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Bishop Paul Sirba: We don’t have to remain in the cold and darkness of a world without love

Editor’s note: Bishop Paul Sirba wrote this column for the December issue of The Northern Cross shortly before his death on Dec. 1.

With the nights getting longer and the cold growing colder, it may seem counterintuitive to be thinking of new beginnings. But the expression “it is always darkest before the dawn” really comes into play — and maybe those who live in the Southern Hemisphere have a slight advantage this time of year. Our Church begins a new year with the first Sunday of Advent, Dec. 1.

Bishop Paul Sirba

Bishop Paul Sirba
Fiat Voluntas Tua

What this means for us is not a static, ho-hum, here we go again chapter of life, but a vibrant, life-giving, grace-filled adventure in salvation history. I take comfort in believing that those who have gone before us didn’t have an undue advantage over those of us living in our own appointed times.

Though we were not physically present to have heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount the first time, His word is living and effective to us in the Sacred Scriptures today. Though we were not able to be at the Last Supper, we are able to be present at its re-presentation every Sunday and Holy Day and to receive the Risen Lord truly present under the appearance of bread and wine, just like the Twelve Apostles did.

So the Church in her wisdom designates this period in our liturgical calendar as a new year of grace. Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Our Lord, remembering and making present His first coming and in anticipation of His glorious return.

I heard from one of our financial advisers a new twist on the traditional Advent calendar. Instead of opening the windows of the calendar to find a new gift waiting for you, each day opens with an empty place wherein you put a gift for the poor and needy and thus draw out the love of giving as Jesus did.

On Dec. 14, I’ll be celebrating 10 years as your bishop. Thanks be to God and you! The verse on my holy card from the day of ordination was a passage from the writings of St. John of the Cross on whose feast day I was ordained. The verse reads: “Where there is no love put love and you will draw out love.” I didn’t realize when I was selecting the verse 10 years ago how important a challenge and opportunity it would present to me.

We live in a world that, forgetful of God, is quickly losing the meaning of love. It is a tragic reality. Jesus teaches us that the more we give in love the more we receive ultimate meaning. Unless we lose ourselves in giving we will never truly find ourselves.

It is for us to re-propose to ourselves, one another, and our world that we don’t have to remain in the cold and darkness of a world without love. The light of the world is coming. He, Jesus Christ, opens up the pathways to eternal life and love.

I am grateful to God for being sent to you. I pray He help me fulfill my duties with a true shepherd’s heart. I wish you a blessed Advent and Merry Christmas! May we generously, randomly, intentionally place love where there is no love and so draw love in abundance — Jesus.

Bishop Paul Sirba was the ninth bishop of Duluth.


Father Richard Kunst: Heaven is a gift, but hell is earned

Not long ago, I gave my weekday Mass crowd two theological statements and asked them to raise their hands if they thought the statement was correct. Here was the first one: “We can earn heaven by living a virtuous life, being faithful to the sacraments, and truly loving our neighbor as ourself.” About half the people raised their hand and nodded in agreement.

Father Richard Kunst
Father Richard

I proceeded to tell them jokingly that in the Middle Ages the people who raised their hands would have been burnt at the stake for heresy! Pelagianism was a condemned heresy in the early centuries of the church that stated in part that we could earn heaven by our own goodness. If St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul the Great are in heaven, they certainly don’t deserve to be there, because we can’t deserve heaven. It is pure gift. It is pure grace. The key word to the “theological” statement was the third word, “earn.” It is impossible to earn heaven. It is impossible to deserve salvation.

Here is the second theological statement I presented to the same Mass crowd: “We can earn hell by living a vicious life, away from God and the sacraments, and despising our neighbor.” Those who raised their hands to that statement were right on target.

Hell and damnation are always earned, but heaven is impossible to earn. St. Paul sums this up in one single verse in his Letter to the Romans, when he says, “For the wages of sin is death (spiritual death), but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23).

Notice the terminology St. Paul uses when he says “wages.” Wages are what we earn; it is our pay for the work we do, so we deserve our wages. Paul says that the wages of sin is a spiritual death, a separation from God.

Notice again the terminology he uses for eternal life and heaven. He calls it a “gift of God.” No one deserves gifts. Gifts are freely given as signs of love and affection.

No one is going to show up in hell and say, “How in the hell did I get here?” People who end up in hell, presuming there are people there, chose to be there. They earned it by how they lived life on this side of the grave. One of my oft repeated lines is that we cannot expect to have a good relationship with God in the next life if we did not have one in this life. Our eternity is solely based on how we live this short span of time. We either earn the bad or we open ourselves to the grace of God. It is always our choice. God never forces himself on us.

Some people might think this is unfair of God that we cannot earn heaven but that we can earn hell. What gives? Here is an analogy that comes from my own childhood. When I was in sixth grade I fell head over heels in love with one of my classmates. She was beautiful, but it was just puppy love. I vividly remember praying fervently that she would be made to fall in love with me. Thankfully my prayers were weak, because it didn’t happen.

But suppose my prayers actually worked, and somehow she was indeed forced to love me. Because it would have been forced, it would have been hell for her (as good of a guy as I am).  If you force yourself onto someone, it is hell for the other person. In the physical world, we call it rape. God will never force himself onto us. He wants us to be open to his grace. He wants us to welcome him into our lives by our own free will.

After the rich young man left Jesus because he had too many possessions, Jesus gave us the now famous line, “It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” With that the disciples were “completely overwhelmed” and then asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus responds with, “For man it is impossible; but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

Heaven and salvation are indeed impossible without God. We cannot earn heaven in any way, shape, or form — it is pure gift. But if we refuse that gift, God will respect our free will. It is up to us.

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]

Editorial: Goodbye, Bishop Paul

"When people met him, they felt accepted by him,” Father Joseph Sirba said in the funeral homily for his brother, our beloved Bishop Paul Sirba, who died unexpectedly Dec. 1. “To them he wasn’t just Bishop Paul, but my friend, Bishop Paul ….”

Or take it from a retired priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: “I think the thing about Bishop Paul was, no matter who he was with, he was 100 percent himself and you felt like he was your best friend,” he told The Catholic Spirit. “He was so kind and loving and interested in your life.”

The outpouring of love, the grief mixed with Christian hope for Bishop Sirba’s eternal reward, certainly bear those impressions out. People loved Bishop Sirba, and they knew he loved them.

Bishop Sirba chose for his episcopal motto “fi at voluntas tua” — “thy will be done” — echoing his deep trust in divine providence. He would surely be quick to console us with the truth that in whatever happens in the coming days, while we await the appointment of a new bishop, God has a loving plan for us here in the Diocese of Duluth and will take good care of us.

But it is certainly good and right to remember with deep gratitude the gift God gave us in Bishop Sirba. Do you have a favorite memory you’d like to share? We can’t promise to publish all submissions, but in our next issue, we would like to publish a selection of contributions in honor of our beloved shepherd. Please email them by Jan. 17 to [email protected]

Calendar for December 2019

St. Michael’s Christmas tree and wreath sales

St. Michael’s Church, 4901 E. Superior St., Duluth, will again be selling Christmas trees beginning on Saturday, Nov. 30. High quality spruce, balsam fir, Norway pine and white pine trees, along with Christmas wreaths and sprays, will be available. Weekdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (helpers to load your tree from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.). Weekends 9 a.m. (11 a.m. Sunday) to 5 p.m. All net proceeds go to help with parish buildings and grounds maintenance needs.

Christmas cookie sale

Holy Family Parish, 2430 W. Third St., Duluth, will have a Christmas cookie sale Dec. 6 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Dec. 7 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Cookies will be sold for $3.50 per dozen.

Carmelite community

A third order Carmelite community meets monthly at St. Joseph’s Church, 315 S.W. 21st St., Grand Rapids. Meetings are held the first Saturday of each month. Rosary at 8:30 a.m., followed by Mass at 9 a.m., and morning prayer. Meeting at 10 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. For information on the Carmelite community, please call Deacon Richard Johnston at (218) 966-8251 or Ann Johnston at (218) 966-3052.

Bake sale

St. Mary’s, 9999 Highway 133, Meadowlands, is holding its annual Christmas Bake Sale and More Dec. 7 from 10 a.m. to noon. Fresh baked goods, ornaments, drawings and other goodies will be available. There will also be a special drawing for a quilted Christmas wall hanging in which all proceeds go to the diocesan seminarians. For tickets or more information, please contact Mary Maly at (218) 427-2649.

Mass on TV

The Diocese of Duluth sponsors a televised Mass at 9:30 a.m. every Sunday from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on WDIO-Duluth and WIRT-Hibbing. Donations are welcome and can be sent to TV Mass, 2830 E. Fourth St., Duluth, MN 55812. Please make checks payable to TV Mass. For information contact the diocese at (218) 724-9111 or visit click on “Donate.”

Pancake breakfast

An all you can eat Pancake Breakfast will be held at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, 325 E. Third St., Duluth, Sunday, Dec. 8, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Adults $6 and children under 10 $4. Extra parking in the Essentia ramp behind the church Fourth Street entrance. For additional information call the parish office (218) 722-3078

Kateri Circle (Duluth)

St. Lawrence Church Kateri Circle meets the second Sunday of each month at St. Lawrence Church, 2410 Morris Thomas Road, Duluth, after the 11 a.m. Mass. Become involved in the “reach out” to make St. Kateri known throughout our area. There are still so many persons who have not heard of this saintly woman for our time. Contact Michele at (218) 591-0556 for more information.

Christmas jamboree

Sts. Mary and Joseph Parish, 1225 Mission Road, Sawyer, presents the Log Church Christmas Jamboree, directed by Missy Parker, on Dec. 8 at 3 p.m. featuring the children’s choir, junior and senior choirs, soloists and instrumentalists, and a sing-along. Treats and goodies to follow. A free will offering will go to the local food shelf.

Communion and Liberation

The Communion and Liberation School of Community meets Sunday evenings at 5:45 p.m. at St. Benedict Church, 1419 St. Benedict St., Duluth. Prayer, singing, and sharing experiences in light of our friendship in Christ, the group finishes in time to join the congregation in sung vespers at 7 p.m. The community is a companionship that educates. They are currently reading “Morality: Memory and Desire” by Father Giussani. For more information, please contact William Vouk at (320) 630-8119 or at [email protected]

Living in God’s Divine Will

A group meets Mondays from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at St. Benedict Church, 1419 St. Benedict St., Duluth. Come learn how living in God’s will is so much more than doing God’s will. For information, call Barb Larson at (218) 724-0368.

Lectio divina series

The Center for Spirituality and Enrichment is holding a lectio divina series Nov. 25, Dec. 2, 9, and 16 from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. in Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel at St. Scholastica Monastery, 1200 Kenwood Ave., Duluth. Series is facilitated by Benedictine Sister Luce Marie Dionne. Cost is $5 per session or $20 for all sessions. To register visit

Carmelite community

A third order Carmelite community meets monthly at St. Patrick’s Church, 203 Lawler Ave. S., Hinckley, from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month. For more information on the Carmelite community, please contact Gail Von Reuden, TOC, at (320) 384-7305.

Charismatic prayer group

Proclaimers of Christ Catholic charismatic prayer group meets the second Thursday of the month at St. Agnes Church, Elm at Division Street, Walker. A potluck supper starts at 6:15 p.m. with praise and worship at 7 p.m. On the fourth Thursday of the month gatherings will be at Sacred Heart Church, 300 First St. N., Hackensack, starting at 7 p.m. For information contact David LaFontaine (651) 503- 0168 or Don Rudquist (218) 675-7701.

Prayer group

A prayer group meets every Thursday at 7 p.m. at St. James Church cafeteria at 721 N. 57th Ave. W., Duluth. Please park in the back parking lot. Coffee and goodies for a social after prayer. Handicapped accessible. Contact Sharon (218) 590-2265 for questions.

Christmas caroling

The Center for Spirituality and Enrichment is holding a Christmas caroling event Thursday, Dec. 12, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at McCabe Renewal Center, 2125 Abbotsford Ave., Duluth. Register by calling McCabe at (218) 724-5266 or email [email protected]

Advent silent retreat

Christ the King Retreat Center, 621 First Ave. S., Buffalo, is holding an advent silent retreat Dec. 13-15. The theme is “Living a Trinitarian Lifestyle.” Retreat facilitated by Oblate Father Daniel Renaud. Cost is $175. To register visit

Coffee with the Saints

The Center for Spirituality and Enrichment is hosting Coffee with the Saints Friday, Dec. 13, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the St. Scholastica Monastery, 1001 Kenwood Ave., Duluth. Benedictine Sister Sarah O’Malley will facilitate the conversation about St. Augustus Tolton. Freewill offering accepted. Register at


St. Mary, 8118 Lake St., Willow River, is holding its annual bazaar and bake sale Saturday, Dec. 14, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Meat bingo

Knights of Columbus Chisholm Council 3539 is holding a meat bingo Saturday, Dec. 14, at 6:30 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Church, 113 S.W. Fourth St., Chisholm. Come and play bingo with the family. Pulled pork sandwiches will be available for purchase. Win a variety of meats. Door prizes will also be available. Raffle Tickets available for sale now by calling Jed Holewa (218) 966-0697. There will be 3 sets of 10 games played at $1 per card. Purchasing a book of raffle tickets gets you a card for the first 10 games. Proceeds support the Knights of Columbus Chisholm Council 3539.

Father Solanus Casey Fraternity

The Father Solanus Casey Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order meets the third Sunday of each month at 12:30 p.m. at Holy Family Church, 2430 W. Third St., Duluth (lower level). Secular Franciscans are lay Catholics and diocesan priests who commit themselves to living lives of simplicity, prayer, peacemaking, and service to the church and others, especially the poor. Secular Franciscans are part of the worldwide Franciscan family, including friars and religious sisters, who follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. For more information contact Franz Hoefferle, fraternity minister, at (218) 728-4904 or [email protected]

Taize prayer

The Center for Spirituality and Enrichment is holding Taize prayer Monday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m. at Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel, St. Scholastica Monastery, 1001 Kenwood Ave., Duluth. Gather for an hour of prayer to encounter the mystery of God through the beauty of simplicity. Registration not necessary.

Zenith City Catholic

Zenith City Catholic is a Catholic Young Adults group in the Duluth area that meets the third Tuesday of each month for adoration at 6:30 pm at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, 2801 E. Fourth St., Duluth. After, the group meets for a time of fellowship. For questions or to learn more about other upcoming events, email [email protected] or visit Zenith City Catholic on Facebook.

Grief support

A grief support group meets the first and third Thursday of the month from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Immaculate Heart Church, 35208 County Road 37, Crosslake, in a lower level classroom. For more information call Jean at (218) 839-1958.

Public square rosary

Our Lady of Fatima, Garrison, and Holy Family, Bulldog Lake, holds a Public Square Rosary the fourth Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. near the big walleye fish at the lookout on Mille Lacs Lake in Garrison (Highway 169). All are invited to join in prayer. The rosary is prayed for the intentions of our Blessed Mother, the conversion of sinners, and to reconcile ourselves, our families, and our nation back to God. For more information contact Jean Fetters at (218) 764-2665.


Do you have a family member or loved one who is experiencing same-sex attraction? Consider joining EnCourage, a support group for Catholics seeking to balance the love of their faith with the love for their family member. The group meets the third Monday of the month at 7 pm at St. John’s Church, 1 W. Chisholm St., Duluth. Please contact Deacon Walt Beier at [email protected] to confirm the meeting schedule. Are you experiencing same-sex attraction and looking for answers? Contact Deacon Beier at [email protected] for support group information. Also visit

FertilityCare introductory sessions

Northland Family Programs, a FertilityCare Center, holds free Creighton Model FertilityCare System introductory sessions. CrMS is based on the knowledge and understanding of the naturally-occurring phases of a woman’s fertility and infertility. A woman can know her cycles and use this information for the maintenance of her health. Further, couples can use this knowledge to plan their family and build their future together. To get started, call (218) 786-2378 or visit

Catholic Singles Group

Catholic Singles Group in the Twin Ports serves singles age 40 and up and hosts weekly and monthly events such as swing dance lessons. Contact Laverne at (218) 491-3241 or visit Call at least one day in advance of event to register.

Pancake breakfast

An all you can eat pancake breakfast will be held at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church, 325 E. Third St., Duluth, Sunday, Jan. 5, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Adults $6 and children under 10 $4. Extra parking in the Essentia ramp behind the church Fourth Street entrance. For additional info call the parish office (218) 722-3078

Theology Uncapped

The next Theology Uncapped will be Thursday, Jan. 23, at 6:30 p.m. at Grace Lutheran Church, 5454 Miller Trunk Highway, Hermantown. Father Richard Kunst of St. Elizabeth and St. James, Duluth, and the Rev. Peter Kowitz, pastor of United Lutheran Church, Proctor, will be discussing the Bible. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Cost is $20 which includes dinner from Famous Dave’s and choice of drink. Register online at For more information, call Deacon John Foucault at (218) 393-0631.

Mardi Gras

Celebrate Mardi Gras at Queen of Peace School, 102 Fourth St., Cloquet, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020 from 6 p.m. to midnight. There will be music, dance, complimentary food, and beverages. Raffles include a trip to Palm Springs, an electric meat smoker with $400 B&B Market meat card, and many silent and live auctions as well. Tickets are $25 per person and can be purchased at the door until sold out or in advance by calling (218) 879-8516. Must be 21 or older to attend. For more information visit

Men’s conference

The 2020 Men of Faith Conference —- Men on Fire —- will be held Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at Marshall School in Duluth. The presenter is internationally renowned speaker, author, and preacher Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, known as the “Dynamic Deacon” for his powerful and passionate preaching and evangelizing. For registration, see the diocesan website,

Women’s conference

The eighth annual Women of Faith Conference will be held Saturday, March 28, 2020 at Marshall School, 1215 Rice Lake Road, Duluth. Deby Schlapprizzi is the headline speaker, and Nic Davidson will lead an afternoon session. Registration will open later this year. More details to come.

A spiritual journey to Poland

Join Father Tony Wroblewski and Father Seth Gogolin for 12 days on a spiritual journey to Poland beginning Sept. 28, 2020. The journey will include visits to Gdansk on the Baltic Sea, Torun, St. Faustina’s childhood home and parish Church, Wroclaw, Czestochowa, Krakow, Divine Mercy, and more. To be placed on the priority mailing list to receive your free color brochure and registration form, (available this Fall) email your name, address, phone number (indicate if home, office or mobile phone number please), along with your email address, to Father Tony at [email protected], or simply call the office at (218) 822-4040.

Homily of Father Joseph Sirba at the funeral Mass of Bishop Paul D. Sirba

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:

  •    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 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 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.


Father James B. Bissonette chosen as diocesan administrator

On Dec. 4, Father James B. Bissonette, pastor of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Duluth and St. Rose Catholic Church in Proctor, was elected as diocesan administrator for the Diocese of Duluth.

Father James Bissonette
Father James Bissonette

Under church law, a group of diocesan priests called the College of Consultors elects the diocesan administrator, who will care for the diocese while it awaits the appointment of its new bishop by Pope Francis.

This process takes place shortly after a diocese (also known as a “see”) has become “vacant,” meaning it no longer has a bishop, often through an appointment of a bishop to some other post. The Diocese of Duluth became vacant with the sudden death of Bishop Paul Sirba on Dec. 1. Among the consultors are the deans of each of the five regions, called deaneries, in the diocese, who were key advisors to the bishop.

The role of the diocesan administrator, who takes on some of the obligations and powers of a diocesan bishop, is to maintain the diocese in its ongoing work until a new bishop is installed.

“I am humbled that the priest-consultors have placed their confidence in me to serve as diocesan administrator,” Father Bissonette said. “I ask prayers that I may fulfill my duties well. I also ask prayers for the faithful of this local church, that we might faithfully live the Gospel as we await the Holy Father’s appointment of the next shepherd for the flock in northeastern Minnesota.”

Prior to his present assignment, Father Bissonette has served as associate pastor of Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing and as pastor of St. Mary in Marble, St. Francis in Carlton, Immaculate Conception in Cromwell, St. Philip in Saginaw, and St. James in Duluth, as well as a previous tenure as pastor of St. Rose. He served as vicar general under Bishop Dennis Schnurr and under Bishop Sirba. He has also previously served the diocese as judicial vicar, chancellor, and on the priest personnel board.

Father Bissonette also previously served as diocesan administrator before the appointment of Bishop Sirba.

New bishops are chosen by the pope, and there is no certain timeline for when that appointment will be made, but according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website, “it often takes six to eight months — and sometimes longer — from the time a diocese becomes vacant until a new bishop is appointed.”

Bishop Sirba’s funeral will be livestreamed by WDIO

We anticipate that many mourners, both from the Diocese of Duluth and from outside of our diocese, will wish to attend our beloved Bishop Paul Sirba’s funeral Friday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, and that the resulting crowd may well far exceed the available seating at the Cathedral. Therefore we are grateful to announce that WDIO-TV has graciously offered to have the liturgy livestreamed on the Internet, making it accessible to all across the region and beyond who wish to see it.

The stream will be available on

We hope this will enable as many people as possible to be united in prayer for the repose of Bishop Sirba’s soul and for his family and our local church and all who mourn.

As a reminder: Public visitation for Bishop Sirba will take place from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Cathedral, which is another opportunity to say goodbye and pray for him. The visitation will then resume at 8 a.m. Friday morning and continue until the 11 a.m. funeral Mass.

Please share this information widely so that as many people as possible can be made aware of it.

Obituary: Bishop Paul D. Sirba, 59

Bishop Paul David Sirba, Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Duluth, MN, beloved shepherd of the people of the Diocese of Duluth, dear son, brother, uncle and great-uncle died of apparent cardiac arrest at his home in Proctor, MN on Sunday morning, December 1, 2019, the First Sunday of Advent. Bishop Sirba was born in Minneapolis, MN on September 2, 1960, to Norbert and Helen Sirba. He attended Nativity of Mary Grade School in Bloomington, Academy of the Holy Angels in Richfield, and the College of St. Thomas and St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. Bishop Sirba received his Master of Divinity degree from St. Paul Seminary as well as a Masters in Arts from the Notre Dame Apostolic Catechetical Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Paul Sirba was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on May 31, 1986 and served in the following parishes: St. Olaf, Minneapolis; St. John the Baptist, Savage; and Maternity of Mary, St. Paul. He also worked in the Spiritual Formation Department at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul and was a Spiritual Director at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. He was appointed Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis on July 1, 2009, and was subsequently appointed by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, as the Ninth Bishop for the Diocese of Duluth. He was ordained Bishop of Duluth on the feast of St. John of the Cross, December 14, 2009.

Bishop SirbaWhile a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Sirba was a member of several committees including the Priority and Plans Committee, Administrative Committee, and the Catholic Home Missions Committee. Bishop Sirba was also an active member of the St. Paul Seminary Board of Directors and the Episcopal Advisory Board for the Institute on Religious Life. He also served as the state chaplain of the Knights of Columbus.

For the ten years of which Bishop Sirba was the shepherd of the Duluth Diocese, he was known to be an incredibly kind and compassionate pastor, a wise and thoughtful administrator, and a holy and virtuous man of prayer and deep faith. He was a beloved and dear member of the Sirba family, and was revered as a true spiritual father by the clergy, religious and faithful of the diocese. He will be greatly missed.

Bishop Sirba was preceded in death by his father, Norbert. He is survived by his mother Helen of St. Paul, brothers the Reverend Joseph Sirba of Hinckley, and John (SueAnn) of Bloomington, and a sister Catherine (Scott) of Canon Falls. He is also survived by many nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews, and the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Duluth.

Visitation will be on Thursday, December 5, 2019 from 3:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary located at 2801 East Fourth Street in Duluth, MN, with the praying of the Rosary to take place at 6:00 p.m. and Vigil prayers at 7:00 p.m. Visitation will continue at the Cathedral on Friday, December 6, 2019 from 8:00 a.m. until the Mass of Christian Burial at 11:00 a.m. Following the funeral Mass, burial will be at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth. Requiescat in Pace.

Bishop Paul Sirba has died

 With sad hearts, we share the following message regarding the sudden death of our beloved Bishop Paul Sirba that was sent out to diocesan clergy and employees this morning and which is being announced at Masses today.

Following is the message from Father Bissonette, who has served as Bishop Sirba’s vicar general:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It is with an incredibly heavy heart that I must inform you of tragic news regarding our Bishop. Bishop Paul Sirba suffered cardiac arrest at St. Rose Church in Proctor, MN this morning, December 1st. He was rushed to Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, where life-saving measures were attempted, but were unsuccessful. He was attended to by Father John Petrich who administered the last rites to him at the hospital. He was declared to have passed away at just after 9:00 A.M. this morning. Words do not adequately express our sorrow at this sudden loss of our Shepherd. We have great hope and faith in Bishop Sirba’s​ resurrection to new life, and have confident assurance that he will hear the words of our Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter in the joy of your Master.”

Arrangements for Bishop Sirba’s funeral Mass and burial will be forthcoming. Please pray for the repose of Bishop Sirba’s soul, as well as for his mother, Helen, and his siblings, Father Joe, Kathy, and John, and their families. Let us also hold each other up in prayer during this most difficult time.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord ...
- And let perpetual light shine upon him.

May he rest in peace ...
- Amen.

May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God ...
- Rest in peace, Amen.

Reverend James B. Bissonette
Diocese of Duluth 

Father Nick Nelson: The four last things — nothing in this life is worth missing heaven for

In the liturgical rhythm of the year, the church focuses on various realities of the Christian life. For example, during Lent we remember Christ’s temptations in the desert and we give extra effort to root out sin in our life.

Father Nicholas Nelson
Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

During the month of November, we recall the end of things. This makes sense considering the liturgical year ends during the month of November. In the readings, especially the gospels, the church gives us readings that remind us of what the church traditionally refers to as “The Four Last Things” — death, judgment, heaven, and hell.


Death is a reality that we all have to deal with. We must all wrestle with the question as to what will happen to us when we die. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (1021). The time for mercy is here on earth. Once we die, it is the time for God’s justice.


Particular Judgment: From the Catechism, “Every person receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death” (1022). We will be judged on whether we accepted and returned the divine life and love that was offered us. Love takes two. God doesn’t force us to “love” him. Love cannot be forced. If we lived our life and made choices contrary to God’s will, he respects that, and he gives us what we want, eternity without him. In our particular judgment, we are either headed to hell or to heaven, either immediately or following a final purification, purgatory.

Last or General Judgment: This is the lesser known judgment. From the Catechism: “The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life” (1039). At the end of time, the truth of everything will be known to all. At the Last Judgment, those who have died will already be enjoying heaven or be miserable in hell. That someone is in heaven or hell will not change. But Christ will come and show to each person the “domino effect” of both the good and the evil they did. We will see how that little noticed word of encouragement motivated a person into becoming a great saint of the church. We will also realize how that seemingly private sin against chastity hurt the Body of Christ and affected our ability to love others. This final revelation of everything to everyone will mean embarrassment and shame for those in hell and glory and honor for those in heaven because they accepted God’s mercy for their sins. Our bodies will also be reunited with our soul to either enjoy the glory of the blessed in heaven or the misery of damned in hell.


From the Catechism: “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. … To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and blessed is called ‘hell’” (1033). Hell is real, and people go there. If a man dies with even one unrepented mortal sin on his soul, he will go to hell. In a sense, hell is a form of God’s mercy, which is never opposed to his justice. To those who have rejected the light of God during their life, to see God in his eternal glory is intolerable. It’s similar to exiting from a dark movie theater to the brilliance of a bright sunny day. Hell and heaven are forever. No do-overs.


From the Catechism: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see him as he is,’ face to face! … Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (1023). Don’t be fooled and think that heaven will be boring. Heaven is the most real life. Even the best of life on earth is just a shadow of heaven. Those in who die in friendship with God either go to heaven immediately or after a final purification.

Purgatory: From the Catechism: CCC 1033, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified … undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030). Purgatory is temporary and has two main purposes. One is purgation or purification, and the other is reparation. Justice demands that we make reparation for our sins. If we don’t make adequate reparation for our sins in this life, purgatory is where we make final reparation.

Purgatory is such a great gift. It means we don’t have to be totally perfected when we die. And if a soul makes it to purgatory, they will eventually be in heaven for eternity. But it isn’t God’s first plan for us, so neither should it be ours. Our goal should be to be saints by the time we die. So make reparation for sins and be purified of your attachments now!

My friends, nothing in this life is worth missing out on heaven for. Did I scare you? Good! Now, Get to confession!

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]