hierarchy. As a pastor you basically have a six-year assignment, and then I believe the Diocese of Lexington says after that six years, every year after that is a negotiable year up to six more years. So this is a completion of 12 years and the 12 years were up.
A very bold move was made by (Lexington Diocese) Bishop John Stowe, who said to the personnel committee, “We have a man here who loves to travel, who’s creative, who has some connections, who has a gift of preaching, who has his list of quirks, and maybe we should look at possibly, in the year of Pope Francis speaking out on how important evangelism is, send him forth. He’s already doing it. Let’s send him forth full time. Other people may be empowered to volunteer here or serve as a priest here. He could be a missionary of sorts going from town to town.” I was doing that anyway and running a parish … .
It was something I feel very called towards.
Q. So tell me exactly what you will be doing.
A. What I will do, I will be a full-time missionary who will go forth doing motivational speaking, doing parish missions across the United States and in our diocese.
Q. So you’re not really leaving the diocese.
A. No, no, no. I will be a priest in the diocese of Lexington. But the ministry will not only be here but all across the United States. I would say that half to three-fourths of my ministry will be outside the diocese. … I will talk about mercy, the gospel, Catholicism, and I do it in the context of humorous storytelling and song. Our Protestant brothers and sisters would call it revival. I go into a Catholic church and I give a revival. I don’t limit it to a Catholic church. I get asked to do a lot of keynotes at various types of conventions. …
Q. I think it’s pretty clear what you gave to the parish and Richmond. Is there anything they or Richmond gave to you that you didn’t already have?
A. Oh, lots. I mean, when I came here, I was only six years ordained. I’m 18 years ordained now, so 80 percent of my priesthood has been spent here. The way I processed and made decisions back then is totally different from the way I make decisions now, and also the way in which I communicate them. I had to learn from my mistakes … But I also say I was very young. I was very afraid. I was even afraid to show that I was afraid … I’ve learned from those experiences. I weave them to see where Christ is. Where is God in this?
Q. I’d be interested in hearing your answer to a question that’s often asked in light of an Orlando, or in light of a Daniel Ellis shooting. You often hear it after an event like that: “Where was God?”
A. God was weeping. God was mourning. God was saying, “How and why does this continue to happen with people whose hearts are so heavy and so broken?”
I will never be able to understand why such things happen. Usually it’s because people have made such horrendous, bad choices and have had horrendous hurts in their lives and react out of anger and fear. But I also believe the God I serve weeps in such situations. He challenges us by the events that happen, and I think we are called to awaken to the fact that we have moved so far from God instead of moving towards God. … All the people in that nightclub were created in the image of God. That’s what our faith teaches us. Whether we want to accept it is another thing …
Q. Is it true that as a child you said you wanted to be pope?
A. (Laughs.) Yes, when I was in Sister Josephina’s class in third grade at St. Mary’s in Orange, Texas, she went around and asked each person what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I said I wanted to be pope. I share that whenever I’m preaching and people laugh, and I go, “You go ahead and laugh. I’m still in the running.”
Q. I was going to say, you’re just 49. It could happen.
A. God help the church! But you know what? God has a sense of humor but he also has boundaries. God knows where I need to be and it’s not there.