God’s mercy is abundant, but we first must acknowledge our failings to receive forgiveness
As new Missionary of Mercy, South Carolina priest focuses his ministry on the hope of God’s love
People joke about what a disaster 2020 has been, but Americans could be forgiven for being tempted to despair after the first six months of this turbulent year.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has infected nearly 3 million people in the United States and killed more than 130,000 Americans since February. Long-simmering frustrations with racial injustice and police brutality have exploded with protests in the streets. Violent actors have seized the opportunity to burn buildings, loot businesses and topple statues.
“We see a rise in suicide rates. We still see massive abuse of opioids. We see the quarantine causing tension in the home. In the midst of all this, it can be very easy for someone to give up and fall into desolation,” said Father Jeffrey Kirby, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Indian Land, South Carolina.
“But as Christians, we’re called to announce the message of mercy and hope, and it’s precisely by having that mercy and hope that we realize these evils and these sufferings, they don’t have the last word. Goodness can triumph if we’re willing to fight for it. And it’s precisely God’s mercy and hope that allows us to have the strength to keep that fight going,” said Father Kirby, a moral theologian and author who was recently named a Missionary of Mercy by Pope Francis.
As one of 1,000 missionaries of mercy worldwide, Father Kirby, 45, will incorporate the theme from Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 into his ministry as a parish priest. In a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Father Kirby reflected on mercy, why it’s perhaps needed now more than ever, and about his own personal devotion to Divine Mercy.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is a Missionary of Mercy?
Father Jeffrey Kirby: In many ways, the Missionary of Mercy program was born from the Jubilee Year 2016. The Holy Father wanted to continue this program because he really sees this as a grassroots presence throughout the universal Church of his message and emphasis on mercy. He sees the missionaries of mercy as the local eyes, ears and mouths for mercy, entrusting to them that emphasis on God’s tenderness and compassion. Every Missionary of Mercy is already in a preexisting ministry. Some are campus chaplains. Some are university professors. Some work in chanceries. In this, the Holy Father is making sure the word is reaching into the trenches, that people are hearing the message of mercy and having mercy available to them in the sacraments, in acts of charity and in selfless service. In many ways, I think this comes from the heart of Pope Francis.
Our Sunday Visitor: What does this mean for your priesthood, practically speaking?
Father Kirby: As a parish priest, my ministry of mercy will be expressed in the parish. I’ve already asked the parish to share this mandate with me, and I’ve asked them to think about how we are going to become, as a parish, a better field hospital for mercy. I’m hoping this becomes a rallying cry for my parish in how we can become a more welcoming, warm and merciful community.
Beyond that, in terms of being a Missionary of Mercy, the expectation is that I will preach more often on mercy, emphasize the theme of mercy in my writings, be readily available for confessions and every once in a while, to offer absolution for one of the reserved sins of the Holy Father. In many practical ways, it’s still pretty much what I’m doing, but more accentuated and more focused on the topic of mercy.
Our Sunday Visitor: Being a pastor, do you see a hunger or thirst for mercy at the parish level?
Father Kirby: In the parish, I see very much how connected hope and mercy are. If a person has abandoned the possibility of mercy, they lose hope. But when they know that sin doesn’t define any of us and that darkness can be removed, then it gives them profound hope. So I think of all the messages we’re called to give to the human family right now, I think there is none more pressing than the message of mercy. Because it’s precisely by receiving God’s mercy that we know we can be freed from the things that have caused us harm, from the things we’ve committed or been accomplices to that have been sinful or harmful to others. In all this, sin can be removed and we can be free, and that gives great birth to hope. I think it’s precisely that hope and mercy that we especially need today.
Our Sunday Visitor: Does mercy help bring people to conversion?
Father Kirby: Absolutely. People are on a journey, and the best role we can play for one another is to be a companion and to be an instrument of mercy. The whole message of mercy, the reception of God’s mercy, is the doorway to conversion, to become better people, better Christians, to allow ourselves to draw closer to God, to find the virtues we’ve always desired, to abandon the vices that we know are hurting ourselves or others.
Mercy is definitely intimately connected to the whole process of conversion. And we all want that conversion. We know the people we want to be. We want to be the people who are kind, patient and loving. But sometimes it’s difficult — the twists and turns of life, the fallenness of our own hearts. And it’s precisely by mercy that again gives us that hope that allows us to change, to become the people we know God is calling us to be.
Our Sunday Visitor: Where does your devotion to Divine Mercy come from?
Father Kirby: I’ve always had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus since I was a child. There was something about the image of the Lord’s heart that just very much attracted me. I think the notion of compassion and gentleness and welcome just very much brought a warmth to my own heart. And as I grew older and learned about the Divine Mercy, I very much saw the same message. For me, I see the Sacred Heart devotion and the Divine Mercy message as intimately connected. When I look at the image of the Divine Mercy and I see rays of grace and mercy flowing from the Lord’s heart, again I’m just filled with great hope. From early on, this has been a message that has very much moved me in my spiritual life, and it’s always led me to desire to be a better Christian, a better person and a better person of service to those around me.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why do you think the Holy Spirit is lifting up God’s mercy at this time?
Father Kirby: St. John Paul II called the 20th century the century of tears. We had two world wars, massive extermination of peoples, indulgences to hatred and widespread ideology. Unfortunately we see in the 21st century a lot of that spilling over and continuing, some of it gaining strength. I think the Holy Spirit sees this, and through Pope Francis and through the ministry of the Church, is calling us back to our better selves, our higher natures, and reminding us that as the children of God we’re not called to hatred. We’re called to love. We’re not called to desolation but to hope. Mercy is available to all of us in order to be the people God is calling us to be.
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.