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Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe?

Patty Simpson
November 18, 2022

This weekend, we celebrate the last Sunday of the Church year, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Whenever I hear the name of this solemnity (a solemnity is the highest feast day designation in the Church), I have to admit that I cringe and think, “What would Jesus say?” I also wonder what Paulist founder Isaac Hecker, promoter of the compatibility of American democracy and Catholicism, believer in sharing the Word in contemporary, accessible language, would say. Jesus never referred to himself as king of anything – not King of the Jews, and definitely not King of the Universe! So, while I might understand at some levels why the hierarchy in the Vatican in Rome, Italy, chose this title for Jesus and this solemnity in 1925, I think it misses the mark on multiple fronts for the world in 2022. It reminds me of Dorothy Day saying, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” (I do like to think she might be OK with the recent naming of a Staten Island ferry after her, a daily mode of transportation for regular workers.).

Pope Pius XI declared this solemnity in 1925 in response to some nations of the world stripping the Catholic hierarchy of some of their governmental privileges (considered a form of anti-clericalism in its day). With the Church establishing the right of every individual to religious freedom in the 1960s, however, most Catholics no longer see such secularizing movements as a threat to the Church’s authority. Some in the hierarchy still consider contemporary secularization a threat to the Church today, but Pope Francis has made a push back against clericalism and its assumed privileges a main message of his papacy.

I appreciate the good things that can be accomplished by multi-national organizations such as the Catholic Church, and I still want to believe that benevolent hierarchies are one of the most efficient ways to make things work smoothly. But, while I also believe that any institution, like any individual, is not irredeemable, and that, at a macro-level, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, at a micro-level it has all too often been led by limited human beings, all too often making decisions that are far from benevolent. As the English historian John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902) said to a bishop in reference to past rulers, but especially in reference to popes, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This observation led me, after a little less than a decade stint with a multi-national organization that ultimately imploded due to a few bad actors, to be drawn to smaller organizations that are closer to the people. Not that smaller organizations are immune from corruption and cannot also be in need of redemption—aren’t we all?—but to me, they offer more opportunity for hope. Thus, my preference of our chapel and small (by Catholic standards) congregation to mega-churches or cathedrals.

Egalitarianism across clergy, laity and genders, visible full and real inclusion of those marginalized by the Church (e.g. women and LGBTQIA+ persons), and inclusive language in our liturgy, vulnerability and servant leadership in our members and staff, and compassion and service to those marginalized by the Church and by society. These are Paulist Center traits that spoke loudly to me in my first liturgy and early experiences at the Center. How can we continue to push back against clerical privilege, absolute authority, exceptionalism and triumphalism and any of its trappings, including depictions of Jesus as monarch or militant, and language and behaviors that exclude or create divisions? (“Kindom” rather than “kingdom,” anyone?) How can we make Jesus’ radical and revolutionary message accessible to all, resonate in the core of our beings, and guide us in mindfully-made decisions and choices every minute of our every day? How can we form and what can we take away from our communal liturgical and other community encounters to have the vision and courage to emulate Jesus’ example of turning the unkind powers of the world upside down? I would greatly prefer a plain old 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time to lead us into Advent and the Solemnity of Jesus, Word Incarnate of God, that we celebrate on December 25th every year, a celebration of Jesus, fully human and fully divine, who chose to come and be part of our humanness, in all its broken forms. The Jesus who, in today’s gospel, hangs with and for us on the cross next to the two criminals, and promises the one that today he will be with him in paradise. A more powerful and helpful, and less cringe-worthy, depiction of the Savior of the World: Emmanuel, God with Us.