Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

¡Viva Cristo Rey! Long Live Christ The King!

By FATHER DOUGLAS K. CLARK, STL, Commentary | Published November 22, 2012

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, popularly known as “Christ the King,” is a relatively recent feast, in terms of the history of the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church. It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925, as a challenge to the growing totalitarianism of the times. After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI decreed that this feast should be celebrated on the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, concluding the liturgical year.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the three great empires and the instability of many parliamentary democracies in the wake of the first world war, totalitarian leaders such as the Italian “Duce,” Benito Mussolini, and the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, claimed the total obedience of their people to their Fascist and Communist regimes. The new Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles was leading his nation toward a similar totalitarianism but was not yet the jefe maximo that he would become. Although Adolf Hitler had not yet come to power in Germany, within a decade his Nazi movement would also claim total allegiance from the German people, and a militant totalitarianism would sweep Japan. Starting with Mussolini, these states, with their Fascist on the right or Communist on the left nor neither Fascist nor Communist, claim total authority over their citizens and sought to control all aspects of their lives when their leaders considered such control be necessary.

In the face of these totalitarian claims, Pope Pius sought to recall Christians to the basic truth that Jesus Christ is the true king of the entire universe and that they owe total allegiance to him alone as our King in his encyclical letter, Quas Primas (1925), in which he taught that “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.” By means of the same encyclical, the pope instituted the liturgical feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, to underscore his teaching.

What was occurring in Mexico illustrates the dangers that Pius XI was trying to combat. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a new constitution was adopted. Its anti-clerical articles (3, 5, 24, 27, and 130) “seriously restricted religious freedoms” in the areas of education (which was to be completely secularized), public worship (restricted to indoor celebrations in a Catholic country noted for its outdoor processions), and charitable giving (now forbidden to religious organizations), while restricting the number of priests (for example by expelling all foreign-born priests) and confiscating all church property, including church buildings (which might continue to be used for worship, with state approval). Priests were forbidden to spread the Gospel (outside of church) or wear clerical garb in public. They were also denied freedom of association, the right to vote and freedom of speech. These draconian provisions were enacted as “payback” for the Church’s support of the previous regime but went largely unenforced until President Calles, an avowed atheist, initiated his Maximato in 1926. Calles’ brutal repression of the Catholic Church in historically Catholic Mexico is graphically portrayed in this year’s film, “For Greater Glory.” In response to the repression, Pope Pius issued another encyclical, Iniquis Afflictisque (“On the Persecution of the Church in Mexico”), in which he denounced “the violent anti-clerical persecution in Mexico.”

A few months later, a band of Catholics revolted, resulting in the so-called “Cristero War,” which took as its rallying cry, ¡Viva Cristo Rey!—a cry inspired by Pope Pius’ teaching and newly-instituted feast. To the shout, ¡Viva Cristo Rey! (“Long live Christ the King!”), the adherents of the rebellion would respond, ¡Que Viva! (“Long may he live!”). While the church authorities could not support the use of violence in the Catholic resistance to the repression, they could and did support passive resistance to the state’s oppression. The bishops suspended the celebration of Mass and the sacraments in protest, and allowed Catholics to supply the rebels with humanitarian aid. The war dragged on for nearly three years and claimed the lives of 56,882 Federales and approximately 30,000 Cristeros, including a number of beatified and canonized martyrs—all non-combatants—such as Blessed Miguel Pro, a Jesuit priest, and Blessed José Luis Sanchez del Rio, a 14-year-old Cristero standard-bearer, who was tortured and then offered a reprieve from his death sentence (there had been no trial) if only he would shout, ¡Muerte a Cristo Rey! (“Death to Christ the King”). He shouted instead, ¡Viva Cristo Rey! and was bayoneted by Federales and finished off with a shot to the head. Blessed José Luis’ execution is the tragic climax of the film, “For Greater Glory.”

In 1929, an agreement, brokered by the American ambassador, was reached under a new Mexican administration, that allowed worship to resume. It was understood that many of the anti-clerical provisions of the Constitution and other legislation would not be enforced, although they remained on the books, some for many decades, others even until now.

When certain promises on the part of the Mexican authorities were not kept, Pope Pius XI protested their actions in another encyclical, Acerba Animi (Sept. 29, 1932) and gave support to Mexican Catholic Action (which was being repressed) in yet another encyclical, Firmissimam Constantiam, in 1937.

The same pontiff, Pius XI, in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), had already developed Pope Leo XIII’s teaching on “subsidiarity,” introduced in Rerum novarum (1891), to combat the same danger posed by the centralization of political power in the hands of the supreme authorities of the state, in Mexico, Italy, Russia and elsewhere. Pope Pius wrote, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time of grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” In the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (186): “On the basis of this principle, all societies of the superior order must adopt attitudes of help (subsidium)—therefore of support, promotion, development—with respect to lower order societies.”

As Catholics prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, they should recall the basic truth that Jesus Christ alone is the true king of the entire universe and that they owe total allegiance to him alone as our King. They might do well to view “For Greater Glory,” partly financed and strongly promoted by the Knights of Columbus, now that the film has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. As Lauren Markoe wrote in her Washington Post review of “For Greater Glory,” for American Catholics troubled by the “administration’s proposed contraception mandate, the film about the Mexican church’s fight in 1920s is a heartening and timely cinematic boost in the American church’s battle to preserve ‘religious freedom’ in 2012.”

¡Viva Cristo Rey!

¡Que viva!