By Maria Wiering
A few days after Bishop Paul Sirba’s death, his brother, Father Joseph Sirba, spent time in the bishop’s private chapel. He said there were three books his brother was currently reading: the Bible, “In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart, The Journal of a Priest at Prayer,” and the second volume of the letters of St. Terese of Avila.
Along with the books was his brother’s journal that included some meditations on what he was reading: “Jesus said, tend the flock, feed my sheep.” “Father, all things are possible in you.” “We’re called to be another Paraclete, like another Christ so that we can console.”
“My brother loved the Lord very much. Jesus Christ was the center of his life,” Father Sirba said in the homily during the funeral Mass for Bishop Sirba Dec. 6 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Duluth.
Bishop Sirba died Dec. 1 at age 59, 14 days short of the 10th anniversary of being ordained a bishop for the diocese of Duluth.
“I know all of us were stunned to learn that Bishop Paul had died this past Sunday. In fact, many of you told me that when you learned of his death, you said, ‘There must be some mistake,’” Father Sirba said. “Others told me that they heard what was said, but the words didn’t register.”
Bishop Sirba had just left the rectory where he lived at St. Rose in Proctor, just outside of Duluth, and was walking across the parking lot to celebrate an 8 a.m. Mass when he collapsed, Father Sirba said. A snowstorm the night before had slammed the Duluth area with about 20 inches of snow, and the men plowing the lot came to the bishop’s aid and attempted CPR. An ambulance was there in less than 10 minutes, and he was rushed to a hospital in Duluth, where a medical team tried to revive him. But, Father Sirba said, “It was very likely that he was dead the moment he collapsed.”
Bishop Sirba had a heart condition known as third-degree atrioventricular block, and he had a pacemaker installed about five years ago, Father Sirba said.
On behalf of the Sirba family, Father Sirba thanked everyone who attended the funeral. “It means a great deal to us all,” he said.
Bishop Sirba was a humble man who did not desire accolades, his brother said, and he didn’t aspire to be a bishop. When the nuncio called to tell him that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed him bishop of Duluth, he double-checked to make sure the nuncio was calling the right Father Sirba.
But, “Bishop Paul, above all else, had a desire to share Christ’s love,” Father Sirba said. “He was Catholic through and through,” raised in a devout Catholic home and received a strong Catholic education at Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield and at the then-College of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Bishop Sirba was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1986.
“This Aristotelian-Thomistic foundation that Bishop Paul received built on his Catholic upbringing, and coupled with his desire to serve God and grow in God’s love allowed him to be an excellent spiritual director at both St. John Vianney Seminary and St. Paul Seminary, as well as a much beloved pastor at Maternity of Mary in St. Paul,” Father Sirba said.
When Bishop Sirba was appointed to Duluth, the priests of that diocese were “overjoyed” to receive a bishop who had also been a pastor, Father Sirba said, because it meant he understood the demands and “joys and sorrows that come from being a parish priest.”
A priest of the Diocese of Duluth, Father Sirba said he was in a unique position of having his brother as his bishop. “I know there are more than a few priests who have brothers who are bishops, but as far as we knew, we were the only two who served the same diocese. Of course, I always reminded him that I was here first,” said Father Sirba, who was ordained a priest a year after his brother.
He said that their relationship allowed Father Sirba to get a glimpse into the life of a bishop, although the two of them intentionally didn’t discuss diocesan business, instead focusing on history, politics, their family and mutual interests. He said that as a bishop, his brother reflected the Church’s gift of apostolic succession, and his role as a “chief shepherd.”
He said that as “a good shepherd,” Bishop Sirba knew his “sheep,” and that as a bishop, he bore a daunting responsibility of helping everyone in his diocese to get to heaven.
“Bishop Paul was a father to his priests, and sometimes that requires a great deal of love and patience,” he said.
He was also a gentle and kind shepherd to the Catholic faithful in Duluth, who “could see in him the love of Christ,” Father Sirba said.
“He was a channel of God’s grace,” he said. “Those who were hurting were consoled because they knew he was hurting with them. And those who were rejoicing knew he was rejoicing with them. When people met him they felt accepted. To them, he wasn’t just ‘Bishop Paul,’ he was ‘my friend, Bishop Paul.’ And if they weren’t necessarily living rightly, after they met him they were inspired to live like him.
The bishop also was a leader resolved to teach what the Church teaches, his brother said.
“What we discussed often was the decline of Christianity in the western world,” he said. “Bishop Paul foresaw, and I believe he was right, time will tell, that a harsh persecution is coming soon. There are many signs this may be upon us. That is why we need to pray even more for our bishops. They are often under great pressure to give into the demands of the world, and history has shown that time and again, in times of great turmoil, many have done just that.
“So let us pray hard for our bishops, and let them know how much we need them and how much we appreciate their care and concern for us,” he added. “And the fact that they love us enough to speak the truth to us, even when we don’t want to hear it. Bishops are human, as are we all. They have hearts that break, they have trials they endure, temptations they must fight. And in the times to come, we must pray that they be great leaders, that they do not conform to the demands of the world.”
He said it’s going to be hard to say goodbye to Bishop Sirba, but that Scripture gives him confidence in victory over death through Christ.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis presided over the funeral Mass. About a dozen other bishops, including Bishop Andrew Cozzens, also attended the funeral, along with many priests from the Diocese of Duluth and the archdiocese.
Bishop Sirba was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth.
A memorial Mass will be held 6:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at Maternity of the Blessed Virgin in St. Paul, where Bishop Sirba was a pastor from 2000 to 2006.
Maria Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis