¡Viva Cristo Rey!

The year is 1927. In Mexico City, a priest named Miguel Pro is led by soldiers to the place of his execution.  For months Miguel Pro had defied the virtual ban on Catholicism by the fiercely anti-Catholic Mexican government. He has moved around Mexico City in disguise – often as a mechanic - in order to celebrate Mass secretly in houses.   At last the government has caught up with him.  Fr. Pro is led up against a wall to face the firing squad.  In the final moments before his execution, he extends his arms in the forms of a cross- in one hand clutching a rosary, in the other a crucifix - and cries out, “¡Viva Cristo Rey!”, “Long Live Christ the King!” This dramatic story of Blessed Miguel Pro can help us better understand the significance of the feast we celebrate today, Christ the King.

Miguel Pro's execution on November 23, 1927
Nowadays there is a tendency to make faith a merely private thing that has little influence on society at large. It seems that faith is often barred a place in the public sphere. Oddly enough, both those who are against religion and even faithful Catholic can do this.  There has always been people who are against religion and do not want it to influence public society. We see this dramatically in Mexico at the time of Miguel Pro. The anti-Catholic government outlawed Catholic schools, prohibited worship outside Churches, closed monasteries, and took away the right of priests to vote.  Certainly in Canada we are blessed with the freedom to practice our religion openly. Yet there can be a popular mentality that says religion is a private affair, having little place in the public sphere.  This is how many interpret America’s principle of “separation between Church and State”. In this mentality, politicians and private citizens are discouraged from allowing their faith to inform the changes they would like to see in society. Surprisingly, a good number of Catholics can think in a similar way but for very different reasons. Some argue that the only important thing is getting souls to heaven. Sometimes they are not too concerned too about trying to improve society and make it more just and humane.  Both non-religious and even Christians themselves tend to isolate faith so that it is a merely private affair which has little impact on the greater society.

The great lesson of today’s feast is that our faith must have a transforming impact on the public sphere because Christ is the King. Christianity was never intended to be a merely private affair that had no influence on society.  In the very beginning, our loving God created the heavens and the earth to be His home. He shared the earth with man. The plan from the beginning was that God would be King. The earth would operate according to God’s laws of love and justice. However, God’s great project went off the rails because of sin. Humanity rejected God as their King and the world became ruled instead by greed, jealousy and hatred. Over the course of history, God has tried to save the great project of creation by encouraging humanity to follow Him and His rule. God’s ultimate act of salvation was to send His Son, Jesus Christ into the world. In His life Jesus always announced that the kingdom of God had arrived in His very person. Jesus is the King on several levels. Interiorly, Jesus is our King as He should hold the most important place in our heart – we are to love Him more than anything else. Jesus is also our King because our interactions with our neighbour are to be governed by His law and example. More than this though, that Jesus is King means that all of society should be shaped by His values: national government, international relations and the economic market. In fact, the Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 to emphasize this point in a sea of growing nationalism and secularism. Christianity, far from being a merely private affair, is meant to transform all aspects of human life.

Jesus, however, is a King unlike any other. Jesus exercises His Kingship in a completely new and unexpected way.  For a moment, try to picture in your mind a king. What comes to mind? Perhaps you pictured someone sitting on an elegant throne, wearing rich garments and a golden crown on their head. Keeping that picture in mind, how do you imagine the king behaving? Don’t we imagine kings to be powerful, authoritative, dominating and having others at their beck and call? Now, let’s take a look at the image of Christ the King presented in our gospel today. When we look at the crucifix we can see what kind of King Jesus is: His throne was the Cross, His crown was of thorns and His royal garments were rags. Not only does Jesus look different than any other King, His actions are unique as well. The power of Christ the King is shown through His mercy, peace and self-sacrifice. This kind of power, though unexpected, is ultimately stronger than the power of any earthly king. By sacrificing His life, Jesus defeated sin and death. When we imitate the example of Jesus we can experience this power in our own life. For example, at the time of Miguel Pro, many were fighting the government through armed resistance. Though these militias experienced some success, the actions of Miguel Pro and other martyrs who followed the example of Christ and laid down their lives for God and their countrymen was so much more powerful. Their witness and sacrifice inspired many and brought lasting change. Their actions carried so much power because they imitated how Jesus exercises Kingship.

Following Christ the King takes incredible courage because it means nothing less than committing ourselves to changing the world. As followers of Jesus, we are called to strive to build a word that reflects the values of Jesus. There are many people and forces in the world who claim that their ideas and way of doing things should be king. Knowing which of these voices advocates the kind of world that Jesus would want is not easy. Some voices we can agree with, other voices we need to oppose. In his day, Miguel Pro had to oppose the voice of those who tried to limit the Mexican people’s freedom to practice their religion. We can take inspiration from his example. When we look at the society, we should ask ourselves, is this the kind of world that Christ would want? What would need to change? We often hear about the issue of defending human life and marriage. This is very important, but there is more. Recent Popes have drawn our attention to the great injustice that exists between the rich and the poor. Many poor countries are so in debt that they spend most of their funds paying interest to wealthy countries and cannot afford to build up their own country. Is this the world Jesus would want? As another example, we need to seriously consider the effects that our wasteful consumer culture is having on the environment. What kind of world do we want to leave for future generations? How would Jesus have us respond to these challenges? Solutions are not easy to arrive at, yet we must work on them. Saying that Christ is our King is a very demanding statement because we must commit ourselves to building a world that Jesus would want.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the place in Mexico City where Miguel Pro was martyred. The government has not allowed for a large monument there.  All you can find is a small plaque attached to the wall. When I visited the site, however, I was surprised to see that many flowers were left by the site. The witness of Miguel Pro continues to inspire. I personally have found his life very encouraging. Today let us follow his example by not falling for the lie that Christianity is merely a private thing. As Catholics we are not meant to stay in some citadel looking out at the world with detachment. We should be interested in creating a world more worthy of what God has called us to be. We should be interested in politics, economics, education and social structures. Today let us remind ourselves that we are called to build the kingdom of Christ the King. This is our call. ¡Viva Cristo Rey!

What prevents God's mercy from healing the wounds caused by sin? Only you.

When I was living in Mexico a few years ago, the following encounter was not uncommon when I met people living in the streets. At times we would meet people who had a serious injury, a large cut or broken bone, for example. After just a brief look it was clear that this individual needed to see a doctor otherwise there was no hope that they would get better. We would always tell the person this fact, and explain that we would take them and cover the expenses. The strange thing is that some would refuse to allow us to bring us to the hospital. They would tell us that their injury was not that bad and that they would get better on their own. I was reminded of these experiences when I was reflecting on the reading of today. These people never accepted the severity of their wound and as a result, they could not be helped to find healing.  A similar dynamic is at play in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

In this parable we meet two people who respond very differently to the reality of sin in their lives. The Pharisee and the tax collector were in stark contrast in the way they viewed their own sinfulness.  One message of the parable is straightforward: each of us, without exception, is in need of God’s mercy. Taking as an analogy my experience in Mexico, we could say that each of us is seriously wounded as a result of sin and we require God’s healing. But here’s the point: in order for God to heal us, we must first recognize that we are wounded and ask for His help. Just as we could not force anyone to go to the hospital, God cannot force His mercy on those who do not think they need it. The Pharisee and tax collector were both sinners. The Pharisee is at least guilty of the sin of pride and despising others. Quite probably the sins of the tax collector were greater. He was cooperating with a foreign oppressor and had stolen from his countrymen. The way the two see the reality of sin in their lives makes all the difference. The Pharisee is convinced that he is not in need of God’s forgiveness because he follows the law perfectly; he is blind to the severity of his wound and therefore does not ask God for healing. The tax collector, on the other hand, is well aware of his need for God’s mercy and calls on God for healing. At the end of the day it is the tax collector and not the Pharisee who is made right with God. This is all because the two men respond in a very different way to the reality of sin in their life.

In our own life, we can easily downplay the severity of sin. It is easy to forget the wide-ranging effects of our own sins. None of us would go as far as the attitude of the Pharisee, but isn’t it easy to think along these lines, “in comparison to other people my sins are not that bad … I haven’t robbed a bank or killed anyone!”?  Indeed, some sins are more serious than others. We should not, however, brush off our sins as “no big deal”. Often the full effects of our sin are hidden from us. Let me illustrate this with a story. Last week I was visiting my family was getting ready to return to St. Matthew’s as it was getting late. As I gathered my things from the table where I had placed them when I came in, I noticed that my keys were missing.  At first I was calm and I started to search under some other items on the table. As time went on I became more frantic. These weren't just any keys, these were the keys to the Church and the School! I knew if I lost them it would be bad news. My search became more serious. I called everyone who was at the dinner to see if they had taken them by mistake. I started to search with a flashlight down the heating ducts. After an hour of searching I had just about given up hope when I saw a large bowl full of decorations sitting on another table. I figured it was worth a shot. I started digging my hand into the bowl and low and behold … my keys were there! At that very moment a thought struck me: my niece! I have a five year old niece and though I couldn't prove it, I had a sneaky suspicion that she was responsible for hiding my keys. The next day, my niece was asked if she had hidden my keys. Her response: “aahhhhhh yes”. Why did she do it? “I was trying to be sneaky”, she said. This story illustrates well what happens when we sin. Like my niece, we know – at least to some extent -  that what we are doing is wrong. At the same time we are not usually aware of the full effects of our actions. My niece had no way of knowing much stress her action would cause me or what would happen if the keys went missing altogether. She was just trying to be sneaky! Likewise when we sin we forget that it always hurts us, others and our relationship with God. The full consequences of our sins are often hidden from us. As a result, we can tend to downplay the severity of sin in our life.

After recognizing the wounds our sins cause, it is crucial that we trust in God’s mercy and pass this mercy onto others. A fundamental Christian attitude is to recognize that we are sinners in need of Gods mercy and that we need to spread this mercy to others. This message, which is at the heart of the parable in today’s gospel is expressed strongly in the message and devotion of. This devotion spread particularly through the writings of the Polish nun, Saint Faustina Kowalska. In the 1930’s she wrote a diary of about 600 pages chronicling revelations she had received from Jesus about God’s mercy. The message of Divine Mercy was not all together new, but rather a powerful reminder. Through St. Faustina, Jesus wanted to remind the world that His mercy is always greater than our sins so long as we call upon Him in trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us onto other. In the parable we heard today, we have to avoid thinking that the Pharisee is the villain and the tax collector is the hero. The hero of the parable is God and His mercy. For those to whom Jesus initially told this parable, it was shocking to think that this tax collector could return home justified. The one thing he did right was call on God’s mercy. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was blind to his need for God’s mercy. In addition to not asking for mercy, he did not show mercy to others. Instead he judged and despised the tax collector.  The message of Divine Mercy as promoted by St. Faustina can summarized just by remembering “A-B-C”. A: Ask for God’s Mercy. God wants us to approach Him in prayer, asking for mercy for our sins and that His mercy flows over the whole world. B: Be merciful. God wants us to show mercy and forgiveness to others. C: Completely trust Jesus. God wants us to know that the graces of His mercy are dependent only upon our trust. The more we trust Jesus, the more mercy we receive. The Divine Mercy message sums up wonderfully the fundamental Christian attitude promoted by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and we need to spread this mercy to others.

Going back to my experience in Mexico, it was always sad when people refused to recognize the extent of their injuries and accept help. Their continued suffering seemed so senseless. Let us not make the same mistake in our spiritual life by shutting ourselves off from God’s mercy by not recognizing our need for it. Remember that allowing the healing rays of God’s mercy to enter our souls wounded by sin is as simple as A-B-C: A) ask for God’s Mercy, B) be merciful and c) completely trust Jesus. 

Are you a committed Catholic? Take this simple test and find out.

If you are able to remember your High School chemistry class, perhaps you can recall something called a litmus test.  This is a very simple test in which you take a strip of special paper and dip it in a liquid. Depending on what color the paper turns, you know right away if the liquid is acidic, basic or neutral. It is such a quick, simple and accurate test. What if I were to tell you that there is a kind of litmus test that will tell us immediately if we are a committed follower of Jesus Christ or not? You would probably want to test yourself, wouldn't you? Well, I think that there is such a test and I will tell you what it is … just not right away. Let’s try to figure out together what this litmus test could be. We will begin with the incredibly loaded question that Jesus asks at the end of the gospel.

“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth”? Jesus wonders aloud if, upon His return to earth at the end of time, He will find people of faith on the earth. This question is the key to understanding the parable we heard in the gospel. At first glance it seems that the message of the parable is this: keep asking God in prayer for what you want and eventually He will relent and grant you your request just as the unjust judge did to get the widow off His back. There is a problem with this interpretation, however. God is not an unjust judge. The question cannot be whether God will grant us what we ask for in prayer. God is a loving Father, He always will give us what we need; we don’t need to wear Him down. The question is not whether God will be faithful but whether we will remain faithful to Him. The question is whether, through all the ups and downs, struggles and joys of life, we will continue to have faith in God, trust Him, pray to Him and desire a relationship with Him. Jesus holds up the widow as an example for us because she did not grow weary, she preserved and did not give up. When the Son of Man comes, will He find people like this widow? Will He find faith on earth?

When we look at the world today, the answer does not seem very promising because the number of those possessing the faith of the widow is decreasing in many places. In fact, we can become discouraged because it can appears that the longer Jesus waits to come back, the less faith He will find on earth. We have all probably heard stories in the media telling us that religious practice is on the decline. When we look at the numbers, we find a more complicated picture. Globally the number of Christians is increasing. In 2010, the number of Christians in the world grew by a net 28 million. Looking closer we find that the Church is growing in the global south while it is shrinking in the West. Let’s discuss Vancouver in particular. When the archdiocese of Vancouver did a census in November 2012, it was found that just under 100,000 people were attending its 77 parishes. This makes Catholicism this region’s largest religious group by far. Many parishes are in fact growing in numbers, particularly as a result of immigration. But there is another side of the story. Though about 100,000 Catholics were counted at Mass on a given Sunday, there are approximately 250,000 baptized Catholics in the Vancouver region who do not practice their faith with any regularity(more). I do not mention this to depress us. It is however the reality and should get us thinking and hopefully move us to action. The numbers lend an urgency to Jesus’ question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth”? When we look around, especially in the West, the answer does not seem very encouraging.

The Church has a mission to ensure that when Jesus does return He will find that there is still faith on earth. The Church exists to evangelize. We have the job to help increase the number of people who have the faith of the widow in parable. Certainly as Catholics we want to nurture those already within the Church, but if we stopped here we would not be fulfilling the mandate of Jesus to make disciples of all nations. This Sunday we celebrate World Mission Sunday. As Archbishop Miller wrote in his letter we read last Sunday, today the global Church has the opportunity to recommit itself to its task of bringing the gospel of Jesus to all people, both those who have never heard it before and the baptized who are inactive in their faith. Today we have the opportunity to support missionaries, both with our prayers and with financially in the collection. Today we are also reminded that we are called to bring others to know Jesus Christ. Again, the Church exists to evangelize – it is our reason for being. We have a mission to ensure that when Jesus returns He finds that there is still faith on earth.

As Christians we should have a natural desire to evangelize. If Christ is the center of our lives then we should naturally want to lead others to come to know Him. The world “missionary” sometimes brings to mind the negative image of a Bible thumper, someone who uses guilt or fear to get people to go to Church, someone who shoves their beliefs down other’s throats.  True evangelization is not like this.  I think of it this way. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book that you enjoyed so much that you couldn't stop telling people about it? Don’t we go around telling people, “listen you have to watch this movie or you have to read this book”? If we have experienced in our own life a glimmer of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and what it means to be part of the Church, will we not want to do the same? Being a missionary is not about imposing our beliefs on people, it is saying to people “listen, we have something truly incredible here, come, join us and share in it!” This doesn't have to be intimidating or scary. It can be as simple sharing with people your own experiences of faith in a truthful, non-judgmental way. You can talk about your struggles of faith, how you trust God to help you change in your life or how you are really trying to live like Jesus even though you fail. Or it can be as simple as asking people the right questions to get them thinking. Maybe ask them what they do when life gets hard. Or if they share some struggle or joy, ask them where they see God in all of this. Evangelizing doesn't need to be complicated but it is not optional. When we encounter something truly good in our lives we have a natural tendency to want other to share in this. If we never feel a desire to lead others to come to know Jesus then we should stop and ask ourselves why that is. If our commitment to Jesus is true, then we should have a natural desire to evangelize.

There is really a simple litmus test that can help us determine whether we are really committed to Christ and His teaching. No one else can do this test for you and in the end the results are just between you and God. If we feel we fail the test, we should not get discouraged; we are all really a work in progress. At least we know that something needs to change. If you have not guessed what the test is by now, here it is. To know whether we are in fact committed Catholics I think we only need to ask ourselves two questions. Do I have the desire that those around me have a relationship with Jesus? Am I taking some practical steps to make this a reality?