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Meet the Kentucky Priest Who Gave the Pope Bourbon

Esquire logo Esquire 4/27/2018 Dave Holmes

At this particular moment in history, it’s damn refreshing to see a nice story on the internet. But when the story includes a Catholic priest and a bottle of Papal Pappy Van Winkle, it’s straight up intoxicating. Last week, Kentucky-based Father Jim Sichko made headlines for bringing the Pope a bottle of bourbon. It might not have been the most significant of the priest’s good works, but it was almost certainly the smoothest.

Father Jim is a lifelong Southerner, and a natural-born gift-giver. When he stops by someone's house, he brings flowers. When he hops over to Rome for his annual meeting with the Pope, he packs bourbon.

“I thought, what could I bring the Holy Father this year that would represent Kentucky in a very powerful way?" Father Jim told Esquire. "We're known for our bourbon, and most people in this area have always said Pappy Van Winkle is the best.”

So he wrapped up some super expensive, super rare 23 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle (and nine other kinds of Kentucky bourbon for the Papal staff and Swiss Guards), and delivered the goods during a Tuesday meeting of the Papal Missionaries of Mercy.

"I brought it with me, and I got up into the front row. And near the end, the Pope started greeting people, and I kissed his ring. And then I said to him 'I'm from Kentucky, and I have this special-'"

You can bet the men around the Pope knew what it was. "Everyone just exclaimed ‘BOURBON!'" Father Jim says.

The Pope was impressed: “He knew it was 'very good bourbon,' so he said ‘Bene! Bene!’”

The story traveled the world in mere days, something we can chalk up to a global misperception of priests as dour guys who have no fun at all, which Father Jim can attest to: “When I sit next to someone on a plane and I’m in my collar, if they’re drinking something, they put it away.”

My own personal experience from a Catholic childhood includes countless family dinners with priests and brunches with nuns, some of which would get a little rowdy. (“Well, we are human beings,” he tells me.)

Father Jim, 51, is one of a thousand Papal Missionaries of Mercy priests commissioned by Pope Francis to travel the world carrying a message of forgiveness and grace. It’s in keeping with Francis’ overall goal to make the Church a more open, inclusive body. To that end, during the Church’s recent Jubilee Year of Mercy, Francis allowed all parish priests to absolve women who sought forgiveness after having had an abortion.

“One of the things that Pope Francis has said to us missionaries is that we've got to smell like our sheep,” he says. “We've got to get dirty. We've got to get in the trenches.”

In Father Jim's personal practice, that means reaching out to people in his community who feel that the world at large, and the Church in particular, have left them behind.

a group of people sitting at a table: Father Jim talks with Imam Mahmoud Shalash, center, and Majeed Karati, right, at the Islamic Center of Lexington in Kentucky in 2016. © AP Father Jim talks with Imam Mahmoud Shalash, center, and Majeed Karati, right, at the Islamic Center of Lexington in Kentucky in 2016.

“Last year I did a giveaway to Starbucks employees, because a lot of people boycott Starbucks at Christmas. I reached out to a Muslim family and paid their utilities for a year. I reached out to a Hispanic family whose son was dying of a liver disease and paid his rent. I reached out to a gay man who had AIDS, and I took care of his groceries and meals,” he says.

Such gestures are still controversial in an increasingly phobic world, but none made headlines. But give a pope a bottle of bourbon, and the story goes "crazy," in Father Jim's words.

Whether it’s a meal for a poor family or a bottle of hooch for the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Father Jim believes the key to life is simply giving. “The world is a better place for doing that. No one has ever become poor by giving.”

But he does have one dirty secret. Although he is based in Kentucky and famous for delivering a bottle of bourbon, he’s never touched the stuff: “I'm a Belvedere and ginger ale with a twist of lime person.”


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