Father Joseph Sirba, brother to Bishop Paul Sirba and a priest of the diocese of Duluth, delivered this homily at the Mass of Christian Burial for Bishop Paul on Friday, December 6, 2019, in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Before I say a few words, I just wanted to mention one thing: there’s going to be a memorial Mass for Bishop Paul Sirba at Maternity of Mary Parish in Saint Paul where he served as a pastor. That will be this coming Monday at 6:30. So please pass the word to people in the Cities who may be interested in attending.
Archbishop Hebda, most reverend bishops, my brother priests, deacons, religious sisters, members of the various ecclesial communities present, and my brothers and sisters in Christ:
On behalf of my brother John, my sister Cathy and my mother Helen, we want to thank all of you for your outpouring of love and support to us at this time of loss, and also for the honor that you have paid to our brother by your presence here today. It means a great deal to us all.
I know that all of us here were stunned to learn that Bishop Paul had died this past Sunday. And, in fact, many of you have told me that when you learned of his death, you said, “There must be some mistake. It must be someone else who had died.” And others have told me that they heard what was said, but that the words didn’t register. My brother was on his way to celebrate the 8:00 a.m. Mass at St. Rose in Proctor when he died. He had just left the rectory and was about to cross the parking lot when he collapsed, and the guys who were plowing saw him and rushed over to do CPR, and an ambulance was on the scene in less than 10 minutes. Bishop Paul was rushed to the hospital and the medical staff did all they could, but they were never able to get his heart beating again.
It’s very likely that he was dead the moment he collapsed. In the midst of the snowstorm, Father John Patrick was able to get to the hospital via a police cruiser and to administer the sacraments. And I want to thank both Father John and our wonderful police officers for that. They really do protect and serve.
Most of you don’t know that our bishop did have a heart problem. My sister, who has been a nurse for many years, told me that what it was called is a third degree heart block. If you want to find out more about that, you can ask her. Five or six years ago the bishop had a pacemaker installed to help correct this, but, obviously, you could only do so much.
My brother loved the Lord very much. Jesus Christ was the center of his life. In his private chapel – which I spent a little bit of time in a couple of days ago – he had three books currently that he was reading. One was the Holy Bible. Another was called In Sine Jesu, a book by a Benedictine monk subtitled The Journal of a Priest at Prayer. And also, he had Volume 2 of The Letters of Saint Teresa of Jesus. I presume he probably had already finished Volume 1.
And along with his books, I found his personal journal. And it contained some notes about what he had read as well as some of his own personal meditations. Here are just a few of his entries:
“Jesus said, ‘Tend the flock. Feed my sheep.’”
“Father, all things are possible in you.”
“We are called to be another Paraclete, like another Christ, so that we can console.”
Bishop Paul was a humble man. He never had any desire for accolades. He was not ambitious in the bad sense of the word, and he certainly never aspired to be a bishop. In fact, some of you may recall that when the papal nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, called him and said that Pope Benedict had chosen him to be the new Bishop of Duluth, he first replied, “You don’t mean my brother, do you?” To which Archbishop Sambi replied, “We are aware that he is there.” And I’m still wondering what the archbishop meant by that.
Bishop Paul, above all else, had a desire to share Christ’s love. He was a Catholic through and through. He was raised in a home by loving parents who shared with him their love for God through their example, encouragement, prayers, guidance and sacrifice. There were no compromises either in belief or practice. There were no deviations from what Christ taught through His church. And Bishop Paul embraced that faith; however, that is not to say that he did so blindly.
Quite the contrary: He had a very good mind. He was second in his class at Holy Angels Academy in Richfield where he went to high school. And he was trained by the best at Saint Thomas College: Monsignor Henri DuLac, Father James Stromberg, Dr. Richard Connell, Father George Welzbacher, Father James Reidy, and Dr. Thomas Sullivan taught him how to think correctly and to analyze arguments on his own.
Those of us who are graduates of Saint Thomas – or were graduates in those days – received a great gift from these great teachers, and I know it pains us all so much to see how far Saint Thomas has fallen these days.
Another great priest from Saint Thomas who was instrumental in Bishop Paul’s formation was and is Father Roy Lepak, who has been a spiritual director to many priests here in Minnesota and has guided many of us who are here today as we’ve sought to grow in our union with God. This Aristotelian-Thomistic foundation 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 Saint John Vianney Seminary and Saint Paul Seminary, as well as a much beloved pastor at Maternity of Mary parish in Saint Paul.
I know that all the priests of our diocese were overjoyed to learn that Father Paul had been appointed pastor and shepherd of our diocese. As a former pastor of a parish, we knew that with his pastoral experience, he was never going to send us new directives to read or forms to fill out during Holy Week. We also knew that he would understand both the joys and the sorrows that come from being a parish priest and, for that, I know that we are all grateful.
I had a unique relationship with my brother the bishop, because my bishop was my brother. We had our own little joke when we talked on the phone. Often, instead of using our first names as we had done all of our lives, if I called him, I would say, “Hello, Bishop Sirba. This is Father Sirba.” Or he would call me and say, “Father Sirba, how are you?” I know that 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 in the same diocese. Of course, I always reminded him that I was here first.
My vantage point as his brother did allow me to understand, in some ways, the life of the bishop. At least I got a glimpse of it. I deliberately stayed away from discussing diocesan business with him, and he also with me. Instead, we talked about our family, history, politics and other subjects of mutual interest. However, his role was different than mine. He was a successor of the apostles: He was a visible sign we Catholics have of that apostolic succession which goes back to Saint Peter himself. He was what made our one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church here in our diocese apostolic. And that in fact is what every Catholic bishop is. That is a beautiful gift of God to us. Another thing is this: every bishop has the fullness of the priesthood. I used to joke when others were around that once he had been ordained a bishop, I was the only one who had persevered in my vocation. However, the reality was that it was he, through the grace of holy orders, that had received the fullness of the priesthood.
As bishop, he was a complete priest. Father Jean Galot, in his book Theology of the Priesthood, speaks about how the priest shares in the threefold ministry of Christ as priest, prophet and king. But he also goes on to say that, above all else, the priest is alter Christus in the sense that he is a pastor and that, of course, is a Latin word for shepherd. And Bishop Paul was that. In fact, all bishops are shepherds. They are the chief shepherds of their flocks. As Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” And Bishop Paul knew his sheep.
To be a bishop is a difficult thing that I saw. Do you ever stop to think that the task of a bishop is to do the very best he can to see that everyone in his diocese gets to heaven? And I mean everyone: Catholics and non-Catholics alike. To any bishop who takes his vocation seriously, that in fact is a daunting task and one that they could only succeed at with the help of God, and that is why all of us need to pray and sacrifice for our bishops every day.
Bishop Paul was a shepherd. He was a good shepherd, and there were a number of ways that that was apparent.
First, he was a father to his priests, and sometimes that requires a great deal of love and patience. If you think being a father to your children is hard, that’s nothing compared to being a father to your priests. There’s a Latin saying sui generis: It means “of his own kind.” Sui generis is really just a fancy way of saying we’re all unique. That’s certainly true for us priests. Our presbyterate knows me well. And they’ll appreciate this comment made by our bishop: Occasionally when someone would tell him something about me, he would pause for a moment, and he would say, “Yep, that’s my brother.”
But, in fact, we priests all want and need a spiritual father. Just like any son, we desire our father’s approval and we want to know that what we are doing is pleasing to him. We want his guidance, and we seek his support, and we want to be one with him in building up the church. I would even say this: We want to be corrected when necessary. This special relationship only breaks down when a bishop himself falters or speaks with a discordant voice or is unkind. As the scriptures say, if the trumpet sounds and the call is not clear, who will get ready for battle?
Bishop Paul was also a pastor and a shepherd to his flock. Many people have commented on his kindness and gentleness. Sometimes, when you are too close to another person, you don’t see the things others do until they’re pointed out to you. When he met people, they could tell that he cared about them. They were attracted to him because they could see in him the love of Christ. He was a channel of God’s grace. Those who were hurting were consoled because they knew he hurt with them. And those who were rejoicing knew that 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 were not necessarily living rightly, after they met him, they were inspired to strive to live like him.
Bishop Paul was also a leader. He knew it was his job to hand on the faith, to hand on what he had received. He was not going to wrap his talent up and bury it in the ground. Rather, he was resolved to make five and ten more with it. And, to that end, he never compromised with the faith, and he taught what the Church teaches – not only because he was a bishop – but also because he believed it. As Father Mike Schmitz said, “He was so much like Jesus: gentle with people and uncompromising with the truth.” A true shepherd and father.
One thing that we discussed often was the decline of Christianity in the western world. Bishop Paul foresaw – and I believe he was right, and time will tell… we shall see – 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’re often under great pressure to give in to 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 we must let our bishops know how much we need them, and how much we appreciate their care and concern for us, 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, and temptations they must fight. In the times to come, we must pray that they be great leaders and they do not conform to the demands of the world. No one remembers the bishops of England who, during the reign of Henry VIII, swore the oath of supremacy, which effectively meant they were renouncing and rejecting the spiritual authority of the pope as head of the church and successor of Saint Peter. But we all remember Saint John Fisher – the bishop of Rochester and chaplain to the King’s own mother – who refused the oath and was ordered beheaded by a vindictive king. But it is bishops like Saint John Fisher and Saint Charles Borromeo – and more recently, Cardinal József Mindszenty and blessed Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, who defied the Nazis –who are remembered and who are loved by their people for being fearless shepherds who were willing to protect their flocks even with their very lives.
It’s going to be hard to say goodbye for now. Yet our readings today… in them, I found inspiration and comfort.
Saint Paul says to us, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” He goes on to say, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”
The Book of Wisdom also reminds us that “the souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment will touch them. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”
And finally, Jesus reminds us that unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit. Our Lord goes on to say: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.”
I recently read Saint John Paul’s book, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way. He wrote the book on the forty-fifth anniversary of his ordination as bishop in 2003 and he wrote it to and for bishops. In it, he tells us of his experience as a bishop, and how he found joy in his vocation. Bishop Paul had an inner joy that you could feel, and his love of God was attractive. I think he was inspired in his ministry by these great bishops I’ve just mentioned, and especially by Pope John Paul, who was so much an inspiration for his priesthood and for many priests of my generation. Pope John Paul began his pontificate by telling us and the whole world: “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to follow Christ wherever he might lead you.” Near the end of his pontificate, he again quoted Jesus: “Arise, let us be on our way.” Bishop Paul was about that very thing. He was on his way. These last few years were very difficult ones for him, and yet there was a serenity about him. He trusted in God. He placed all that he did in God’s hand, but first, by giving what he did to Our Blessed Lady, whom he loved very much.
He was on his way.
In our Lord’s providence, once this task of the last few years was completed, God saw fit to call Bishop Paul from this life to his eternal home. Bishop Peter Christensen, his very dear friend, said to me: “I am jealous.” And he meant jealous because Bishop Paul’s work here on earth was done and his was not. And in that sense, we should all be jealous too, because we are still at work. We are on the way. So then, let us continue on the way. Let us rise and all be on our way, each one of us following Christ, the good shepherd until he sees fit to call us home as well.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.
And may his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace