Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Christ the King: Catholic Paralysis following Vatican II Threatens Very Foundation of the Church

by Fr. Richard Cipolla
St. Mary's
Norwalk, Connecticut

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.”
(John 18:37-38)

The Feast of Christ the King was added to the Roman Calendar in Pope Pius XI’s Encyclical Quas Primas  on December 11, 1925.   This was the time of a most troubling interlude between the two World  Wars that devastated two generations.  It was also a troubled time for the Catholic Church.  This time was the beginning of the rise of the understanding of an ideal government as purely secular.  This was also the time when the so called Roman question had not been resolved, the question being the dispute regarding the temporal power of the popes as rulers of a civil territory in the context of the Italian Risorgimento. It ended with the Lateran Pacts between King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Pope Pius XI in 1929.

The Pope was quite explicit in why he thought it necessary and salutary to institute this feast for the whole Church. The date, the last Sunday in October, was chosen because it was the Sunday before All Saints Day, when the manifestation of the kingdom of Christ is seen in the glorious holiness of the saints in heaven; also because it was near the end of the liturgical year, and finally,  because that Sunday had been traditionally observed as Reformation Sunday by Protestants.

I want to read to you the Pope’s own words that enable us to understand his conception of this feast from his Encyclical that promulgated the feast of Christ the King.   He quotes St. Cyril of Alexandria.  “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence or usurped, but his essence and nature”.  Then the Pope goes on:  “His kingship is founded upon the ineffable hypostatic union From this it follows not only that Christ is to be adored by angels and men but that to him as man angels and men are subject, and must recognize his empire; by reason of the hypostatic union Christ has power over all creatures.  But a thought that must give us even greater joy and consolation is this:  that Christ is our King by acquired, as well as by natural right, for he is our Redeemer.”

He then goes on to explain how Christ’s kingdom is spiritual and not at all concerned with worldly power. But it is at this point he adds:  “It would be a grave error, however, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since by virtue of absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power….Thus the empire of our Redeemer embraces all men. To use the words of Our immortal predecessor Pope Leo XIII:  “ ‘His empire includes not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the Church, have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ.’”

How do we react to those words, to this insistence that the kingship of Christ extends to all men and women living on this earth and that as a conclusion every government must understand their obligation to govern in a way that is consonant with the teaching of Christ the King? To those of us who have grown up with the dictum of separation of Church and State, to those of us who have grown up since World War II and the secularization of society, to those who are young who have grown up with the assumption that Catholicism and Christianity are just one religion among many, for those who have grown up with pluralism as the ultimate gift of the gods, what can the kingship of Christ mean?  We could take refuge in trying to spiritualize the whole thing, but that would be dishonest with respect to what Pope Pius XI was saying.  Or we can transfer the feast to another day and thereby change its meaning.  That is what the reformers of the calendar did in 1970.  In the Novus Ordo calendar this feast was transferred to the last Sunday of the Year, immediately before the First Sunday in Advent. The readings for that Sunday are always about the end times:  stars falling out of the sky, earthquakes, terrible tribulations.  There is avalidity in associating this feast with the end time when the Kingship of Christ will be made totally manifest.  But to associate this feast with only the future—even the ultimate future—makes it much easier to dismiss the reality of the Kingship of Christ as just part of the End Times, which for many Catholics and for most people in general has no meaning right now in their lives in this world.  It is much easier to deal with Christ the King who will come again in some vague way in the future than to deal with Christ the King right now.

Imagine someone—lay man or woman, deacon, priest, bishop or Pope, going to the UN and speaking about the kingship of Christ and the implications of his kingship for every member of the United Nations using the words of Pius XI.  The representatives of the UN would be polite and not say out loud what they are thinking—this guy is crazy.  And there would be polite applause after the speech, and then they would go to a fancy dinner in New York and talk about the crazy Catholic who spoke of the kingship of Christ in practical terms for each of their countries. They would laugh and order cocktails before dinner.  At least Pilate had the sardonic intelligence to ask the King:  what is truth?

The paralysis that has beset the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council threatens the very foundation of the Church, for it makes evangelization as defined by Christ himself before the Ascension impossible.  Playing footsie with the world is not the same as being wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.  Denying the objectivity of sin in the name of mercy is not consonant with Jesus’ words at the beginning of his ministry:  “Repent and believe the Gospel!”  Making mercy a principle that trumps the justice of God is worse than phariseeism.  But the current situation in the Church would be impossible without the rise of a hyper-papalism, that reduces the Church and her teaching to the person of the Pope.  This irrational reduction of the teaching of the Church and the authentic development of doctrine to the preferential musings of a Pope is destructive to the Church of Jesus Christ.  “You are Peter”.  The Pope is the Vicar of Peter. And his job, and it is a job, a job that has certain perks handed down by Tradition, his job is to pass on the Catholic faith totally and unalloyed and to give his assent to those developments of doctrine that are the fruit of centuries of thought and prayer and then to define them as credenda, those things that are to be believed by Catholics because they are true.  

What is missing? Why are we Catholics in the situation in which we find ourselves, emasculated and irrelevant with respect to the world?  Because we no longer hear those words that are the antidote to the poison of secular contemporary secularism, the world of tweets and texts. Catholics no longer hear and understand those words:  Hoc est enim corpus meum.. those words that are the antidote to the frivolous and empty culture in which we live.  Not “This is my body”  or “Este es mi cuerpo”, or “Questo é il mio corpo, or “To jest moje ciałot”. But Hoc est enim corpus meum. Those words that transcend the particularity of the cacophony of language and  that are uttered in a language that is no longer a spoken language and therefore transcends particularity: they are the words that make real the presence of Christ the King in a world that despises him or does not know him or is bored with him or cannot turn off their text messages to pay attention to him or cannot stop tweeting to express their own banality—there it is.  The words of Christ the King.  The Truth. What is truth?  Hoc est enim corpus meum.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla