A reflection on the readings of November 26, 2023 — The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

The feast of Christ the King was introduced by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the encyclical Quas Primas as a response to the growth of secularism and atheism in the world. Perhaps the very title of the feast unveiled long after the total or effective collapse of most monarchies in the Catholic world belies the fact that there was also, within some circles in the hierarchy, an unease with the contemporary democratic world order. Europe was still recovering from one world war and headed towards a second; Russia and Italy had just witnessed the rise to power of Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini, and the Vatican itself stood on the eve of its long-awaited negotiation of a political treaty with the Italian state.

All this to say, there was great unease in the Church and the Catholic world over the political ramifications of the Kingdom of God. What role should the Church and its members play in the political order, and to what extent was it their requirement to bring about the Kingdom politically?

Yes, I am aware that this is not a history class; this is a homily. But the question of how the Kingdom of God interacts with the everyday world is essential. What are our responsibilities to make God present here and now? What is the moral way to structure our societies? What results can we expect?

When Pius XI was writing his encyclical declaring that Christ’s sovereignty is over human hearts, not political entities, the French theologian Jacques Maritain was proposing new answers to these questions based on scripture and the patrimony of the Church. In his Integral Humanism, he offers us three mistaken ways a Catholic may be tempted to look at the world as it relates to the Kingdom of God:

1. The Kingdom of God is invisible, and the world is the Kingdom of Satan, which we must flee.

Of course, it can be tempting to glance at the world around us and conclude that it is entirely compromised. We can be tempted to completely sever the relationship between nature and grace and suppose that the only path toward salvation is a retreat to “the invisible empire of souls.” The problem is that in scripture, Christ is not simply a rescuer who whisks our souls away from this fallen world; he is, as the Samaritans in John 4:42 point out, “the savior of the world.”

2. The world should be made the Kingdom of God right now.

There has long been an instinct among Christians to go in the opposite direction. If we possess the truth that will set men free, why not utilize political means to unite the world under the banner of Christ? Whether with the ballot box or the sword, this vision is not the mindset of Christ who tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” As has been proven repeatedly in scripture and history, when we take it upon ourselves to institute the Kingdom of God entirely by earthly means, it is man, not Christ, who reigns.

3. The world is the Kingdom of Man, which can come to fruition separately from the Kingdom of God.

Who doesn’t want to live in a Utopia? Many political groups have attempted to build a perfect society over the years, meeting all the needs of individuals, with no reference to the supernatural. We know, of course, that, as Christ says, “man does not live by bread alone.” The perfect Kingdom of man is an illusion.

The truth is the world is the domain of all three kingdoms. The devil prowls, humanity pursues its interests, and the Kingdom of God is already present among us in seminal form. To reduce our role to any one of the three is to miss out on something fundamental to the reality of our world. When we focus all our attention on just one element, we can forget the supernatural, the human, or Christ. The proper way to look at the Kingdom of God in our world comes in today’s gospel.

In the Gospel, Jesus points our attention to the fullness of the Kingdom of God when the goats are separated from the sheep and when we inherit the Kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world as a future reality. Something to be longed for, something not yet entirely here. And yet he does not simply point our attention to the future; he instructs us on our duty to prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of this Kingdom. While here, we are called to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. We do not do these things because we believe we will solve world hunger, homelessness, or crime at once; we do them because by helping others, we are preparing for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom at the end of time by imitating him now. Nor do we ignore them to turn our attention to a reality that exists purely in the future; we care for those in need as a signal to the world of Christ’s presence and as a preparation for his Kingdom.

We celebrate today’s feast of Christ the King by recognizing that his Kingdom is already present but not yet fulfilled. We acknowledge the presence of evil in the world, but we do not run from it. We serve others through human and supernatural means, but always remember that our true fulfillment comes only at Christ’s return. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned as a sign and preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Image: “Christ the Universal King” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  in the USCCB building in Washington DC. Photo by Lawrence OP

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Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.

You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.

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