Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A Reflection on the Fate of the Feast of Christ the King

Andrei Rublev, Christ Enthroned in Glory

Note: The following article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Latin Mass magazine on pages 38-42 (vol. 26, issue 3). Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

The first time that the Feast of Christ the King was celebrated was October 31, 1926. In Mexico, 200,000 faithful went to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, among whom was the Jesuit priest and future martyr José Ramón Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, S.J., better known as Blessed Miguel Pro. The faithful had come on pilgrimage, but they were also protesting the repressive anti-Catholic “Calles Law.” Pro writes:

On October 31st, the Feast of Christ the King, we had the biggest, most sublime demonstration that the entire world has seen in the last four centuries. The pilgrimage to the Basilica started at four in the morning and ended at 7:30 at night… It was around five p.m., when I was about to return home with Mendez Med, when we saw a resolute group of housemaids who arrived with some one hundred industrial workers. They approached, singing along the streets leading to La Villa; but the singing was a little bit of a mumble. Then I told my partner, “C’mon buddy, now is the time,” and pushed my way into the group using my elbows. Then, following the leading voice of my partner I sang “Thou Shalt Reign” at the top of my lungs. [1]

It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic inauguration to a liturgical feast.

Blessed Miguel Pro

To understand how a mere Sunday in the Church calendar could have such an impact, it is necessary to turn to the feast as it was originally conceived by Pope Pius XI.

Quas Primas

In December 1925, Pope Pius XI announced a new Feast of Christ the King in his encyclical Quas Primas. The Supreme Pontiff makes it clear that the purpose of the new celebration is not merely to honor Christ’s Kingship, but to encourage individuals, families, and entire societies to submit to the yoke of Christ the King (17). After a beautiful reflection on how Jesus Christ exercises full judiciary, executive, and legislative power over all of mankind, he adds, “It would be a grave error…to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to Him by the Father, all things are in His power” (17).

According to Quas Primas, the “pest of our age” is secularism (laicismus), the attempt to build society without God (24). Secularism began with a political curtailment of the Church’s ability to govern her flock with respect to their eternal salvation and escalated into either the subordination of the Church to a powerful State or outright persecution. The result of the secular marginalization of “Jesus Christ and His holy law,” the Pope argues, is constant war between nations, an assault on the family, domestic strife, insatiable greed, and a blind and immoderate selfishness—“in a word, society shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin” (24).

According to the teaching of Pius XI, the solution to this plague is to “look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ” (1) by recognizing, “both in private and in public life, that Christ is King” (19). When this happens, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony. Our Lord’s regal office invests the human authority of princes and rulers with a religious significance; it ennobles the citizen’s duty of obedience” (19). It was to facilitate this solution to modernity’s ills that Pius XI instituted a feast in honor of Christ the King, “that the kingship of our Savior should be as widely as possible recognized and understood” (21).

The Feast of Christ the King, then, is designed to instruct the minds of the faithful about the social reign of Jesus Christ and to warn them of the errors of secularism. But it is also designed to move and strengthen their hearts. Without saying it in so many words, the Pope is just as concerned about the silence of the good as he is about the ideological delusions of the bad. Secularism thrives on the pusillanimity of the pious; it sets a public tone of silence about God and then twists that silence into a form of acquiescence and even apostasy. Pius XI’s response to this hostile silent treatment is not the further privatization of religion or more “dialogue.” It is a rebel yell:

While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim His kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm His rights (25).

The Feast of Christ the King is designed not to recover an ancien régime or to establish a theocracy or even necessarily a Catholic confessional state, but to embolden Catholics to march into whatever public square in which they find themselves a part and declare Christ’s gentle but firm sovereignty over their society, as Blessed Miguel Pro literally did on that first feast day in Mexico City. Pius’ vision is aptly captured in the following verses from Te Saeculorum Principem, the Vespers hymn for this Sunday:

The wicked mob screams out:
“We don’t want Christ to reign!”
But we rejoice and say:
“Thou art the Supreme King of all.”

May the leaders of nations publicly honor and extol Thee;
May teachers and judges reverence Thee;
May the laws and the arts
Be a reflection of Thee.

May the insignias of kings shine forth
In their submission and dedication to Thee.
And bring under Thy gentle rule
Our country and the homes of its citizens.

In sum, the exhortatory goal of the Feast of Christ the King is the renewal of a Christian public spiritedness that can meet the political and social challenges of the age and work manfully towards the inner transformation of contemporary society.

The Original Date

Pius assigned the Feast of Christ the King to the last Sunday of October. [2] The Holy Father wanted it to fall on a Sunday so that not only the clergy but the laity could fully participate in it (29). And he wanted it on the last Sunday of October for two reasons. First, by being near the end of the liturgical year, the feast “sets the crowning glory upon the mysteries of the life of Christ already commemorated during the year” (29). Second, by celebrating it before All Saints’ Day on November 1, “we proclaim and extol the glory of Him who triumphs in all the Saints and in all the Elect” (29).

Pope Pius XI
It has also been speculated that Pius XI chose the last Sunday of October because several Protestant churches observe on that day Reformation Sunday. The first Protestant reformers were hardly champions of secularism (Calvin’s Geneva and Zwingli’s Zurich leaned more towards theocracy); nevertheless, the secularization of the West was one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation. Either way, the last Sunday of October is an ideal choice. As Pius XI mentioned, there is a fitting transition from the triumph of Christ in His Headship to the triumph of Christ in His members—the Communion of Saints (November 1) and the Holy Souls in Purgatory (November 2). The Church Triumphant and Church Suffering follow on the flowing trains of their King.

Second, celebrating the feast near the end of the liturgical year gives it an eschatological note. The final Sundays of the Church calendar become increasingly focused on the End Times until the year culminates with the Last Sunday after Pentecost, known in some quarters as “the Sunday of Doom” because of its Gospel on the destruction of the Temple and the world. [3] Then, the Church year begins anew with Advent, which is likewise about the Last Day, for in preparing for the celebration of Christ’s First Coming in Bethlehem we are also to prepare for His Second Coming in glory. [4] Thanks to the pairing of Christ the King and All Saints, we can therefore trace a shift from a sense of wonder and awe at heavenly glory to a holy fear about if we will ever reach such a stage. This shift, in turn, conditions the faithful to convert this holy fear into actual preparedness during Advent, so that we may greet Christ our Judge “without dread” when the time comes (see the December 24 Collect). Paradoxically and ingeniously, the period from late October to Christmastide uses a fear of Doomsday to help us appropriate and properly move beyond it.

Although this holy fear reaches its height on the “Sunday of Doom,” it is present in ovo in the Feast of Christ the King. The Pope hoped that as a result of this annual celebration, nations will recall “the thought of the Last Judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults” (32). Pius XI also expressed the wish that it would encourage the faithful to live their lives in such a way that Christ will count them among the good and faithful servants (33).

Third, by having it near but not at the very end of the liturgical year, the feast teaches that the social reign of Christ the King has already begun and that we are subject to it now. Such a placement also fits in nicely with the current season in the Roman Breviary, which in October includes passages from II Maccabees, which chronicles Jewish defiance of the pagan ruler Antiochus IV. One such reading, proclaimed on the Fifth Sunday of October, recounts the story of ninety-year-old Eleazar, who chose to be flogged to death by public officials rather than eat a piece of pork and defy the law of the Lord. Here was a man who had a sense of God’s social reign avant la lettre.


Pius XI ordained only one custom on the new feast: that the Dedication of the Human Race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which Pope Leo XIII inaugurated and Pope St. Pius X commanded to be renewed yearly, be recited on this day (28). Given the historic ties between devotion to the Sacred Heart and Christ the King, the association is appropriate. The Church continues to grant a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, for the devout recitation of this prayer on the feast.

In his encyclical the Pope also praised Adoration and procession of the Blessed Sacrament by which “men unite in paying homage to Christ, whom God has given them for their King” (26). Because they are public, processions make precisely the kind of assertion that Quas Primas seeks to promote. “It is by a divine inspiration that the people of Christ bring forth Jesus from His silent hiding-place in the church and carry Him in triumph through the streets of the city,” the Pope muses, “so that He whom men refused to receive when He came unto his own, may now receive in full His kingly rights” (26). Consequently, many parishes using the 1962 Missal have a Eucharistic procession on this feast similar to that of Corpus Christi.

New Name

The post-Vatican-II calendar makes three changes to the original feast: a new name, a new date, and new propers.

First, the title has been modified from the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King to the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe. Theoretically, the addition could signify that as Lord of the universe, Jesus Christ has dominion over all things and all men, thereby reinforcing His social reign. But the intention of the architects of the new calendar was the opposite: instead of highlighting Christ’s social reign they sought to deemphasize it.

Pierre Jounel was the priest in charge of the subcommittee that revised the calendar. After summarizing the feast’s original purpose (and implicitly pooh-poohing Pius XI for still dreaming “of a possible Christendom”), Jounel explained the new rationale:

The compilers’ aim was to emphasize more the cosmic and eschatological character of Christ’s kingship. The feast is now the feast of Christ “King of the universe” and is assigned to the last Sunday in Ordinary Time. [5]

In other words, Christ Pantokrator is being replaced by cosmic Jesus.

Pantokrator, Monreale, Sicily

New Date

As Jounel’s statement indicates, changing the date was likewise meant to emphasize the “cosmic and eschatological” at the expense of the social. In 1968, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was allowed to review the proposed new calendar. Writing back in June of that year, the CDF stated that “The feast of Christ the King ought to keep its social dimension and be celebrated in October as in the past.” [6] Note the reasoning: the October date bespeaks the feast’s “social dimension,” that is, its promulgation of the social kingship of Jesus Christ.

To iron out their differences, members of the CDF met with Archbishop Bugnini’s Consilium in charge of reforming the liturgy. Bugnini states that the CDF, despite their “nostalgia” and “fears,” were dazzled by his committee’s “expertise and care,” and so the two groups soon came to an agreement “even though in the process many requests of the Congregation were effectively denied,”[7] including retaining the original date of Christ the King.

New Propers

The new propers for the Mass and Divine Office also make clear that Christ’s social reign is no longer the reason for the feast. The inspirational hymn verses cited above were removed, as were various references to Christ’s rule and the world’s opposition to it (for a full analysis of these liturgical changes, see Fr. Dylan Schrader’s fine article [8]).

And it is expected that the pulpit now be used to reinforce this new emphasis. The Congregation for Divine Worship’s 21015 Homiletic Directory [9] recommends that for the solemnity preachers consult seventeen different paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, only one of which, citing Quas Primas, explicitly affirms Christ’s kingship over human societies (2105). The rest teach that Christ is the “Lord of the cosmos and of history” (668-672) and that we participate in Christ’s Kingship not by making our laws reflect God’s order (to paraphrase the afore-mentioned hymn) but by serving the poor (786) and exercising self-control (908). Similarly, in his influential The Liturgical Year, Father Adrian Nocent, O.S.B. (one of the periti who revised the Lectionary) avoids the concept of Christ’s social reign and writes instead of the folly of the Church wanting “political authority in the world,” an assertion that is true so far as it goes but prone to secularist misinterpretation without proper qualification. [10]

New Feast

Moreover, according to no less an authority than Pope Paul VI, the Feast of Christ the King was not merely changed or moved; it was replaced. In Calendarium Romanum, the document announcing and explaining the new calendar, the Pope writes:

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe occurs on the last Sunday of the liturgical year in place of the feast instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and assigned to the last Sunday of October. By this reasoning, the eschatological significance of this Sunday is placed in a clearer light. [11]

The key word is loco, which means “in place of” or “instead of.” The Pope could have simply stated that the Feast occurs on a different date (as he did with the Feast of the Holy Family) or that it is being moved (transfertur) as he did with Corpus Christi, but he did not. The Novus Ordo’s Solemnity of Christ the King, he writes, is the replacement of Pius XI’s feast.


We can draw three conclusions about the new solemnity.

First, it changes the liturgical year. On the positive side, the date of the new feast affirms the triumph of Christ the King over all things at the end of time and serves as a fitting capstone to the season of Ordinary Time, which began in January after the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Thus configured, Ordinary Time is bookended by the beginning and end of Christ’s ministry (of course, whether Ordinary Time is itself a good idea is another matter). [12]

On the other hand, because of the new location the feast loses its link to All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, and without this link there is no mini-season celebrating the relationship between the Head and its members. Consequently, the progression from glorious awe to a righteous fear of the Lord to Advent’s joyfully penitential preparation for the Second Coming is weakened.  Instead, the last Sunday of the liturgical year is now expected to carry a rather overwhelming list of themes (Christ’s kingship, the Last Judgment, and the Kingdom of God), the risk being that justice is done to none of them.

Second, the new feast guts the original of its intended meaning. Pius XI instituted Christ the King to proclaim Christ’s social reign; its eschatological dimension was subordinate to this goal. The new feast, by contrast, uses the eschatological in order to replace the social. By doing so and by dropping all critical references to godless societies, it gives the overwhelming impression that the new eschatology, as Peter Kwasniewski puts it,

Betrays weak knees before the challenge of modern secularization, as well as hesitation about the perceived “triumphalism” of the earlier papal social teaching. In other words, the kingship of Christ is palatable and proclaimable so long as its realization comes at the end of time, and does not impinge too much on the political and social order right now—or on the Church’s responsibility to convert the nations, invigorate their cultures, and transform their laws by the light of the Faith. [13]

Or to put it more cynically, the liturgical innovators kicked the can of Christ’s reign down the road to the end of time so that it will no longer interfere with an easygoing accommodation to secularism.

Although vestiges of a social element remain in the new solemnity (such as the Gospel for Year A), these are usually manifested in the form of social justice rather than Christ’s social reign. The USCCB uses this Sunday to collect donations for the Campaign for Human Development and to defend religious liberty. [14]

Certainly, conforming to Christ’s reign includes caring for the poor, but it is also much more than that. The reduction of Christ’s social kingship to social justice is a betrayal of its meaning. And while the erosion of religious liberty in the United States is a very serious concern, one cannot help note the irony of using Pius XI’s feast to defend it, since the Pontiff ostensibly rejected the American model of religious freedom when he deplored the legal practice of “ignominiously placing” the true religion of Christ on the same level as false religions. [15]

Third, the feast has lost its strong exhortatory character. Pius XI wanted this day to be a spiritual call to arms, emboldening Catholics with a courageous public spiritedness unashamed of Jesus Christ, zealous of sound morality, and fearless in applying the high standards of the Gospel. We may even say that the old feast aimed at reanimating a kind of Catholic chivalry that channeled manly assertiveness into publicly defending God’s honor. The new feast has none of these rousing elements; it is, quite frankly, wimpy by comparison. One can hardly imagine the current solemnity inspiring the same kind of muscular civil disobedience exhibited by Miguel Pro and his coreligionists. 

Father Miguel Pros Martyrdom


Blessed Miguel Pro only lived to celebrate two Feasts of Christ the King before giving his life for the Lord. After being arrested in November 1927 on the bogus charge of conspiring to assassinate the president of Mexico, Pro was executed without trial on the 23rd of that month. As he faced the firing squad, the holy priest extended his arms cruciform and shouted ¡Viva Cristo Rey!—“Long Live Christ the King!” Pius XI’s feast had become the inspiration for the battle cry of the Cristeros rebellion against atheistic tyranny and the motto of martyrs.

Now that Blessed Pro is part of the Church Triumphant, we pray that through his intercession the Church Militant may never forget the true meaning of this powerful feast and never fail to put it into practice. And in times such as ours, when the Barque of St. Peter “is taking on the waters [of secularism] to the point of capsizing,”[16] it is good to remember the words of Quas Primas:

We may well admire in this the admirable wisdom of the Providence of God, who, ever bringing good out of evil, has from time to time suffered the faith and piety of men to grow weak, and allowed Catholic truth to be attacked by false doctrines, but always with the result that truth has afterwards shone out with greater splendor, and that mens faith, aroused from its lethargy, has shown itself more vigorous than before (22).

[1] Marisol López-Menéndez, Miguel Pro: Martyrdom, Politics, and Society in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lexington Books, 2016), 4.

[2] Quas Primas 28. During its first year in 1926, however, it was held on October 31.

[3] The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden, which more or less retained the traditional readings of the Roman Rite, uses this sobriquet.

[4] See my “The End and Beginning of the Church Year: Interlocking Clasps in the Hidden Season,” TLM 22:3 (Fall 2013), 46-50.

[5] Pierre Jounel, “The Feasts of the Lord in Ordinary Time,” in The Church at Prayer, vol. 4, The Liturgy and Time, ed. Aimé Georges Martimort, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Liturgical Press, 1986), 107.

[6] Annibale Bugnini, Reform of the Liturgy (Liturgical Press, 1990), 311.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The Revision of the Feast of Christ the King,” Antiphon 18.3 (2014), 227-253.

[9] Congregation for Divine Worship, “Homiletic Directory,” Prot. N. 531/14 (2015).

[10] Adrien, Nocent, OSB, Liturgical Year: The Liturgical Year: Sundays Two to Thirty-Four in Ordinary Time, vol. 4 (Liturgical Press, 1977), 298.

[11] Calendarium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), 63.

[12] See my “The Time after Pentecost vs. Ordinary Time,” TLM 26:2 (Summer 2017), 46-50, or my essays in New Liturgical Movement here and here.

[15] Quas Primas, 24.

[16] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Funeral Message for the late Joachim Card. Meisner.

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