"Strengthen Your Brothers: Letters of Encouragement from an Archbishop to His Priests" by J. Peter Sartain. Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minn., 2012). 167 pp., $19.95.
"Strengthen Your Brothers: Letters of Encouragement from an Archbishop to His Priests" by J. Peter Sartain. Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minn., 2012). 167 pp., $19.95.

Reading someone else's mail may be frowned upon, but peeking at the secret conversations of others does offer sort of a guilty pleasure. With "Strengthen Your Brothers," however, no guilt is necessary.

Author Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle invites everyone to read letters he wrote to his priests in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., where he was bishop from 2006 to 2010, and the Archdiocese of Seattle, where he was installed in December 2010.

The text reflects the paradox that sometimes quite ordinary men perform extraordinary tasks in the very person of Christ. Indeed, Archbishop Sartain addresses this unique calling in one-third of the book, "Priestly Identity in Christ." The second third of the book addresses "Priestly Practicalities," such as "Advent Loneliness." The last section speaks of "Priestly Prayer."

An interesting aspect is that while Archbishop Sartain is speaking to his priests, and we readers are essentially eavesdropping, much of what he says could have been written to laypeople. For instance, when he speaks of Advent loneliness, he uses a layperson friend as his spokesman. Loneliness is not a feature of a dearth of activity or the absence of people; it is something else, a longing that anyone, not just priests, might experience.

In "Priestly Prayer," Archbishop Sartain writes of the necessity to "accept life as it is and offer it to God" since much of life involves "navigating through situations as they are." He reminds us of the wisdom in the contemporary expression, "It is what it is."

The title of the book is taken from a portion of the Passion narrative of Luke. At the Last Supper, in the intensity of the moment as Christ is instituting the Eucharist, an argument breaks out about who is the greatest. Jesus then tells Peter that he has prayed Peter's faith will not fail, fully realizing Peter's faith will, in fact, fail. But Jesus also knows that Peter will turn back. And after turning back, returning to his faith, Peter, who will have exhibited much weakness, must "strengthen (his) brothers."

Letter writing is close to a lost art -- what with emails, texts and tweets. Composing well-written letters with depth of thought as well as tender emotional investment is almost unheard of. And yet here are 31 letters that are poetic yet practical, uplifting yet challenging. Each letter ends with an actual signature, "+ J. Peter Sartain," to serve as a reminder that the chapters are letters, not tracts.

In the tradition of the great letter writers such as Alexander Pope and, of course, St. Paul, Archbishop Sartain has composed epistles that treat important matters while maintaining the warmth of faith and love.