Pope gets his own UK basketball jersey, signs bottle of rare Kentucky bourbon

Pope Francis now has a connection to Kentucky’s own well-known Pope.

He’s been gifted a University of Kentucky basketball jersey, No. 23, with “Pope” emblazoned on the back, in honor of the university’s 23rd men’s basketball coach, Mark Pope.

Father Jim Sichko, a papal Missionary of Mercy who lives in Central Kentucky, said he makes a trip to the Vatican every six months, and he said “it’s always a challenge” to figure out what to bring the pontiff.

“Every time I go there, and this has been for the last eight years, it has always been my tradition taught to me by my parents to bring him a gift,” Sichko said.

After Mark Pope was named the new head coach of the UK basketball program, Sichko said, “I was like, well, that’s interesting. Why don’t I bring him some type of basketball shirt?”

He said he reached out to UK President Eli Capilouto and football head coach Mark Stoops, who got to work and had a shirt ready for the pope the very next day.

Sichko said he delivered the jersey to Pope Francis Thursday.

“He was delighted,” Sichko said. “He wanted to make sure where this came from. He was very enthralled with it.”

Sichko said the gifts people bring to the pope are usually placed into tubs when he receives them, but not this one. The pope held onto it.

Then, Sichko said he made a bold request of the pontiff.

He asked him to sign Bottle No. 1 of the barrel pick bourbon from Willett Distillery in Bardstown that Sichko released last year in honor of the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ election.

That, Sichko said, is “unheard of. Popes don’t do autographs.”

But this time, he did.

Sichko said he plans to have a major auction house auction the bottle off, and the proceeds will be donated to the poor. The other bottles have already been auctioned, he said.

Sichko said he was accompanied on the trip by some friends, including the owner of Willett Distillery and a uniformed Kentucky State Police trooper who is visible in the photographs Sichko shared on Facebook.

“It was a very fruitful trip,” said Sichko, who returned home Friday.

Sichko, who is widely known for his charitable giving and public speaking, said he looks at his work “as being an ambassador to the people of Kentucky.”

“The pope knows Kentucky,” he said.