Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
What did Father Jeffrey Kirby of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., think when this October he was honored by Governor Nikki Haley to receive the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian honor?
“I was surprised myself, especially because here in South Carolina we’re only 75,000 households and 4% of the population,” he told me, referring to the number of Catholics that are part of the state’s nearly 4.9 million people.
To put it another way, this Catholic priest joins such well-known recipients as Dr. Billy Graham and Franklin Graham.
At the official ceremony in late October in the South Carolina Statehouse, Governor Haley was unable to present the award herself, but in her letter granting the award she wrote: “As a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, and as a guide for young adults in the process of vocational discernment, you have been a source of encouragement and guidance for countless people. Through your spoken and written words, you exemplify faith, love, and service in action, and your works will inspire others for generations to come. In the world of making a positive difference, you have been an incredibly effective leader to those around you.”
Haley added that “We are privileged to have you in South Carolina…Thank you for your efforts to make our state an even better place to live, work, worship and…for upholding the highest ideals of leadership in all that you do.”
She delegated Senator Tom Young of Aiken to represent her at the ceremony who began tongue-in-cheek: “Having grown up Southern Baptist and becoming a Methodist, I never would have expected that I would be giving the Order of the Palmetto to a Catholic priest. Expect the unexpected.”
Many already know Father Kirby from Register articles for his expert insights and from the books he has authored, including Lord, Teach Us to Pray: A Guide to the Spiritual Life and Christian Discipleship; Becoming Mr. and Mrs. Thomas; 101 Surprising Facts About St. Peter’s and the Vatican; and The Life and Witness of Saint Maria Goretti: Our Little Saint of the Beatitudes. Through Saint Benedict Press and Catholic Scripture Study International his accomplishments include being host of the national Christian formation program Doors of Mercy and teacher in his latest work, the DVD Bible study Luke: The Gospel of Mercy.
“No one is more deserving of the Palmetto Award than Father Jeffrey Kirby,” said Saint Benedict Press publisher Conor Gallagher, himself a resident of South Carolina. “In his books, videos, talks and priestly ministry, Father Kirby shows ‘the faith once given to the saints’ to be attractive, exciting, and true.”
One other connection added a grace note to the celebration. Kirby was ordained on July 27, 2007, by Bishop Robert Baker, then bishop of Charleston, and now Bishop of Birmingham, Ala. — EWTN’s diocese.
Obviously, though Father Kirby went about his work in the state in a humble way, people around South Carolina noticed the difference he was making in others’ lives and in society. Isn’t it refreshing in these turbulent times to see a good priest honored for his work not only with Catholic Church but with all those in the extended society affected by it?
Whys, Wheres, and Hows
At the ceremony itself, Father Kirby said, in part, “Most of my work has been — and is — motivated by the strong conviction that religion has a place in the public forum and that its contribution can edify and enrich public life.
“Contrary to the religious extremism we see in our day, my work has been to show that good religion can bring about good things, very human things, things that make society and culture a better place to live and a more nourished environment in which the human spirit can flourish and soar."
Days later he and I talked about some of his work and how he saw it connected to this honor that simply came out of the blue.
“Basically, the award was given because of all the effects of my vocations work in South Carolina,” he began. “In doing vocations work there was collaboration with local communities, leadership programs, encouraging and mentoring young adults and all these actions — never recognized independent of vocations work — helping to develop virtue and leadership in young adults in South Carolina.”
He thoughtfully added, “For us it was just vocations work. For the government it’s the acknowledgement of the effects of that work in the state.”
For the record, Father Kirby was the diocese’s vicar of vocations from 2010 until 2015 when he went to Rome to complete his doctorate. When he got back this year, he became temporary administrator of St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Aiken, and now is appointed the administrator of both Our Lady of Grace in Indian Land, the diocese’s newest parish, and St. Joseph's Parish in Chester. He’s also an adjunct professor of theology at Belmont Abbey College outside of Charlotte, N.C., and teaches through St. Benedict Press and the Catholic Scripture Study.
Faith Shining in Society
Father Kirby was living out his doctorate in moral theology before he receive the official degree in Rome this spring. In a way, this government honor puts the two together.
What he defended in his doctoral thesis was “presenting moral truths in a pluralistic society.” Or put another way, “how to teach moral truth in a pluralistic society.”
Father Kirby said, “In some respects when a priest gets an advanced degree people think it’s just academic or abstract. But for me, my doctoral work very much connected with the work I had done in vocations, and this award acknowledges both – the messages and the work in society.
“We have to be involved in society,” he explained. “We have to engage culture, and have a voice, and be involved as Catholic Christians. This is the New Evangelization – to engage culture and be involved in society.”
And here was a Catholic priest being recognized by the state for his work that he sees as being part of the New Evangelization.
Father Kirby shared something else about this state honor. To have one of the priests in the Catholic Church acknowledged in the state house and talking about the works of the Catholic Church at the ceremony was an extra special rarity.
“The award was acknowledgement of not just my work but the work of the Catholic Church in South Carolina,” he said, telling me he was humbled to be the one to receive the honor. “This award is about the Catholic Church,” he said. “That’s what makes me happy.”