Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. It was created by Pope Pius XI, Achille Ratti, in 1925 and to understand the feast you will need to know the Man. Let me tell you a story about him that occurred earlier that year.
The dust had settled from the First World War and revealed a changed world, every institution including the church was uncertain how to proceed, indeed, how to connect with people. Since the 1890s the Popes had realized that the rise of industrialism and the form of capitalism that supported it as well as the socialism and communism that opposed it had created unprecedented problems for a church that depended upon monarchial government and agricultural production. Pope Leo 13th in 1891 recognized the need for a just wage and the right of working people to organize to provide for a dignified and productive life. He sought to bring the church to accept this new reality and to embrace clerks, merchants and most importantly factory workers.
His call was not heeded by most bishops in the world and indeed was at some times and places actively resisted. The split widened between working people and the Church. One exception to this not very benign neglect was a young Belgian Priest, Joeph Cardijn. He not only saw the need to minister to young workers but to minister with them. He formed groups which eventually became the Young Christian Workers not only for catechetical instruction and prayer but for education and social action. He believed that they should control their own funds and decide on their own projects and causes. The motto of the group, which was taken up by Pope St John 23rd in the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti was “See, Judge Act.”
Especially during the disruptions which followed the war this independence unnerved many of the Belgian Bishops. They were especially upset that women were treated equally and had decision making roles. They complained to Rome and Fr Cardijn was summoned to explain himself. He felt that his movement was doomed and was resigned to his fate. He expected that some minor bureaucrat would meet with him and issue the order. However, he was told that the Pope would see him the next morning.
Achille Ratti was not an easy Man to deal with. Hermann Goring the head of the Luftwaffer claimed that he was the only man who ever scared him. Cardijn spent a sleepless night, would he be sent to a monastery to repent, defrocked or at very least made to kneel before the Pope in silence for an hour?
When he entered the throne room however, Pope Pius threw his arms around him and said: “Here at last is someone who comes to speak to me about the masses!” When Cardijn left Pius told his stunned courtiers: “The Church needs the workers, and the workers need the Church”. He then told the Belgian Bishops that the “Young Christian Workers” were an authentic mode for activism and social action and sometime later that “he made it his own”. When Fr Cardijn returned to Belgium every Bishop in the country was there to meet him. Pope St Paul 6th made him a Cardinal and his case is now up for canonization.
Pope Pius was a very perceptive man. He realized that the Church was simply not working for many people and that the official leadership of the church was not willing or perhaps not even able to respond effectively. He expressed this as well in his Encyclicals – official letters – “Quadragesimo Anno” in 1931 and “With burning concern” in 1937.The first celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first papal statement on working people and the economy. In it he developed many of the concepts we use today in Catholic Social teaching to this day. In the second he decried the rise of the Naziism in Germany. He was not a subtle man and wrote the latter in German and it was read from every pulpit in Germany. An interesting historical “what if”: he was writing an encyclical on Racial Justice at the time of his death. It was directed to the United States. I wonder if he would be so forgotten if he had lived to issue it.
He was perceptive not only in seeing the problems of his time but perhaps more in understanding their cause. Put simply: improper worship or more to the point the worship of the wrong things.
He looked at the world and saw that the people in lands which called themselves Chrisitan or Catholic did not act as if Jesus was the center of their lives. The pursuit of money created a gap between rich and poor and a new nationalism with a decidedly racial edge were the primary loyalties of many people. Whatever people were saying about their beliefs in their actions they were not worshipping Jesus. They had other kings, other rulers. He established the feast of Christ the King to remind people that we have only one King and that everything must revolve around him. He understood that as people of flesh and blood it is not enough to say something however eloquently. We must express it with signs and symbols to guide it to action.
This is part of the DNA of Catholic Christians. Good worship forms meaningful action. Feeling good does not make a Mass successful but experiencing the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist with our fellow parishioners does. We find Jesus in our Sunday worship to share him in our daily actions: true worship ends in the streets.
Pope Francis, a modern-day Pope Pius, has seen that the church is not a real presence in many people’s lives, and he knows that this connection cannot occur from the top down alone. Thus, his call for a synod. The Pope is extending his hands to us, shall we reach out ours to grasp them?