After a whirlwind weekend that started with the Oct. 15 public announcement of his appointment as bishop of Duluth, Bishop-elect Paul Sirba calmly recalled his senior year in college and his decision to enter the seminary.
“My big concern was how do you know you have a vocation,” he said during an interview in his corner office at the archdiocesan chancery building in St. Paul.
“Everybody talked about getting the call, and I never got the call.”
The call to priesthood eventually came, and another one of a different sort came Sept. 23 when the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, told the vicar general and moderator of the curia that: “Jesus is by the Sea of Galilee and he called the first apostles to ‘Come follow me.’ And the Lord is calling you. He is calling you to serve in this way.”
Bishop-elect Sirba said he was shocked into silence with the news of his appointment to Duluth by Pope Benedict XVI. He also was put under the “papal secret” until the Holy See put the appointment on its Web site at 5 a.m. Minnesota time.
He was not even allowed to talk with Archbishop John Nienstedt until the Holy See notified the archbishop.
“[Archbishop Nienstedt] came in the 29th and shut my office door and I thought — OK he knows — because he never shuts my door. He was very supportive,” he said.
In a statement, Archbishop Nienstedt expressed his joy for Bishop-elect Sirba.
“I greatly value his many valuable contributions to the building up of our Catholic faith here in St. Paul and Minneapolis. He will truly be missed. However, I also realize that he will not be far away, and I look forward to working with him in the province,” he said.
Although the first person Bishop-elect Sirba called about 7 a.m. Oct. 15 was his mother, Helen, 85, a flurry of congratulatory calls from friends were coming into his cell phone as he headed for the press conference in Duluth. He had to leave voice messages for his sister, Catherine Kelly, and two brothers, John Sirba and Father Joseph Sirba, a priest of the Duluth diocese.
“The story goes . . . Father Tony Wroblewski, who is pastor of the Brainerd area churches, knocked on my brother’s door and said ‘We have a new bishop and it’s your brother,’ Bishop-elect Sirba said.
“My brother wasn’t believing it right away. He thought he was joking . . . Father [Wroblewski] had to bring him in and turn on his computer and tap in to the Vatican Web site.”
Although the bishop-elect said the Sirba family members are close, “I don’t know if I’m more apprehensive of becoming a bishop or becoming a bishop for my brother’s diocese.”
But having a brother serve in the Duluth diocese for 22 years is a plus for the new bishop.
“We have traveled up there and I’ve canoed the Boundary Waters and I’ve hiked in many of the parks,” he said. “I’ve also had the privilege of following my brother around to his different assignments. [Currently in Longville and Remer.] I know where Babbitt and Embarrass are, and I’ve stayed there in January.”
The bishop-elect also knows some of the priests from their seminary days at St. John Vianney, when he was assigned there, and during his years at the St. Paul Seminary.
Bishop-elect Sirba will take many life experiences to his new assignment, not the least of which was his years as a youth.
“I’ve got to give credit to my parents, because that’s where the seed-bed of vocations is,” said Bishop-elect Sirba, who became teary-eyed as he spoke about his mother and his father Norbert, who is deceased.
“We had a good Catholic home and upbringing,” he said. “They talk about the family being the domestic church and that is true with my folks: Ordinary people living their faith.”
When he opened up to the possibility of a vocation, he was guided toward the priesthood by a plethora of priests.
He recalled his childhood pastor at Nativity of Mary in Bloomington, Father Robert Dunn, and many associate priests. In college, he connected with the late Msgr. Richard Schuler at St. Agnes in St. Paul and many of his professors, such as Father George Welzbacher. After ordination, he was guided as an associate priest by Father Francis Fleming at St. Olaf in Minneapolis, before he began serving in the seminaries.
Who: Bishop-elect Paul Sirba
What: Ordination Mass by invitation only
When: 2 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14
Where: Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Auditorium, Duluth
A reception, which is open to the public, will follow in the Lake Superior Ballroom at the DECC.
Bishop-elect Sirba attended Nativity of Mary grade school in Bloomington, the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, the College of St. Thomas and St. Paul Seminary. He received his master of divinity degree from St. Paul Seminary and a master of arts degree in spiritual theology from the Notre Dame Apostolic Catechetical Institute in Arlington, Va.
He was ordained a priest in 1986. He served as associate pastor at St. Olaf in Minneapolis from 1986 to 1990 and at St. John the Baptist in Savage from 1990 to 1991. He was appointed to the spiritual formation department at St. John Vianney Seminary from 1991 to 2000.
From 2000 to 2006, Bishop-elect Sirba served as pastor of Maternity of Mary in St. Paul, before becoming a spiritual director at St. Paul Seminary, where he served until July 2009.
Insights beyond parish
“It’s how God works and I would never have anticipated any of the particular assignments,” he said. “In retrospect, you look back and think I’ve been introduced to things that I wouldn’t have — serving at a college seminary, then at the major seminary . . . I think I’ve been given some insights into priestly life in a different way than serving in a parish.”
He said his work in the chancery has helped him to see that “our role is to bring help and healing where we can. It’s in a different way and different relationships.”
And, he said, the example of selfless efforts on behalf of the archdiocese by Archbishop John Nienstedt will help him in his new assignment as bishop of Duluth.
“The other benefit for me has been the unexpected pleasure of being introduced to so many people on our boards and initiatives and seeing the wonderful things that are happening in the archdiocese that you often don’t have exposure to,” Bishop-elect Sirba said. “Seeing how some of those things worked or hearing history of how they came about, it’s been a broadening and wonderful experience.”
After his Dec. 14 ordination and installation as bishop of Duluth, Bishop-elect Sirba plans to visit parishes and meet with as many priests and parishioners as he can.
“In our parishes, we are formed by the people that we serve as well as forming them,” he said. “I need to get to know the Diocese of Duluth.”
And if he needs a bit of advice from a longtime, close friend, he can cross the bridge to Superior, Wis., and visit Bishop Peter Christensen, who heads the Diocese of Superior.
“I’ll be talking with him,” he said with confidence.
Another friend, Father Scott Carl, wasn’t surprised by Bishop-elect Sirba’s appointment, he said. He has known Bishop-elect Sirba since he began seminary at St. John Vianney, where Bishop-elect Sirba was serving at the time. Over the years, Bishop-elect Sirba transitioned from Father Carl’s mentor, to a friend, to a colleague at the St. Paul Seminary, where Father Carl now teaches.
Father Carl described him as prayerful, thoughtful and a good athlete.
“Someone said, ‘He’s a priest you would want to go to confession to,’” Father Carl added. “There’s no doubt that God is most important in his life, that Jesus is his best friend.” Catholic Spirit