Tomorrow is the great Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, most commonly known as the Feast of Christ the King. The venerable feast has been celebrated by Catholics for generations, its earliest documented celebrations dating back to the ancient year of… 1925.
That’s right, the feast of Christ the King was established less than a hundred years ago by Pope Pius XI. And it’s been celebrated as the last Sunday of the liturgical year for even less time: it was moved from the last Sunday in October to its current place in 1969 by Pope Paul VI, who also gave the feast its current official name.
Why did Pope Pius XI think the Church needed a new feast?
“The True Leader of the World”
“It is generally thought that Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 to counter the growing trends of agnosticism, atheism, and secularism in Europe at that time,” says Robert Fastiggi, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
“While this is certainly true, in his 1925 encyclical Quas Primas (QP) instituting the feast, he also mentions a missionary motivation, i.e. for the Church to spread ‘the kingdom of her Spouse to the most distant regions of the earth.’ (QP, 3) He also alludes to 1925 as a jubilee year marking the sixteenth centenary of the Council of Nicaea (325), and he notes that there was added to the Creed of Nicaea the recognition that Christ's kingdom will have no end, ‘thereby affirming the kingly dignity of Christ.’ (QP, 5)”
Ronald J. Rychlak, Butler Snow Lecturer and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, adds “communism” to the list of things Pius XI was meaning to counteract with the new feast. “Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925, partially in response to the rise of communism and related social theories. As both Marx and Nietzsche acknowledged, communism is fundamentally inconsistent with faith in God. That is why wherever communism goes, religion is persecuted. By proclaiming Christ as King, the pope called on Catholics to reject the materialistic basis of communism, socialism, and (then still emerging) National Socialism and look instead to Jesus as the true leader of their world.”
David Fagerberg, Associate Professor of Liturgy and Senior Advisor to the Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, says the purpose of the feast is fourfold.
“First, the feast is Christological: Pius XI quotes Cyril of Alexandria saying ‘Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.’ From this Pius XI concludes, ‘His kingship is founded upon the ineffable hypostatic union.’ Christ’s kingship is rooted in the fact he is the God-man. It is a Christological affirmation about Christ’s identity.”
“Second, the feast affirms a moral order: throughout the encyclical Pius XI asserts that peace, liberty, charity and the like come from a well-ordered society, which means obedience to authority and obedience to moral law. On the one hand, Christ’s kingdom is spiritual and concerned with spiritual things (QP, 15); on the other hand, it is an error to say Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs (QP, 17). Christ refrained from the exercise of civil authority, but did require that those who exercise it should do so in obedience to God’s moral law.”
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