The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to combat agnosticism, atheism, and secularism in Europe - all of which remain grave threats.
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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“Third, the feast is meant internally for Christians: pronouncements only reach a few, learned men, but feasts affect both mind and heart. The feast should encourage and inspire Christians to turn over their mind, heart and will to Christ, their king.”
“Lastly, the feast is meant externally as a witness to the nations: the religion of Christ was put under the power of the state, at the whim of princes and rulers, and the annual celebration of the feast would remind nations of their proper duties.”
“The Title Was Extremely Popular”
Though the feast isn’t particularly important to Catholics today, the feast used to very popular, particularly among the youth, says Sr. Dolores Liptak, R.S.M., Professor of Church History at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. “[T]he concept of Christ as King does not seem to resonate among American Catholics. …[T]he title was extremely popular when I was growing up.”
“Daniel Lord, SJ, the great promoter of Catholic Action among youth, gave it universal appeal with his famous song: ‘An Army of Youth Flying the Standard of Truth…we're fighting for Christ the King.’ Every young confirmand learned it, sang it with gusto, and even marched to it – regardless of the region that he/she was from.”
“Ask any older cradle Catholic – from Connecticut to California – to sing a few lines”, she recommends, “and you will be amazed. How to revive that spirit is the trick, for sure, [but] I believe it is worth a try.”
Fastiggi describes other customs that have been connected with the feast. “In times past, and still continued in some places, priests would wear gold colored vestments and have a procession of the Blessed Sacrament ending with a prayer of consecration to Christ the King followed by benediction prior to Mass.”
“In the Third Edition of the Handbook of Indulgences (1986), there is an ‘Act of Dedication to Christ the King’ that carries a plenary indulgence if it is publicly recited on the solemnity of Christ the King. This is something I think pastors should consider having recited after Mass on the Feast (Solemnity) of Christ the King.”
A Crucial Message for Today
“[T]he greatest lesson the feast teaches,” says Anthony Esolen, who teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College, “is that all large-scale political action, in all nations no matter their constitution, is only of secondary or subsidiary importance, when compared with what is truly good and noble in human life”
“That we have Christ as our King means that we need not abase our humanity before any false ruler, whether it be a monarch or a party or even the ‘will’ of mass numbers in a democracy. It reminds us that all authority comes from God; and that means that authority that does not orient man towards his fulfillment in love of God and of neighbor is a mock authority, an imposture.”
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Associate Professor of Theology in the School of Arts & Sciences at Aquinas College Richard H. Bulzacchelli says the feast is an important reminder that the world is much bigger than what we can see. “Once each year, we celebrate a fact that can be known for certain only through the eyes of faith, but without which we can never entertain any truly universal hope for humanity: that this world is not all there is to existence, and that this fact touches every aspect of life, not just the individual mind or soul, but, in some way we cannot yet explain or understand, the whole world of man. Christ is ‘King’, therefore, because he alone holds the final authority over our world.”
“Not only does God exist, and not only does he create the world. He has entered into it and drawn it to himself, and he will never leave it alone. So, when push comes to shove, the triumph of love over hatred, mercy over sin, and life over death, means that hatred, sin, and death no longer have any power or authority in human life. We are genuinely free to follow the moral law and choose what is truly good and righteous, even under pain of death, with Christ as King of Heaven and Earth, even the end of the world is not the end of the world.”
The feast celebrates the absolute preeminence of Christ, says author and pastor Fr. George Rutler. “The Feast of Christ the King, in dedication of all human order to his rule. God’s throne is the power of grace that holds all physical creatures in an ordered unity and inspires moral life toward eternal happiness. Without him nothing holds together, and chaos reigns because, as one liturgical preface says, ‘Before him, all earthly rule is a shadow and a passing breath.’”
Observances for the Feast of Christ the King don’t have to be extravagant. “Pray for Religious Liberty in our country,” suggests Church historian Fr. C. John McCloskey. “It will please Christ the King”
The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:
Richard H. Bulzacchelli is Associate Professor of Theology in the School of Arts & Sciences at Aquinas College and a Senior Fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.
Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass.
David Fagerberg is Associate Professor of Liturgy and Senior Advisor to the Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.
Robert Fastiggi is a professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI and and vice president of the Mariological Society of America.
Sister Dolores Liptak, R.S.M., is a Professor of Church History at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.
Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington D.C.. His personal website is www.frmccloskey.com.
Fr. George Rutler is pastor of the Church of St. Michael and administrator of the Church of the Holy Innocents, both in Manhattan. He has made documentary films in the United States and England, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 16 books.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Butler Snow Lecturer and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.