Pius XI announced the establishment of the feast of Christ the King in an encyclical, Quas primas, published in December 1925. In its introduction he reflects on the significance of the year which is coming to an end. It is interesting to revisit the context to learn more about the feast which finishes our liturgical year. The year 1925 was a jubilee year, and at Pius XI’s insistence there was an exhibition about the work of missionaries held in the Vatican, which allowed visitors to see “how many countries have been won to the Catholic name through the unremitting labour and self-sacrifice of missionaries, and the vastness of the regions which have yet to be subjected to the sweet and saving yoke of our King”. It was a time when the desire to convert whole countries to Christianity was clearly regarded as evidence of zeal, not colonialism.
Pius explains that something of the beauty of Christ’s kingdom is evidenced in the heroic virtues of the saints he has canonised during the year. They included St John Vianney, St Thérèse of Lisieux, St Peter Canisius and St John Eudes. But the main reason given for the feast’s appositeness is that 1925 marked the 16th centenary of the Council of Nicaea, which taught that Christ is consubstantial with the Father and declared in its Symbol, or Creed, that “His kingdom shall have no end.”
Christ’s dominion over all men derives not from power or coercion but from that same hypostatic union declared by the 4th-century council. He is God and Man, so he has the right to claim authority both on earth and in heaven. A kind divine right of spiritual authority we might expect, but Pius XI points out that, more than this, Christ has acquired a natural right to claim authority because this divine person, in his human nature, has acquired authority over us by this redeeming death. Redemption means that he has acquired us at a price: the sacrifice of his body and blood. What was his by right he earned by offering himself for us as the price of our salvation. His dominion over us is based not on the shock and awe of divinity, but an unequalled human self-offering of incarnate love.
To celebrate the feast, therefore, we must earnestly hope that the world will come under his dominion. The encyclical is a far cry from the idea that God wills all religious equally, precisely because that would fly in the face of the logic of the hypostatic union. Could it really be the case that God revealed his very self in human nature and yet simultaneously wills that people should remain in ignorance of this, or even deny that it is true, or that Christ be demoted to the status of just another prophet? To declare the kingship of Christ is not some kind of triumphalist or colonial superiority on the part of the Church. It is the only coherent position if I truly believe that the man Jesus of Nazareth was also consubstantial with the Father, and if I do, then it follows “that Christ has absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power”.
This power is not political, economic or coercive in anyway: “Christ’s kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things.” His reign advances to the extent that those who profess the name of Christian live in interior subjection to Christ in their hearts, believing what he has taught and willing what he wills, not merely as some ideal which can be accommodated to other, earthly authorities, but as the authority by which I judge everything I do and everything in the world is to be judged.