by Kim Long
In the movie Saving Grace, the pope, played by a young Tom Conti, greets the crowd of faithful pilgrims on a bright Easter morning with the words, “I want to tell you a story, because it’s a good story.” And so it is with each of us and our own stories.
I came to Catholicism in part through the novels of the late priest and author Andrew M. Greeley, which to me served as a fictional vehicle for theological truth. In his early novels a particular family, the Ryans, served as a prototype for the Church. Through these stories I was introduced to the people and their parishes, which were also characters. One in particular grabbed me – “Christ the King.”
In this fictional parish, the ebb and flow of life was lived out. As a convert I had not really thought of Christ as a king, even though as Baptists we had belted out many hymns which spoke of Jesus in just this way.
Years later I had the opportunity to attend a Kol Nidre service at a local Jewish synagouge. A Jewish friend knew of my love for God, history and all things religious and told me the music was beautiful, the prayers powerful and she thought I would enjoy it. Before attending I asked her the meaning of the service. She said, “All year long God is our friend, our partner. Tonight he is our King.”
That night God and I began to travel down a path of serious and lengthy meditation on our liturgical year. Over the course of many years I have thought of that night and my friend’s statement and our own Catholic year. As dear Fr. Greeley might have put it, God hit me over the head with a cosmic baseball bat. I began to see what others before me had seen; that this beautiful feast is more than a resting place before Advent and the inevitable bustle of Christmas. It is a chance to see where we have come from, how we have learned and where we need to continue. It is maturation and renewal, rest and refreshment at the feet of love abounding. It is remembering that Christ is King; King of our hearts, King of our lives, King of the universe. It is remembering that “the greatest of these is love.”
So I did some research.
The feast of Jesus Christ the King of the Universe, which falls on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, is a relatively new feast in our tradition. It comes to us from Pope Pius XI who served the faithful between the two great wars of the 20th century. I know very little about the men who became our popes. I knew nothing about Pope Pius XI but as I read about his life and the document Quas Primas, I got to glimpse through a window into our history.
Imagine, if you will, a year in which earthquakes and tornados leave thousands dead and injured, world leaders set themselves up as dictators rather than guiding those citizens in their care, and a book is written and published by an author who will forever change the world. And then there is one Achile Ratti, known by the faithful as Pope Pius XI. With definite ideas of his own – he earned three doctorates, philosophy, theology, and canon law – there was more to him than a glance can reveal. An athlete who climbed mountains, he reached the summits of the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa to name just two. This was not a leader who lived in his head and retreated from the rest of the word. Reportedly when Hitler came to Italy to visit Mussolini, Pius XI left earlier than normal for his summer home intending this as a snub towards men whose policies he felt were directly against Christ’s teachings. Not exactly a lightweight. So in December 1925 when he wrote Quas Primas he had things to say.
As writings of the Holy Fathers go it’s an easy read, only about 10 or 11 pages in length. I was amazed that it wasn’t written in our current time, it’s that relevant and timeless. It was written to speak to secularism, a way of life that leaves God out of our thinking and living and organizes humanity’s lives as if God doesn’t exist. Pius XI wanted to help the faithful regain the sense of respect for Christ. Just as the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted when devotion to the Eucharist had waned, so it was with this feast. Respect and love for Christ needed to be paramount in the minds of the Church again: “That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, our minds, our wills, and our bodies.” Quas Primas 32
Pope Paul VI stated in Mysterii Paschalis, “the whole mystery of Christ unfolds within the cycle of a year.” Again from Paul VI, “The Paschal Mystery and its celebration constitutes the essence of Christian worship in its daily, weekly and yearly unfolding. The Second Vatican Council clearly teaches this.”
In its current position as the last Sunday of the Church year, the Feast of Christ the King is poised to bring us into a fuller understanding of what we have journeyed toward as we began the previous Advent. We began during Advent, being pregnant with the love of God, birthing that love during Christmas, growing with it, dying and rising with it through the year. Now we bring our experiences, the Masses we have been part of, every offering, every hurt, joy, sadness, guilt, every birth we have celebrated, every loss we have mourned, every hour of our awareness, we bring to this Feast of Christ our King. It is the culmination, maturation of another year of growth, relationship with our God, our Church and ourselves, realizing that God and His love for us permeates all.
Does that mean we always “get it right,” that we never forget that Christ is King? Probably not. For me this feast is a powerful reminder of Christ’s kingship. The colors of gold and white, the readings, the music and the prayers call me to cast aside the user friendly God that I have probably made in my own image and open myself up to the immensity, the beauty, the love of God who created all and cares for all, truly a King.
So as our liturgical year winds down and the department stores court us with Christmas carols in October, be strong and resist being swept away prematurely. Be in the moment, be present, and celebrate this feast given to us by God, which Pope Pius XI so gently reminded us of in the turmoil of 1925, and remember that in the midst of the messiness of life Christ is King.
This year the readings for the Feast of Christ the King are from Cycle C. The psalm response serves as an invitation of the sweetest kind, “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.” May we each arrive rejoicing at the celebration of this feast.
Quas Primas by Pope Pius XI
Pope Pius XI wrote the document Quas Primas in1925. In it the Feast of Christ the King was established to help regain a sense of respect for Christ. The encyclical includes many reasons to establish the Feast of Christ the King, including:
Christ is said to reign in the hearts and will of men in intellect, truth, grace and inspiration. QP 7
He is King of hearts, too, by reason of his “charity which exceedeth all knowledge.” QP 7
We read throughout the scriptures that Christ is King, both in the Old and New Testaments. QP 8 – 10
Christ speaks on his own kingly authority in his reply to the Roman magistrate, who asked him publicly whether he were a king or not; after his resurrection, when giving to his Apostles the mission of teaching and baptizing all nations, he took the opportunity to call himself king, confirming the title publicly, and solemnly proclaimed that all power was given him in heaven and on earth. – QP 11
“…the Catholic Church, which is the kingdom of Christ on earth, destined to be spread among all men and all nations, should with every token of veneration salute her Author and Founder in her annual liturgy as King and Lord, and as King of Kings.” – QP 12