Browsing The Northern Cross

Deacon Kyle Eller: Learning holiness from Bishop Sirba’s conversations

One of my good friends, a fellow deacon, once gave what I think is the best description of what it was like talking to Bishop Paul Sirba: When you spoke to him, it seemed as if he had been waiting all day for that conversation. It was as if you were the most important thing on his calendar that day and had his complete attention.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

I believe hundreds and perhaps thousands of Northern Cross readers experienced that with him, even in a crowd of people. Assisting his ministry in the various ways I did, as a member of his staff and as a deacon and as a son of the church, I attended a lot of events where he was with the faithful, both public and private, and at nearly every one of them, I witnessed his remarkable gift of presence with people in countless individual conversations.

In the wake of his death, those conversations have been frequently on my mind, both the ones I had with him and the ones I saw him have from afar.

One of them took place on a momentous day a few months ago, as people were milling around outside a courtroom in Duluth, where a judge had just approved a resolution to the diocesan bankruptcy.

The courtroom scene had been emotional, and the conclusion of it meant that my communications work was beginning. I was among a small group from the diocese waiting to make our way back to the Pastoral Center, and I turned on my phone to check emails and make calls and start checking off items on a massive to-do list of important and sensitive tasks. Besides us, the hall was also filled with attorneys, media, and especially survivors of clergy sexual abuse who had come to be present in court.

In the midst of this, Bishop Sirba walked over to me. He mentioned he had just had a conversation with one of the survivors. At first I didn’t catch how moved he was by this conversation. On the rare days like that I get in kind of a zone, and my mind was already full of the next thing and the three things after that on a day that promised emotional moments and urgent demands on both of us.

But Bishop Sirba continued to mention this conversation several times as the day progressed and was still talking about it a couple of weeks later. It soon became apparent to me how inspired and grateful and humbled he was by the faith and witness of this person who had suffered in the church and still never lost faith.

Another conversation took place a couple of weeks later, at the annual deacons and wives retreat. He had just finished celebrating Mass for us, and the retreat was wrapping up. I had hung back to pray after the end of Mass as people were making their way to lunch, and I chanced to have a brief moment with him.

I don’t remember how it came up, but we began talking about how God chooses us for ministry despite our many weaknesses and often so generously makes up for things where we’re lacking. I, of course, meant it. That’s been my experience.

But as he was talking, I suddenly became aware that he meant it very deeply. He said it so plainly and sincerely. My part of the conversation was sincere but likely had other things mixed in, probably my normal selfdoubt and hope for a word of encouragement. His suddenly struck me as much more pure-hearted and straightforward and simple.

That was how this kind, peaceful, wise bishop, unmistakably a far holier man than I am, seemed to truly think of himself. There was nothing superficial in his humility; it was the real thing.

These are just a couple of recent examples from hundreds. I share them in part to make a simple point.

While there are others who worked more closely with him than I did and countless people who knew him better than I did in a personal way, for 10 often difficult years, I worked with Bishop Sirba behind the scenes, often dealing with difficult things. What I want to tell you is that he was the same person during those moments.

The man who was kind and peaceful and joyful at the parish dinner after confirmation or chatting between talks at a diocesan conference was also those things in the difficult moments when the world wasn’t watching. In a decade of working with him, I saw a hint of him losing patience less than a handful of times.

That’s what integrity means.

God gives us saints (I feel empowered to use the term by Bishop Christensen’s homily at the vigil) to be a kind of Gospel by example, a living roadmap to being disciples ourselves.

For me, some of the points on that roadmap he provided include being present with people, unfeigned humility, integrity, kindness, patience, total fidelity to Christ, and peace of heart.

I hope for his prayers to supplement his example in these things.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]