The year was 1925. The “Great War” had left Europe in shambles and the governments that emerged from the rubble were increasingly secular. Those in society outwardly rejecting Christ’s laws had reached what the Holy Father called a “majority.” Mankind placed its hopes for the future in strong leaders. While the destruction of the War was unprecedented, the trend towards secularism was hardly new, marching forward from the times of the French Revolution.
Pope Pius XI wanted to send an enduring reminder to future generations of a core universal truth that regardless of the circumstances, Christ is ever King. Many decades into the future, an encyclical might only be remembered by scholars and some clergy. He did in fact write one on the topic – Quas Primas. But a Sunday feast could annually reawaken the consciousness of especially the lay faithful for generations.
Thus came the inspiration for the Feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In connection with Christ’s Last Judgement, the feast was originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, just before All Saints’ Day. In 1969, with his new liturgical calendar, Pope Paul VI renamed it the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and moved it to the final Sunday of the Church year. Some Protestant denominations, having adopted this calendar, also celebrate Christ the King Sunday.
With either placement on the calendar, Christ the King Sunday has a theme of finality. It celebrates how all things will be ordered to their end or purpose in Christ. We read in the book of Revelation, “The one who sat on the throne said … ‘I [am] the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’” (Rev. 21:5-6). In the Second Reading for Sunday, we read that Christ came to “reconcile all things unto himself, making peace through the blood of his cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven” (Colossians 1:20 [Douay Rheims Bible]).
Declaring the lordship of Christ was provocative in New Testament times. St. Paul often used the title the “Lord Jesus” in his letters, which was culturally in contrast to the “Lord Caesar.” Declaring the kingship of Christ was still provocative in 1925. Pius XI did so from a Vatican that was under the territorial domain of the Kingdom of Italy. Tensions, though somewhat eased, continued to be high with the anticlerical kingdom that in 1870 had brought a violent end to the thousand-year dominion of the Papal States. It would be another four years before he would sign the Lateran Treaty with Italy in 1929, creating the sovereign Vatican City State to secure the full liberty of the pope.
“Viva Christo Rey”
Meanwhile, in 1927, just two years after the proclamation of the Feast of Christ the King, Fr. Miguel Pro was martyred before a firing squad of a secularist and anticlerical regime in Mexico. His last words were, “Viva Christo Rey!” “Long Live Christ the King!” While today, the title of “Christ the King” may not take many aback, putting flesh on the concept is as provocative as ever, meeting much resistance in our pluralistic society. While contemporary Church documents often speak highly of democracies, it is true that for Catholics, the people are not ultimately sovereign. The people, too, come under God’s judgment and are subject to his rule, whether they acknowledge it or not. Thus Pius XI taught that excluding God’s laws from politics would be a grave error. But even in 1925, Pius XI did not call for theocracy, though he had a rather wistful preference for monarchy.
This brings us to the question: in what ways is Christ king? According to Pius XI in Quas Primas, his governance is seen within each human person, within all creation, and in the coming of the Kingdom of God that Christ preached in the Gospels. Pius XI teaches that Christ rules in people’s hearts and wills. As Truth Itself, he guides the intellect and as Law-giver, he directs the will. As God, Christ has full power over creation, which he rules by providence. Also, God has ordained that Christ as man have full power over the spiritual domain of the Kingdom of God, his Body the Church.
While Pope Pius XI decried the fall of the monarchies in his day, his main thrust forward was for the laity to promote the spiritual Kingdom of God in their lives, in their decisions, and in their communities. That is the reason he had this feast celebrated on a Sunday. Four decades later, the Fathers of Vatican II would teach on the laity, “Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 2).
The Kingdom of God
The Kingdom of God comes as people cooperate with grace, submit to God’s will, and act with Christian charity. It is a matter of the heart but has social implications. Pope Francis said in his 2015 Angelus address for Christ the King Sunday, “The kingdoms of this world sometimes build themselves on arrogance, rivalry, oppression; the kingdom of Christ is ‘a kingdom of justice, love and peace’ … [T]o reign as He does means to serve God and the brethren—a service that flows from love: to serve for love’s sake is to reign: this is the regality of Jesus” (Vatican Radio).
Pope Pius XI admonished that the problems of the world can only be solved with recognition of Christ’s kingship. Of course, simply speaking it with one’s lips is not enough. If we are to promote the Kingdom of God, we must begin with ourselves – begin with Christ’s rule over our own lives in our thoughts and actions. To acknowledge Christ’s rule over creation, we should recognize and point him out in the good, the true, and the beautiful accessible to all.
In this regard, we should recognize and build common ground with others in matters of the Moral Law, or the Natural Law. Many of our contemporaries, of course, dismiss the idea of the ‘Natural Law’ as if it were just part of the Catholic Faith. Still, I believe that there is much room for dialogue. The idea of a core set of moral principles common to all peoples which comes from our Creator is not as foreign to them as it may seem. As for understanding the more difficult points of the Natural Law, this is indeed clouded by fallen nature and hidden even further by our present culture. Our faith and the Magisterium of the Church help to clarify these matters.
Finally, we should promote the spiritual Kingdom of God by being like leaven in the world. Always respecting others’ freedom of conscience, we should preach the Kingdom in our daily lives by word and deed, living out our vocation and engaging in apostolic work as God calls us to it for promoting integral human development and ultimately the salvation of souls.