This is Part 1 of a 4-part analysis of the book In Sinu Jesu: When Heart Speaks to Heart—The Journal of a Priest at Prayer, which is credited to an anonymous Benedictine monk. Click here for Part 2. Click here for Part 3. Click here for Part 4.
For a book written by an anonymous author, In Sinu Jesu has some high-profile fans. The 2016 work—which presents itself as messages from Jesus, God the Father, and saints (including Mary) to “A Benedictine Monk”—has been endorsed by Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, and Bishop Joseph Strickland, as well as a number of traditionalist blogs.
In Sinu Jesu is also a bestseller, currently hovering just outside the top 10,000 on Amazon.com with more than 250 reviews, nearly all of them five stars. It is therefore surprising that the book has escaped theological critique—especially given its claim to contain messages from Jesus that are intended for all the faithful. This article is an effort to remedy that lacuna by beginning a theological conversation on In Sinu Jesu. It will do so in four parts.
Part 1, which follows below, will present initial background on In Sinu Jesu’s author, Father Mark Daniel Kirby, O.S.B., of Silverstream Priory, tracing his public life as a priest and writer to his establishment of the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle in the Diocese of Tulsa in 2009. I will demonstrate that, even though the book is attributed to an anonymous “Benedictine Monk,” Kirby has made available, and continues to make available, evidence of his authorship of In Sinu Jesu on his blog, at his priory (as will be shown in part 2), and within the book itself (as will be shown in part 3).
Given that the marketing of In Sinu Jesu highlights its mystical origin and the hiddenness of its author, a comprehensive critique requires an analysis of how the book came to be and how it acquired public renown. This analysis, although historical in nature, will include consideration of Kirby’s theological writings where they are relevant to understanding the background of In Sinu Jesu.
Part 2 will continue Kirby’s story through his founding Silverstream Priory in Ireland and the publication and marketing of In Sinu Jesu, and Parts 3 and 4 will present a critique of the book itself.
Beginnings, “Burnouts,” and Benedict XVI
Father Mark Daniel Kirby was born in Connecticut in 1952. In an autobiographical blog entry, he writes that he began his experience of religious life at the age of twenty in a traditional Benedictine monastery. At a certain point, however, he forsook that cloister in favor of a small monastic community that had nightly Eucharistic adoration. (Although Kirby does not name this community, he may be referring to the Brothers of Jesus Crucified of Providence, RI. A Dominican priest I consulted in writing this article recalls meeting Kirby during the late 1970s when he was a member of that community and was teaching at Providence College.) Eventually the community was absorbed by the Cistercian Abbey of Notre Dame de Nazareth in Rougemont, Québec, and it was for that abbey that Kirby was ordained a priest on November 16, 1986.
At some point after ordination, Kirby suffered health issues as well as what he describes as “burnouts” that led him to modify his monastic observances. He writes, “This led to a prolonged absence from the abbey of my profession and, eventually, to my attachment to the Abbey of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome.”
“These were ‘desert years,’” Kirby adds, “full of uncertainties and trials.”
Despite such difficulties, the monk writes, “I was able nonetheless to complete my S.T.L. in Liturgical Studies and, a few years later, a Ph.D. in Liturgical Theology.” He taught for a brief time and was permitted to serve as chaplain to the nuns of the Monastery of the Glorious Cross in Branford, CT, where he could be close to friends and family.
In 2006, Kirby started a blog, Vultus Christi—Latin for “The Face of Christ.” His homilies and reflections quickly earned him a following, particularly among traditionalists who appreciated his candid and sometimes blunt critiques of postconciliar liturgy and parish life.
For example, on August 28, 2007, after filling in for a priest friend at a suburban parish’s Saturday evening Vigil Mass, Kirby wrote in a widely shared post, “Like the prophet Jeremias, I am ‘weary with holding in.’”
Kirby proceeded to spend 1,100 words recounting the indignities he witnessed at the Eucharistic celebration: the chatter before Mass; “the unfortunate architecture of this particular church”; Mass “facing the people”; Holy Communion in the hand; no bells; Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion; the music (“show-tuney, trite, tired, and sickeningly sentimental”), etc.
The reader confronted with Kirby’s self-proclaimed jeremiad could be forgiven for thinking that this monk had been long sheltered from the experience of what is (for better or for worse) the average American’s experience of parish life. Beyond his more superficial complaints, however, it was clear that he was deeply concerned at the lack of reverence shown to the Eucharist.
“Not that long ago,” Kirby wrote,
there was still a lively sense of reverence among Catholics. People would sign themselves with Holy Water upon entering the church. They would genuflect before entering the pew, then kneel in adoration for a few moments. It was not uncommon to see people lighting candles before Mass or visiting the side altars and the shrines of their favorite saints. Some folks would pray the rosary quietly. Others would read over the Mass of the day in their missals. All of this has been swept away. When Pope John Paul II proclaimed the “Year of the Eucharist” his stated aim was the recovery of “Eucharistic amazement” — call it reverence, awe, or the spirit of adoration — in the whole Church.
A statement such as this needs to be judged apart from criticisms of Mass versus populum and the use of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. This is a genuine cri du coeur, with sentiments solidly rooted in the writings and speeches of Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessors. (It also, however unwittingly, aligns with the teachings of Pope Francis, who has similarly lamented the loss of Eucharistic amazement.)
I mention this because concern about reverence for the Eucharist is clearly central to Father Kirby’s public witness. Although I have serious concerns about his writings (as will be made clear), I do not doubt for one moment that on this particular point he is thinking with the Church.
The Messages Begin
Two and a half weeks after Kirby’s frustrating experience at the suburban parish’s Sunday Vigil, the monk was on a plane to France to assist at a monastery of Benedictine nuns and to address their General Chapter. After his service there was complete, on October 3, 2007, he visited the Benedictines du Saint-Sacrement in Craon to make what he would later call “a personal retreat of adoration and discernment.”
Kirby wrote afterwards on Vultus Christi, “The monastery of Craon, steeped in adoration of the Most Holy Eucharist, is a blessed place indeed. My retreat there was life-changing.”
The core of the account that Kirby gave of the retreat on his blog bears quoting at length, as it marks the beginning of the alleged messages that he would later compile in In Sinu Jesu:
The signal grace of the retreat was a call to live in adoration and reparation for all my brother priests, and to allow my soul to be “johannized,” that is to say, to consent to become, by the merciful goodness of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit, another Saint John, a beloved disciple for His Heart and for the Heart of His Mother.
The desire of the Heart of Jesus is that there should be priest adorers and reparators: priests who will adore for those who do not adore, priests who will make reparation for those who do not. Our Lord asks me — and will ask other priests as well — to remain in adoration before His Eucharistic Face, offering all the priests of the Church to His Open Heart present in the Sacrament of His Love.
Our Lord asked me to consecrate every Thursday (day of the Eucharist and of the Priesthood) to this particular mission of adoration and reparation for priests.
Two aspects of the above account of Kirby’s are particularly relevant for evaluating In Sinu Jesu:
- In the second paragraph, Kirby shifts noticeably from discussing a subjective personal call to describing an objective “desire of the heart of Jesus” that pertains to others besides himself. This alleged desire of Jesus is moreover not merely a generalized desire for adoration and reverence. It is, rather, a specific request for a charism to be lived by priests.
In fact, by the third paragraph, Kirby has entirely dispensed with the language of interior discernment. He simply says, “Our Lord asked me … .”
What this suggests is that Father Kirby did not take a great deal of time to discern the veracity of his initial alleged message and whether it should be made public. Although less than four weeks had passed since it occurred, he was already convinced both that the experience was genuine and that Jesus wanted him to publicize it.
- Kirby, after publishing the account of the first episode of what would become In Sinu Jesu, left it on his blog for all to see, under his own name. And it remains there, nearly thirteen years after he first posted it, and four years after he published an expanded version of it in his “anonymous” In Sinu Jesu. Like Poe’s purloined letter, it is hidden in plain sight.
That first excerpt from what would become In Sinu Jesu paved the way for further posts on Vultus Christi giving accounts of alleged messages from Jesus. However, Kirby, after being open about his initial alleged message, began to experiment with anonymity—sometimes attempting to veil his authorship of the accounts and sometimes not.
On December 6, 2007, the monk published further alleged divine messages under the title, “Our Lord to a Priest.” When commenters asked whom Jesus was addressing, Kirby replied, “The priest who receives these words wants to remain hidden, but some of the messages are destined to reach a great number of souls. Hence their publication on Vultus Christi.”
Beginning a Benedictine Life in Tulsa
Late 2007 also saw Kirby enter into discussion with then-Bishop of Tulsa Edward Slattery, sharing his desire, as he would later put it, “to live my monastic vocation in daily Eucharistic adoration and reparation, while offering spiritual support to my brother priests.” The bishop responded in February 2008 with an invitation to live in the diocese, and in July of that year Kirby received permission from the Holy See to be released from the Cistercian order so as to incardinate into the Diocese of Tulsa and renew his monastic vows under Slattery’s authority. By that means, the monk would “undertake a Benedictine life having Eucharistic adoration and the spiritual support of the clergy as defining characteristics.”
In March 2008, as Kirby prepared for his move to the Diocese of Tulsa, he published on Vultus Christi a blog entry titled “In Sinu Jesu”—marking the first of many times that his future book’s title would appear on the blog.
The “In Sinu Jesu” blog entry begins with the italicized words, “When the Heart of Jesus speaks to the heart of a priest …” and then shares the alleged divine message. As with the previous messages Kirby posted on Vultus Christi, it too would later appear in the book In Sinu Jesu. On this occasion, there was no attempt at anonymity; twelve years later, the post remains on Kirby’s blog.
Kirby’s renewal of his Benedictine vows under Bishop Slattery took place on April 2, 2009, in preparation for what would be, in his words, “the foundation of a monastery of diocesan right, dedicated to Eucharistic adoration and to the spiritual care of the clergy: the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle.”
Upon arriving in Tulsa, Kirby was no longer bound to the liturgical needs of an outside community. He was pleased to be free to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form (the pre-Vatican II liturgy) exclusively— “having no desire,” he later wrote, “and seeing no need, in the context of contemplative monastic life, of celebrating in the Ordinary Form [that is, the Mass of Paul VI].”
Click here for Part 2
Image: Lawrence OP, St John at the Last Supper. Stained glass detail from a window in the Sacred Heart (Dahlgren) chapel in Georgetown University. License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/31101540663/