Jesus, the King who sets us free

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted delivered the following homily marking the closing of the Year of Faith Nov. 24 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral on the Feast of Christ the King. 

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese's Catholics.
The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s Catholics.

“¡Viva Cristo Rey!” 86 years ago, November 23, 1927, these words rang forth in Mexico City as a young man was being executed by a firing squad. The young man himself pronounced the words, prompted by lively faith. His name was Miguel Pro, who despite his youth would not be stopped by a dictator from living and dying for his Catholic faith, from carrying out his priestly duties, and from exercising religious freedom.

“¡Viva Cristo Rey!” — Long live Christ the King! Miguel Pro died because of his love of Christ and of the people Christ gave him to serve. He refused to let unjust laws hinder his practice of the faith.

Today, with joyful hearts the Church proclaims this same message!  Christ is alive; He reigns as King. The Church in every land, from Argentina to Japan, from Uganda to Iraq, from Canada to China, celebrates the Feast of Christ the King. It is the way we conclude the Liturgical Year and bear witness to our trust in God. It is how we prepare our hearts for the mission Christ entrusts to us today.

It is instructive to recall that this feast day is not ancient; in fact, it was begun less than a century ago. The Church has always acclaimed Jesus as the King of kings and Lord of lords; and she has looked to Him with confidence any time that the practice of our faith was endangered. But the liturgical feast of Christ the King was only instituted by Pope Pius XI in AD 1925; and he was moved to do so because of deep concern about religious liberty.

Threats to religious liberty are not new. Christians, from the beginning–2000 years ago, have faced intolerance, persecution and martyrdom. But, in the 1920s, new and even graver threats to the free practice of religion were emerging. These threats were especially grave in Mexico where the Cristero war was raging, in the Soviet Union where Communist persecution was brutal, and in other places where militant atheism wanted to stomp out faith in Jesus Christ. These secularist regimes were ready to use coercion and deadly force to do so.

From the start, then, the Feast of Christ the King has been aimed at helping Christians to face grave threats to their religious liberty, to prepare Catholics in every nation to bear witness to their faith in Christ whenever it is threatened.

Pope Pius XI’s concern was well founded. The 20th century produced far more Christian martyrs than any of the previous 19. Sadly, the 21st century has not gotten better; the Pew Forum reports that religious intolerance is on the increase worldwide, including in the United States. The killing of Christians simply because they are Christians has not abated. Like Pope Pius XI, we cannot stand by idly when our First Freedom is under attack, in our own country and beyond. We need, today more than ever, to put our trust in Christ the King.

To have faith in Him is to be full of hope, no matter what hardships may come. We have the great privilege of knowing and serving the One who has the whole world in His hands. Earthly rulers come and go, but His Kingdom remains forever. Moreover, Christ is no threat to legitimate governments. He strengthens every legitimate use of power. At the same time, He uses His power in a way far different from that of earthly rulers.

Notice that the Gospel passage for this feast features Jesus on the Cross, not on a throne; suffering ridicule, not receiving praise. In fact, He is looked upon with contempt by three different sets of people: rulers, soldiers and a criminal.

The rulers sneered at Him and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one.”

“…The soldiers jeered at Him…they called out, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.’”

“…one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.’”

All three sets of people heap scorn on Jesus for the same reason: He did not save Himself. He used His power to save others. What kind of king is that? What kind of freedom is that?

For Christ the King, power is at the service of love. The Cross is the only earthly throne that He agreed to mount. It is also the only throne that can “deliver us from the power of darkness and transfer us to the Kingdom of light.”Cf. Col 1:14

The power of love can rescue a hardened criminal: “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says to a repentant thief, crucified by his side. We can be confident, then, that when we act in love and truth, He will be by our side. And when we do not act in love, He will be even closer to us with His mercy.

This Feast is especially meaningful as the Church completes a Year of Faith, and in a country where, in AD 2013, religious freedom is under attack. In previous generations, we fought wars to secure freedom for others. Now, this first of all freedoms is threatened in our own land. Because of faith in Christ, however, we will stand up and defend religious freedom, for it comes to us, not as a right granted by a state but as a gift of God. Let us recall, too, that religious liberty gives us the ability not just to worship at Mass and to pray the rosary at home—but also the freedom to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, to serve the poor and to follow the dictates of our conscience.

A great struggle for this freedom lies before us in America; but we know in faith that we shall succeed because of Christ the King. For more than 20 centuries, corrupt politicians, totalitarian despots, and atheistic leaders have battled against Christ’s Kingdom; and they have always failed. This always will. The One who taught us to pray to the Father, “Thy Kingdom come,” also promises us that “the gates of the nether world shall not prevail against it.’

The Year of Faith is coming to an end; but our Christian faith is not. The Year of Faith has been a boot camp, a training ground to prepare us for spiritual battles. To be in the world, for the sake of the world, but not of the world—this is what Jesus gives us the grace to do. How blest are we to know, to love and to serve this King.