A few years before he was overthrown in 1952, King Farouk of Egypt said "The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left—the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds."
He wasn't quite right. Although several kings lost their thrones in the second half of the twentieth century, at least one—the King of Spain—got his back.
But modern monarchs bear little resemblance to those who reigned in 1925, the year when Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King. Even if they had already lost most of their political power, kings were given enormous respect and deference. In most countries, they embodied the national spirit, and elaborate systems of protocol set them apart from ordinary citizens.
It is safe to say that no-one in 1925 would have imagined a future King of England producing an engagement ring from a backpack! Scandinavian monarchs doing grocery shopping or Belgian royalty on bicycles would have seemed equally odd. Life in palaces isn't what it used to be.
So what did Pius XI have in mind when he proclaimed this feast 85 years ago?
We don't need to guess, because the Pope answered that question in an encyclical letter (Quas primas).He starts by showing three reasons why Christ is already, and without doubt, our unique and eternal King.
First, because God's people had already acclaimed Christ as their King. He reigned in human hearts, because his mercy and kindness drew all humanity to him. Never has it been known, the Pope wrote, nor will it ever be, that a man was loved so much and so universally as Jesus Christ.
Second, because we read throughout the Scriptures that Christ is King. Pope Pius gives numerous scripture quotations, including some we read on this feast in other years although none from today's Mass. He draws particular attention to the Psalms and the prophets, including the famous text from which Canada gets its national motto: "he shall rule from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth."
And of course he quotes the angel's words to Mary announcing that she should bear a Son: "the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father, and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."
The third reason is that Christ is our Redeemer. By purchasing us at the cost of his own blood, Christ has a claim on us even through his sacred humanity. We owe obedience and loyalty to the one who has saved us.
But why did Pius XI feel it was important to give the Church this celebration at that particular time? Two reasons stand out clearly in his letter: because the world needed it and the Church needed it.
In 1925 the seeds of fascism, Nazism, and communism had begun to sprout. Atheistic ideologies rejected any role for God and the Church in human affairs. In his first encyclical after being chosen Pope in 1922, Pius XI had written "With God and Jesus Christ excluded from political life… human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation."
In his encyclical instituting today's feast, the Pope wrote "once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony."
The Kingship of Christ also rebukes the abuse of power by the State: it reminds rulers of the last judgment, where Christ, cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will avenge the insults paid to him and to his faithful ones; "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."
The political evils of 1925 are different than those of 2010, but the need for Christ's kingly rule is as great as ever, particularly as we confront the evil of abortion. The present Pope has asked the entire Church to join him this Saturday in a vigil of prayer for the unborn; our local Church will gather at the Cathedral at 7 p.m. If Christ were seated before us on his kingly throne, would he not command rather than invite us to be there? And would we obey?
So the world needs to know that Christ is King. But we who already know that also need this feast. The second reason Pope Pius gave for instituting it was for the good of the faithful. By meditating upon these truths, he wrote, we will gain strength and courage, and be able to form our lives after the true Christian ideal.
To my mind, here are the most stirring words of the entire letter: "If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.
"He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls."
Our minds, our wills, our hearts, our bodies. Does Christ rule over them? That's a question all of us might well think about today.
But perhaps it's too big a question for the moment. Let me focus it in light of what I learned at the priests' study week from which I have just returned. When I arrived for the study week, I thought we were going to talk about the new translation of the Mass which will arrive in a year or so. But the real subject was the Mass itself—what it means to celebrate worthily and well these sacred mysteries.
And looking ahead to our parish feast day, I realized that we cannot celebrate the liturgy well if we do not accept Christ as our Redeemer and King.
In recent years, it was fashionable to "take ownership" of the Sunday liturgy. Priests in some places changed things around to suit themselves or their parishioners. Myself, I did all in my power to avoid the famous accusation "But Mass is so boring!" We may have emphasized fellowship before and after Mass at the expense of silence and preparation; we may have come to Mass more like consumers than humble subjects of God's divine majesty.
Even the first translators of the Mass from Latin into English were encouraged to "take ownership" of the liturgical texts. Part of the ancient heritage of the Church got lost in the process, which is why we will have a new missal in a year or eighteen months.
But no changes will make the slightest difference unless we approach the Eucharist each Sunday in the way Pope Pius, and every Pope, has taught: in a spirit of holy joy that shows that we are Christ's subjects as well as his friends. As we prepare for a new missal with major changes in the Mass texts, I hope we can reflect together on how we ought to approach the Mass and how we ought to participate in it: with hearts, minds, wills and bodies all placed in obedient service to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Notice that even our bodies should speak a liturgical language of reverence and submission, whether we're in Church to pray alone or to participate at Mass. Each of us needs to try our best to make sure that in all the gestures we make—the sign of the cross in particular—and in every posture we take—kneeling, sitting or standing—we are mindful of the royal presence of Christ.
But our bodies must reflect what is in our minds and wills. And here we face constant temptations to shove Christ off his royal throne, or at least to say "move over, I want a seat." We're educated, we read widely, and we live and work in a post-Christian culture. It's all too easy to claim authority for ourselves at the expense of the obedience we owe as subjects of Christ.
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King, is the ideal moment to recommit ourselves—as individuals, and as a parish community—to his loyal service: to humble, faithful and reverent participation in the Mass, to generous concern for the least of the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and to obedient acceptance of what his Church teaches and commands in his name.
In the words of Pope Pius XI, let us bear Christ's yoke, not as a burden but with joy, with love, with devotion; that having lived our lives in accordance with the laws of God's kingdom, we may receive abundant good fruit; and, counted good and faithful servants by Christ, may be made sharers with him in eternal happiness and glory in his heavenly kingdom.