On the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. A relative newcomer to the Church calendar — established in the 20th century — this feast is designed to give special recognition to the dominion Christ our Lord has over all aspects of our lives. But why and how did it come about? And why is it so important today?
When Cardinal Ambrogio Achille Ratti was elected pope and took the name Pope Pius XI, much of the world was in shambles. The year was 1922, and while the bloodletting of World War I (1914-1918) had ended, widespread peace and tranquility were not evident.
The war to end all wars had been especially devastating to England and the countries of continental Europe. Additionally, the overthrow of the Romanov tsars by the Russian Revolution had created great upheaval in Russia and brought immense suffering. Governments were in economic chaos, unemployment was rampant and people in many places were literally starving to death.
The stability of the old social and political orders that had embraced royal houses and crowned heads of state were crumbling. The victorious warring powers sought severe penalties and unreasonable reparations from the vanquished Germans through the Treaty of Versailles.
Pessimism, a sense of helplessness compounded by hatred among the nations, was overwhelming. The time was ripe for the rise of tyrants, and rise they did. The festering philosophies of fascism, National Socialism (the Nazis) and communism now spawned the likes of Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Pope Pius XI’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XV, had warned about this prophetically in 1920 when he wrote, “There can be no stable peace or lasting treaties, though made after long and difficult negotiations and duly signed, unless there be a return of mutual charity to appease hate and banish enmity.”
In their distress, people clung to anyone who offered them hope, offered some kind of direction out of the chaos and promised to put food on their tables. They gravitated to the emerging dictators, and as they did they often sought to be self-sufficient to the exclusion of God from their everyday lives.
Many considered the basics of morality and the teachings of the Church to be out of date, no longer relevant in 20th-century society. Modern thinking allowed that, at most, Christ might be king in the private life of the individual, but certainly not in the public world.
Some political regimes advocated the banishment of Jesus altogether, not only from society, but from the family as well. As nations were reborn and governments restructured, their foundations, policies and laws were often being fashioned without regard to Christian principles.
Affirming Christ’s Kingship
In all these developments, the new Pope Pius XI saw that people were denying Christ in favor of a lifestyle dominated by secularism, material advantage and false hope created by the tyrants.
He realized that he had to ad- dress the political and economic forces that were crowding out the kingship of Jesus. As a start, he dedicated his reign as pope to “The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ” ( Pax Christi in Regno Christi ).
In 1925, the Church celebrated a jubilee year in honor of the 1,600th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea. The council fathers taking part in that ancient gathering in A.D. 325 had affirmed the full divinity of Jesus Christ as God the Son, one in being with God the Father. Their pronouncement became a creed that was later expanded into what we now call the Nicene Creed, which we still profess at Mass every Sunday.
Throughout the anniversary year, Pope Pius constantly emphasized the kingship of Christ as declared in the Creed: “His kingdom will have no end.” He stressed that theme throughout the year as it repeatedly appeared in the Church’s celebrations of the Annunciation, the Epiphany, the Transfiguration and the Ascension. As part of the Holy Year, which was afforded great attention and pomp by the Vatican, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Rome, demonstrating great fervor for their faith.
On Dec. 11 of the jubilee year, and in order to acknowledge perpetually the supremacy of Jesus Christ over all men, nations and earthly allegiances, the pope issued the encyclical Quas Primas, which added the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ the King” to the annual Church liturgical calendar.
Some at the time argued that such a celebration was unnecessary because the ancient feast of the Epiphany already acknowledged Christ as King. But more than 340 religious leaders, including cardinals and bishops, had called for the new celebration, and the pope was glad to grant their request.
The encyclical provided for the feast of Christ the King to be held each year on the last Sunday of October. This date, a week before All Saints’ Day and four weeks before Advent, was carefully chosen: It reminded the people that Jesus Christ is not only King of this world, reigning among nations today; He is also the eternal King, glorified by the saints in heaven, who will one day come to judge all humankind.
In his encyclical, the pope noted that the continuing disorder of that era, what he called “the plague of society,” had long been festering and was the result of nations rejecting Christ. Later in the encyclical the pontiff pointedly reminded national governments, “Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for His kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education” (No. 32).
Time for Consecration
The pope instructed the faithful to use this annual celebration as a time to consecrate themselves, or renew their consecration to, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, explicitly tying the celebration to devotion to the Sacred Heart and to the living Christ in the Eucharist. He also called for Catholics to make reparations for the widespread atheism being practiced in many countries.
In 1969, Pope Paul VI took several steps to enhance the witness of the feast day. To emphasize Christ’s universal reign, he changed the name of the celebration to the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of All” ( Domini Nostri Iesu Christi universorum Regis ) He also changed the date to the last Sunday in the liturgical year, emphasizing even more strongly the connection between Christ’s kingship and His second advent (coming) to judge the world. In addition, the pope raised the feast to the highest rank of celebration on the Church calendar, that of a “solemnity.”
Today, peace still eludes us; social, political and economic orders are shaking; and the nations continue in many ways to reject the light of the Gospel. We can be grateful, then, for the chance to celebrate each year the Solemnity of Christ the King — for the world needs now, more than ever, our witness to His rule over all things.
On the kingship of Christ
The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences … the seeds of discord sown far and wide; those bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society, in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin. We firmly hope, however, that the feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in the future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of society to our loving Savior.
— Pope Pius XI, encyclical Quas Primas , no. 24
The “Power” of Jesus Christ
But in what does this “power” of Jesus Christ the King consist? It is not the power of the kings or the great people of this world; it is the divine power to give eternal life, to liberate from evil, to defeat the dominion of death. It is the power of Love that can draw good from evil, that can melt a hardened heart, bring peace amid the harshest conflict and kindle hope in the thickest darkness. This Kingdom of Grace is never imposed and always respects our freedom. Christ came “to bear witness to the truth” (Jn 18: 37), as he declared to Pilate: whoever accepts his witness serves beneath his “banner.” . . . Every conscience, therefore, must make a choice. Who do I want to follow? God or the Evil One? The truth or falsehood? Choosing Christ does not guarantee success according to the world’s criteria but assures the peace and joy that he alone can give us. This is demonstrated, in every epoch, by the experience of numerous men and women who, in Christ’s name, in the name of truth and justice, were able to oppose the enticements of earthly powers with their different masks, to the point that they sealed their fidelity with martyrdom.
— Pope Benedict XVI, on the feast of Christ the King, Nov. 22, 2009