Dec 9, 2019
Archbishop Hebda, Most Reverend Bishops, my brother priests, deacons, religious sisters, dignitaries and members of various ecclesial communities, and my brothers and sisters in Christ, on behalf of my brother John, and sister Cathy, and my mother Helen, we want to thank you all for your outpouring of love and support to us in this our time of loss and also, for the honor 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. 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. Others have told me that they heard the words being said to them, but the words didn’t register.
My brother was on his way to celebrate the 8 am Mass at Saint Rose when he died. He had just left the rectory and was about to cross the parking lot when he collapsed. The guys who were plowing saw him and rushed over to do CPR and an ambulance was on the scene in ten 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, Fr. John Petrich was able to get to the hospital via police cruiser and to administer the Sacraments, and I want to thank both Fr. 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 what he had is called third degree heart block. Five or six years ago, the Bishop had a pacemaker installed to help correct this, but obviously, it could only do so much.
My brother loved the Lord. Jesus Christ was the center of his life. In his private chapel, I found three books. The Holy Bible, In Sinu Jesu, a book by a Benedictine Monk subtitled, The Journal of a Priest at Prayer, and volume two of The Letters of Saint Teresa of Jesus. I would have to presume that because it was volume two, he had already finished volume one.
Along with these three books, I found his personal journal which contained some notes from what he read as well as his meditations. Here are just a few of his entries:
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 has chosen him to be the new Bishop of Duluth, he replied, you don’t mean my brother do you? To which Archbishop Sambi replied, “We are aware that he is there.”
I am 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. Msgr. Henri Dulac, Fr. James Stromberg, Dr. Richard Connell, Fr. George Welzbacher, Fr. James Reidy, Dr. Richard Berquist, and Dr. Thomas Sullivan taught him how to think correctly and how to analyze arguments on his own.
Those of us who were graduates of Saint Thomas in those days received a great gift from these great teachers, and I know it pains us all to see how far Saint Thomas has fallen today.
Another great priest from Saint Thomas who was instrumental in Bishop Paul’s formation was and is Fr. 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 have sought to grow in 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 Fr. Paul had been appointed pastor and shepherd of our Diocese. As the 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 with being a parish priest. For that, I know we are all grateful.
I had a unique relationship with my bishop because my bishop was also 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 Fr. Sirba.” Or, he would call and say, “Fr. 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 way the life of a bishop – at least I got a glimpse of it. I deliberately stayed away from discussing diocesan business with him and he didn’t bring it up with me. Instead, we talked about our family, about history, politics and other subjects of mutual interest.
However, his role was different than mine. He was a successor of the Apostles; he was the 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 of Duluth “apostolic.” That in fact is what every Catholic bishop is, and this is a beautiful gift from God.
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 bishop, I was the only one of us who had persevered in my vocation as a priest.
However, the reality was that it was he who through the grace of holy orders received the fullness of the priesthood. As bishop, he was a complete priest. Fr. 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 the priest is an alter Christus in the sense that he is a pastor which is of course the Latin word for shepherd.
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 (Jn 10:14).” Bishop Paul knew his sheep.
To be a bishop is a difficult thing. Did you ever stop to think that the task of a bishop is to do his best to see to it 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 is a daunting task and one at which he can only succeed with the help of God. That is also why we all 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 this 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 are all unique, and that’s certainly true for us priests. Our presbyterate knows me well, and they will appreciate this comment by our bishop. Occasionally when someone would tell him something about me, he would pause briefly and then respond, “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 want to know that what we are doing is pleasing to him. We want his guidance and we seek his support and 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 does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle (1Cor 14:8)?”
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 point them out.
When he met people, they could tell he cared about them. They were attracted to him because they could see in him the love of Christ. He was a channel for God’s grace. Those who were hurting were consoled because they knew he hurt with them and those who were rejoicing knew he was rejoicing with them.
When people met him, they felt accepted by him. To them he wasn’t just Bishop Paul, but my friend, Bishop Paul, and if they were not necessarily living rightly, they were inspired to make changes and 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 or ten more with it. 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 Fr. Mike Schmitz said, “He was so much like Jesus: gentle with people and uncompromising with 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 we shall see – that a hash persecution is coming soon, and there are many signs it is almost upon us, and that is why we need to pray even more for our bishops.
Our bishops are often under great pressure to give in to the demands of the world, and history has shown time and again that in times of great turmoil, many have done just that. So, we must pray 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, and they have hearts that break and trials they endure and temptations they must fight. In the times to come we must pray that they be great leaders, and that they don’t conform to the demands of the world.
No one remembers the sixteen bishops of England who during the reign of Henry VIII, swore to the oath of supremacy which effectively meant that they renounced and rejected 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.
It is bishops like Saint John Fisher and Saint Charles Borromeo and more recently Cardinal Josef Mindszenty who resisted the Communists in Hungary and Blessed Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, the Lion of Münster who defied the Nazis, who are remembered and who were loved by their people for being fearless shepherds who were willing to protect their flocks with their very lives if necessary.
It’s going to be hard to say goodbye for now. Yet in our readings today, I found inspiration and comfort. Saint Paul says to us, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, 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 the 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 shall touch them. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of Himself.”
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 that book on the 45th anniversary of his ordination as bishop in 2003, and he wrote it to and for bishops. In it he tells of his experience as a bishop and of how he had found joy in his vocation.
Bishop Paul had an inner joy which 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 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 where ever He might lead you.” Near the end of his pontificate he said, quoting 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 as well. He trusted in God and placed all he did into God’s hands, but first by giving what he did to our Blessed Lady whom he loved very much. He was on his way.
In the 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 is now done, but his was not. In that sense, we too, should all be jealous because we also have work to be done before we can see our loving God for whom we were made.
That said, let us follow Bishop Paul’s example, let us all “Rise and be on our Way (Jn 14:31),” each 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 may 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. Amen.