Rorate Caeli

The Feast of Christ the King,
a Sermon by Father Richard Cipolla

a sermon on the feast, 
by Father Richard G. Cipolla
Cappella Palatina (Palazzo dei Normanni)
From the Gospel:  Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.”

Surely this is the most important conversation in the history of this world.  More important than any of Plato’s dialogues, more important than Augustine’s dialogue with God and himself in the Confessions, yes, more important than Hamlet’s soliloquy that is a dialogue with his silent audience, and yes, even more important than presidential press conferences.

We associate this gospel with Good Friday, for it is part of the Passion Gospel of St. John.  But this has always been the Gospel for the feast of Christ the King from its institution in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. This is high drama filled with irony, an irony that we see not only from the vantage point of believing Christians, but also the irony embedded in the persons of Christ and Pilate themselves.  The words “king”, “kingdom”, and above all “truth” are cut through with this deep irony that is cynicism on Pilate’s part and manful humility in the face of the knowledge of the incarnate God on Jesus’ part.

It is Jesus who tells Pilate and us what the very basis of his mission is, why he was born, why we genuflect at the Incarnatus in the Creed.  “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.  But further:  “Every one who is of the truth hears my voice. “  He is certainly is not referring to the mob who is screaming for his crucifixion, those who have deliberately blinded themselves to the truth in the name of religion.  He stands before this Roman governor who hated being in the backwater of Palestine and whose goal was survival in the nasty political Roman scene.  And we must never forget Pilate’s retort to Jesus’ claim about truth, that retort that is forever the answer of the world that wills itself to be blind.  “What is truth”?  This is no academic question, this is no sincere act of trying to find out what this all means.  This is the quintessential question that is the answer to its own question. The question means nothing, for it is in fact a denial, a denial that there is any truth that is not relative to time, place or person. A question that is a denial.

There are many of us who have been perplexed and upset by what happened at the first session of the Synod on the Family in Rome the last two weeks.  Quite apart from the synodal procedure itself which the Bishop of Providence called a Protestant way of doing things, where one votes on the truth, what was most upsetting was the very real attempt to railroad through propositions dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion, and with gay unions, that depart from the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church throughout her history, which teaching is affirmed as late as the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and in the Catholic Catechism itself.  Amidst this confusion and pain among those who love the Tradition of the Church there is also a sense of euphoria that the necessary two/thirds majority to pass these propositions as the sense of the Synod was not achieved.  But, as I have said elsewhere, there remains the fact that over 50 percent of the Cardinals and Bishops at that Synod voted in favor of the propositions which included openness to giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, to affirm positive aspects of cohabitation and civil unions, and to affirm positive elements in gay unions.  This should astound us.

But at the heart of all of this is another question that, like Pilate’s, is not a question at all and is in fact a denial.  It is the question:  “Who am I to judge”, and this question, we must remember, was put forth in the context of a question about the alleged “gay lobby” in the Vatican asked by a reporter on the papal plane returning from Brazil. The implication of this question as a denial of the traditional teaching of the Church on what is known as the gay lifestyle was noted by the media with great relish and interpreted as the beginning of a significant change on the teaching of the Church on human sexuality.  And, like the response to  Pilate’s question, the world smiled knowingly, knowing that there is no truth about anything, least about human sexuality.

The question, "Who am I to judge?", on first glance seems at worst disingenuous.  It of course recalls Jesus’ command:  judge not lest you be judged.  But it is a sleight of hand, for anyone knows that judgment is part of what it means to be a responsible human being, and parents know this so well, that judgement is part of  being a parent, and this especially with regard to bringing up children.  And within the ministry of the Church, the priest in the Confessional is there not only as the dispenser of God’s mercy in absolution. He is there also and necessarily as the judge of the person’s sin and as the judge of the person’s contrition.  And anyone who understands Jesus’ prohibitive words about judgment rationally knows that he is talking about that ultimate judgment of a person that belongs to God alone, which judgment is forbidden to any man.

But it is this question that is a denial of truth in matters of morality that lies at the heart of this drive to change the Church’s moral teaching in the name of more merciful pastoral practice.  A writer for the Italian version of Huffington Post—I know, that gives one pause—lamented the failure of the Synod to carry out the "October revolution". And they failed, he says, because they could not find a bridge that would lead from the indissolubility of marriage and the Church’s teaching on those sexual acts that are a part of gay unions to that pastoral practice that would give Holy Communion to divorced and remarried persons and to the affirmation of the goodness present in gay marriage.  He laments this deeply because, he says, the Pope gave them the bridge.  The Pontifex, the bridge builder in Latin, gave them the bridge, showed them how to get from one to the other, in the form of the question:  Who am I to judge?  This is the way to affirm doctrine and then adopt a pastoral practice that denies it.  And it is the way, except the bridge leads to at best liberal Protestantism or at worst the individualism of secularism.

Christ the King. What does this title mean? I am afraid not much to many Catholics today.  How many Catholics know that this feast proclaims the kingship of Christ over all peoples and nations?  This is not a feast that makes Christ in a sentimental way the king of just Catholics.  This feast, if properly understood, is a direct  contradiction  of the self-ghettoization of the Catholic Church as just one more religion whose head happens to be this "guy" Christ.   But this feast is also a feast of the personal relationship of Christ with each of us who believes that He is our Savior and our Lord.  How many of us consider ourselves as truly subject to the words, the teachings, the person of Christ?  How many of us really believe that our King reigns from the Cross, that Cross that is at once the reality of the suffering of this world and at the same time the only answer to the suffering of this world. How many of us have enthroned him in our hearts, our minds, our bodies and souls, not in some pietistic way, but in a real way that affects how we live our lives?  How many of us are willing to be the soldiers of the King, to fight the battle against the implications of Pilate’s question “what is truth” in a world, like the world of Jesus’ time, has already assented to the denial implied in that question?  And the final question to be asked on this feast is this: when the King comes again in all of his power and glory, will he find any faith on this earth, or will he find just broken bridges?

[Earlier meditation was replaced with this one upon request due to some formatting errors.]