The feast of Christ the King is celebrated throughout the Catholic world this year on Sunday, Nov. 24. Easter and Pentecost, Christmas and even Ash Wednesday are ancient observances. Given the long history of the Church, the feast of Christ the King is rather recent.
Pope Pius XI established it in 1925. A lesson may be drawn from the fact that it is not old. The obligation of the Church is to concern itself with circumstances as they occur at the moment and to speak publicly to the events and conditions of the day. So when the Church today addresses modern issues such as the environment, conflicts among nations and the correct definition of marriage, it is doing its job.
As a personality, Pope Pius XI, Achille Ratti, an Italian by birth and heritage, was an interesting figure. He was very smart, a keen observer of all occurring in life, across the world, and, as is said today, he told it like it was.
His theme, and his demand, for the Church was what he called “Catholic Action,” a phrase rarely heard today, but very much still an ideal for Catholics. If a Catholic is a physician, bring the Catholic faith into medicine, by following morals and ethics, and for seeking to heal the sick driven by compassion, as was the example of Jesus, and by nothing else. If a Catholic is an automobile salesman, bring the Faith into the job by being honest. The list is endless.
Pius XI’s dream of “Catholic Action” still lives since it profoundly influenced the Second Vatican Council, which set many of the policies and practices that are still seen in the Church.
Sharp in his vision and bold in his speech, Pius XI saw in major national societies the emergence of leaders who used their abilities to persuade or to produce fear and hatred. Specifically, he saw the coming of the dictators, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, in Europe. The pope knew that their philosophies would bring unprecedented harm to human life. He got that right.
Pope Pius created this feast to remind Catholics, in particular, that any human being and every human being is imperfect, and that even the most powerful come and go. Speaking for the present, for instance, where is Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Joseph Stalin or even the praiseworthy George Washington? They are dead and gone. The Lord Jesus lives.
Referring to Christ as “king” has very definite biblical roots. His contemporaries saluted him as the “son of David,” Israel’s great king. Pontius Pilate accused Jesus of trying to be a king to unseat the Roman emperor.
In 1925, however, kings were much more prevalent in the European political landscape than is the case today. Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Yugoslavia and Italy all had kings at that time, but now all are republics. So back then, to speak of Christ as a king brought to mind realities that were very much a part of life.
The message still applies. In kingdoms, the monarch is the summit of everything, the provider of justice and order, the guardian of rights, the centerpiece, even in robust democracies, such as modern Britain, Spain or Denmark.
Queen Elizabeth, now deceased, wife of King George VI, mother of Queen Elizabeth II, was of that generation. For decades, the British lovingly referred to her as the “queen mum.” Britons still regard her as a great heroine of the Second World War. As bombs fell on London, she was confronted with this question: Would the Royal Family flee to Canada for security? Without hesitating, she stated quite emphatically, “The king will never, ever leave you.”
Christ the King is the source of perfect justice, mercy, truth and order — the centerpiece of true believers’ lives. He never leaves us. He lives our lives with us if we allow it. Always, he stands beside us, whatever the trials that come. Follow the Lord.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.