With my maternal grandmother and her siblings hailing from northern England, royalty was revered in our household (and hotly contested by our Irish family lines). In fact, I actually incurred the displeasure of both my Nana and my mother for not taking “Elizabeth” as my confirmation name to honor the current monarch of the United Kingdom.
But for all the Brit in my blood, I confess that as an American, I don’t quite have the fullest appreciation of kingship. After all, our nation was founded in defiance of King George III, denounced by the signers of the Declaration of Independence as “a Prince whose character is … marked by every act which may define a Tyrant,” making him “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Even at that, say scholars, George III (though certainly not unflawed) was far from the worst scepter-bearer on the planet. Historian Sean Lang instead named Gaius Caligula (A.D. 12-41) as number one on his personal list of “royal stinkers,” noting the rankings could have consisted of Roman emperors alone.
Among Lang’s other awardees are King Leopold II of Belgium, who terrorized the Congo by mutilating its residents (including children) while plundering its natural resources; Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar, who by some estimates halved her nation’s populace through her ruthlessness; and Ivan IV of Russia, who earned his nickname “the Terrible” by oppressing and often massacring his subjects.
And, of course, most rotten ruler rosters feature England’s Henry VIII, whom a group of historical writers crowned the worst king ever a few years ago. That nod was down to too many wives, too many wars, too many executions and an unforgettable (and bloody) split with the Catholic Church.
Small wonder, then, that such examples leave those of us who vote for, rather than bow to, our leaders grappling with the concept of kingship.
And yet never has the world needed a King more, as we are reminded by Pope Pius XI, who instituted the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe with the 1925 encyclical Quas Primas.
In rejecting divine authority and seeking to become a law unto himself, man reaps “deplorable consequences,” lamented Pope Pius XI: “The seeds of discord sown far and wide; those bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder so much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin” (Quas Primas, 24). Almost a century later, the words easily summarize today’s news headlines.
Unredeemed, man ultimately cannot hope to master himself, let alone others, for any good purpose — but under “the sweet and saving yoke of our King” (Quas Primas, 3), we ourselves become royal sons and daughters: “In him is the salvation of the individual, in him is the salvation of society” (Quas Primas, 18).
Pope Pius XI points to the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who declared “Christ has dominion over all creatures,” one “not seized by violence nor usurped,” but rightfully “his by essence and by nature” (Quas Primas, 13).
Christ “excels all creatures,” has “all things in common with the Father” and “purchased the church at the price of his own blood,” making his reign indisputable (Quas Primas, 7, 16).
His kingdom, so at odds with those of this world, “embraces all men,” wrote Pope Pius XI, and as Pope Leo XIII affirmed, Christ’s empire “includes not only Catholic nations, not only baptized persons who, though of right belonging to the church have been led astray by error, or have been cut off from her by schism, but also all those who are outside the Christian faith; so that truly the whole of mankind is subject to the power of Jesus Christ” (Annum Sacrum, 3; Quas Primas, 18).
The One who “came to reconcile all things, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, who, though Lord of all gave himself to us as a model of humility” — offering up his very Body and Blood for us — is the only true King (Quas Primas, 20).
And indeed, as Pope Pius XI reflected, “what happiness would be ours if all men, individuals, families and nations would but let themselves be governed by Christ!” (Quas Primas, 20)
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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