On October 11, 2016, Fr. Jeffrey Kirby of the Diocese of Charleston received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor. Granted by Governor Nikki Haley for his service to the state, the award is an acknowledgement of the positive role religion can play in society. Fr. Kirby recently sat down with CWR to talk about the honor, the role of religion in society, and the work of Governor Haley, who is the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
CWR: How did it feel to be honored by Governor Nikki Haley?
Fr. Kirby: When I first received the phone call, I thought someone was pulling a joke on me. Then I realized it was real and I was surprised. Christians do their work within society for love of God without the need or expectation of honors. After some thought, I was glad for the award since it’s principally an affirmation of the work of the Catholic Church and faith-based initiatives in South Carolina.
CWR: Could you explain that some more?
Fr. Kirby: Yes, I see this award as an honor for the Catholic Church in South Carolina. The Catholic population in the state is only about 4%, that’s about 75,000 households, and yet we have a vast array of parishes, schools, hospitals, and social outreach centers. We work hard on behalf of our neighbors, and we don’t usually receive public awards for these efforts. We just do them because of our desire to serve God and our neighbor.
CWR: Why were you selected for this award? Why not someone else?
Fr. Kirby: [Laughing] That’s a great question! Honestly, I could think of many others who could have received this award. Why me? I suspect because of my vocations work throughout the state. For over five years, I traveled throughout South Carolina, working with local communities, elementary schools, high schools, youth programs, college campuses, young adult groups, and families in order to create opportunities to promote virtue and prayer, as well as form strong character-based leaders. These efforts were intended to strengthen a culture of vocations within faith communities, but they had the added benefit of forming virtuous leaders for broader local communities. I think this was the result that caught the governor’s eye and singled me out for the award.
CWR: Is the Governor referencing this particular work in her letter granting you the award when she wrote: “As a priest of the 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… In the world of making a positive difference, you have been an incredibly effective leader to those around you”?
Fr. Kirby: Well, I hope so. Like every other Catholic priest, I did my best. Of course, I’d like to add that the acknowledgement here is a great indication of what any of the Church’s vocations effort could be in the long run and what we could accomplish as a Church by investing in a thorough formation of the baptized in virtue, prayer, and leadership. Not only could we find strong leaders for service within the Church, but truly form strong Catholic leaders for our society and world today. It appears that even those outside of the Church recognize this capacity and inner power of the Gospel.
CWR: This clearly is a topic dear to you…
Fr. Kirby: Yes, very much. The Church has a mandate from the Lord Jesus to “go and teach.” Our faith is not meant to be privatized and the public square of our society is not meant to be empty. Not only would such a private, empty reality be unchristian, but it would be inhuman. We are all made for God and we are called throughout life to search for him. We give expression to this search and to the revelations he offers us. It is fully human when these expressions are welcomed and cherished in public life. As a Church, we are called to engage our world, always speaking the truth in love, and never hiding our lamps underneath tables. For us to do this well, we have to form strong, virtuous Christian leaders.
CWR: In speaking about engaging society, is Governor Haley supportive of the Catholic Church in South Carolina?
Fr. Kirby: Yes, as well as all other religious bodies and houses of worship. Just recently she invited all people in the state to pray for peace, especially as we start some difficult trials here. This reflects the governor’s emphasis. She doesn’t see faith as a hindrance or a threat, but she understands that good religion can help society and build up humanity.
CWR: In your comments accepting the award, you referenced extremism. Why address that and how was that a part of your award?
Fr. Kirby: Society should not associate good religion with extremism, and the granting of the Order of the Palmetto is one sign of what good religion can and should do in our world. Rather than the destruction, terror, and intimidation of extremism, good religion edifies, liberates, and invites others along paths of peace, virtue, and tranquility. In my speech, I wanted to stress this point since it’s so important today. No one has to be afraid of good religion, and it should be welcomed by the public forum and its leaders. Governor Haley is one such leader.
Fr. Kirby: Speaking of Governor Haley, she has been chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to be ambassador to the United Nations. What do you think of that news?
Fr. Kirby: Yes, we’re all very proud of what our governor has accomplished for South Carolina and what she will accomplish for the United States. She will be greatly missed, but we know that she will take with her the same welcoming stance toward religion and faith to the United Nations. This openness will serve her and our country well.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!