In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – more commonly known as the feast of Christ the King. Originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, the Solemnity was shifted in 1970 to the last Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The historical matrix behind the institution of this feast is complex, but one immediate factor that loomed large in the mind of Pius XI was the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party (Mussolini had become Prime Minister the same year Pius instituted this feast). In addition, nationalist movements had begun to spring up or consolidate in Europe in response to the ravages of the First World War, with one important example being the Action Francaise, which existed before the War, and what was later to become the National Socialist German Workers Party in Germany.
Many of these movement had come to equate the nation state with a semi-divine status, which became manifest in subordinating everything and everyone to the nation-state. The nation was to be seen as the ultimate concern in all aspects of everybody’s life, becoming as Pius XI put it in his encyclical Quas Primas, “natural religion consisting in some instinctive affection of the heart.” This was a concern, not only because of the presence of these movements, but also the growing allure of these movements among Catholics, such that their Catholic faith was not a path to discipleship under the tutelage of Christ, but a placeholder for a national identity that was forged under the tutelage of the nation. The nation, in other words, had come to override and define what it meant to be a Catholic.
The feast was thus instituted as a reminder to Catholics that their constitution as members of the Church made their national belonging subordinate to what Benedict XVI would call in a 2012 Angelus address “the full realisation of the Kingdom of God, where God will be all in all”. This call, as the interwar period attests, went largely unheeded by Catholics in Europe who, in large numbers, threw their support behind these nationalist movements who made the national interest their primary, if not sole, interest.
It is easy to say “we will never be fascists”. It will be easy to distinguish our times from the turmoil of the interwar period on the vague grounds of having made great strides in civilisational progress in the last century. Nevertheless, it is important to note one important material constant that made mobilisation by nationalist and fascist movements possible – the normalisation of mass forms of communication, of which that the new nationalist movements and governments had a vastly superior command to that of the Church. It might be argued that our age of social media, marked by dazzling feats of technological wizardry, has little common with the technologically primitive forms of newspapers, radios and televisions.
However, as Jean Baudrillard put forward in his 1981 work Simulacra and Simulation, what had occurred with the growing availability of mass media – such as the newspaper and telegraph – was a cutting of any organic link between real things and the images and texts that were meant to represent them. Indeed, by the twentieth century images and texts have come to be regarded as more real than the real. It was this crucial break that then gave mass media its incredible powers of mobilisation, something demonstrated to devastating effect in the depictions of enemies in World War I as being only worthy of destruction, then similarly and later the depictions of ethnic groupings in the interwar period.What has changed now, according to Baudrillard, is that we now live in an age of “hyperreality”, such that texts and images do not even need to have any reflection with the real world in order to be believed. Indeed, texts and images now have the power to create the real world in its image.
After ninety years, the feast of Christ the King continues to be relevant then, not only because of the demonstrably enduring vulnerability of Christians to the allure of elements of nationalism and even fascism in times of perceived crisis. It is relevant also because the Kingship of Christ is made manifest on earth firstly through a Eucharistic presence, a sacramental presence where signs actually signify what meant to be signified. As even the marxist Baudrillard suggested, it was a sacramental imagination that held in check the risk of simulation overtaking reality. The Christian can honour this feast by making his or her looking forward to the life in the world to come translate into a resistance to letting cheap simulations shape their conception of life in the now.