That Jesus taught His disciples to pray for the coming of the kingdom (Mt 6:9–13; Lk 11:2–4) long before they could fully understand its true nature has long intrigued me. Clearly, Jesus intends to lead His disciples into a full understanding of what it means for God’s kingdom to come, and for Him to be its king.
And yet, even after all of the formation they received from Him, the final question that the apostles put to their Master, on the day of the Ascension, concerns the coming of the kingdom: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus responds that they will finally fully understand when they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
These are His final words on earth. Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is the key to a full understanding of Christ as king. A key moment in the Lord’s pedagogy of leading His disciples into the full meaning of “Thy kingdom come” confirms this inseparability of the kingdom and the paschal mystery. It comes when James and John ask for the privilege of sitting at Jesus’ right and left side in His kingdom (Mt 20:22). Jesus replies: “You do not know what you are asking.” Then He reveals that His kingdom is inseparable from His paschal mystery: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38). In other words, “Do you realize that, by the Father’s wise plan of love, to ask for anything concerning the kingdom is to ask for my paschal mystery, and to ask to participate in it?”
Only this connection adequately explains why the apostles had to go through what they did in final preparation for the gift of the Holy Spirit. They had to be humbled by the discovery that, like Peter, although they loved Jesus and thought that their pre-resurrection love for Him was strong enough even to lay down their lives for Him (Jn 13:37), in reality they could not. They had to discover that, again like Peter, all along they had been following Jesus “at a distance” (Mt 26:58). This humility, rooted in the awareness of their sins, completes their preparation to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. By denying and abandoning Jesus, they participated in the paschal mystery as sinners who cause Jesus to suffer. Through their conversion and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they become participants in His redemptive suffering, now being “crucified with Christ … the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Those who, like Peter, and with him the other apostles, pass through the second conversion (CCC, 1428), know what they are saying when they pray, “Thy kingdom come.”
Also, with this connection in mind, we can better understand why this second petition of the Our Father, “Thy kingdom come,” is an echo of the first, “Hallowed be Thy name” in that both necessarily involve God and the petitioner. For the Church Fathers the hallowing of God’s name is the result of His action, but “He does not do this alone or despite us” (CCC, 2575): “By asking ‘hallowed be thy name’ we enter into God’s plan, the sanctification of his name … by us and in us, in every nation and in each man” (CCC, 2858). Similarly, to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” means to pray “for the growth of the Kingdom of God in the ‘today’ of our own lives” (CCC, 2859). We are Christ’s coworkers (CCC, 307), His associates (CCC, 2575), in spreading His kingdom. To pray, “Thy kingdom come,” is to pray for the grace to play one’s role in the coming of God’s kingdom.
A Kingdom of purified consciences
The Church and her members spread the kingdom of God through the witness of Christian life and the testimony of words, both pointing to the efficacy of Christ’s redeeming love. This twofold witness is rooted in being a person of conscience. A Christian conscience integrates faith and life, and it is precisely this integration that the Second Vatican Council promotes when it teaches that in all things the Christian faithful should be led by their Christian consciences (Lumen gentium, 36; Gaudium et spes, 43).
To pray, “Thy kingdom come,” is to pray to be a person of conscience, and this is to pray for the renewal of baptismal grace. For, the apostolic Church believes that Baptism confers the grace of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ (Heb 9:9, 14; 10:2, 20–22; 1 Pet 3:21). This is the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy that God will establish a new covenant by which He writes His law on His people’s hearts—that is, on people’s consciences (Heb 9:14)—and they will participate in His work of forgiveness (Jer 31:31–34). This means that by His sacrifice, Jesus Christ has definitively atoned and satisfied for all the sins of all time. This is why the perpetual presence of His sacrifice in the Eucharist those who are faithful to their baptismal graces and vocation, “the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: ‘Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking’” (CCC, 1327).
It follows from the preceding that if one should ask, “Where is the kingdom of God?” the answer is twofold. First, as Vatican II clearly asserts, the apostolic Church of Christ, in which alone His sacrifice is perpetuated, is “the kingdom of God now present in mystery” (Lumen gentium, 3). The Catechism echoes this: “The Kingdom of God … has come in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst” (CCC, 2816). At the same time, Baptism and the Eucharist bear fruit in the lives of the faithful. Christ reigns, His kingdom is present, whenever and wherever the Church’s members live in conformity with their Christian consciences.
A Kingdom of Truth: Calling good and evil by their proper names
The glossary of the CCC defines conscience as “a judgment of practical reason about the moral quality of a human action.” All moral judgments are ultimately referred to man’s final end. In Gaudium et spes, 16, Vatican II elaborates: judgments of conscience are the product of man’s ability to know God’s law. His law is entirely ordered to man’s fulfillment, his happiness. His law, in other words, specifies what man must do, and what he must refrain from doing, in order to love himself in the truth. Since man is made in God’s image, and since God is love, man is made for love—precisely, love in the truth fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
Judgments of conscience, then, are the way that man participates in God’s own judgments. It is in these judgments that God and man are in communion in the truth. The Bible conveys this through what it reveals about the office of the kings of Israel, and about Christ as king.
Two memorable episodes of the Old Testament reveal that a king is a judge. The first is Solomon’s display of wisdom when he discerned (without the advantage of today’s genetic testing!) who the true mother of a child was (1 Kings 3). The second is David’s judgment regarding Nathan’s account of a man with abundant flocks stealing the only lamb of his neighbor (2 Sam 12). The office of the king is to render a judgment based on the truth. The Bible calls this a “just judgment.” The throne is the symbol of this office, this vocation, to safeguard justice in the kingdom of God’s people.
In light of the preceding judgment scenes, the significance of two texts in the New Testament that refer to a throne becomes clear for understanding the kingship of Christ. The first is the scene of the eschatological judgment:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Mt 25:31–32)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:15–16)
By His passion, death, and resurrection, Christ fulfills the figures of the Son of Man and eternal High Priest by judging all the nations from His throne of mercy and grace.
By baptism’s gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ, Christians become participants in this judgment. In light of the truth fully revealed in Him, they are able to pass judgment on themselves in the truth because the “result of an upright conscience is, first of all, to call good and evil by their proper name” (John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, 43). This is how Christ reigns in the world. This is the interior essence of His kingdom, the fruit of His sacrifice. For the Church Fathers, this is the meaning of the Lord’s assertion, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21).
The kingdom is the life of Christian virtue, rooted in the conscience that has been purified by Christ’s blood, that is, by His merciful love. The preference of today’s biblical scholars to translate it as, “The kingdom of God is among you [or, in your midst]” does not negate this reading of the Fathers, which accentuates the inward, spiritual nature of the kingdom and of Christ’s reign, which today is often called a personal relationship, the fruit of a personal encounter with Christ. For, what could be more personal than inviting Him into one’s conscience, where we know the truth about our freedom in relation to the truth? Only because of His blood, the symbol of His merciful love, do we dare to do so. To know that our sins have caused the Son of God to suffer and to die on the Cross, and to know that this rejection of Him has not caused Him to reject us, to know that the sin by which we reject His love cannot stop Him from loving us, to be struck with dread by looking upon Him whom our sins have pierced—this faith-perspective on life is the fruit of men submitting to the kingship of Christ.
Christ and His Kingdom: The teaching of Vatican II
In light of the preceding, it should be clear that whenever Vatican II teaches about conscience it is in reality teaching about the kingdom of God and Christ the King. It is doing so from the perspective of the effects in man of Christ’s royal prerogative as judge of the nations and of every person. This illustrates the Council’s pastoral nature. Though it is profoundly misunderstood and misrepresented, the most important aspect of the Council’s pastoral character is nothing other than to present doctrine in a manner that the faithful, as well as non-believers, can more readily perceive revealed truth as good for them, as holding the promise and invitation to what the Council calls a fully human life (what traditional Thomist theology calls happiness).
For the Church Fathers the moral sense of Scripture is, as Henri de Lubac put it, the spiritual sense par excellence. God knows that man cannot fail to love himself, to seek his fulfillment or happiness. God made him this way. And this is why all of divine revelation is an appeal to man’s freedom, and invitation to entrust himself to God for this very happiness.
Essentially, faith is man’s response to this divine invitation. For this reason, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that faith provides the first principles of the moral life. By faith, man and God are on the same page, as it were, in the way that they judge things. In this way of looking at it, God is judging in and through the conscience-judgments of men. This is how Christ reigns, and this is the essence of His kingdom. Paul VI and his successors call this the civilization or culture of love.
A Kingdom for the restoration of Christian culture
Over the past century or so, the Church’s understanding of Christ’s kingship of Christ has undergone a purification similar to the concept of God’s kingdom among Christ’s disciples. For some time, it was thought essential to the nature of God’s kingdom, of which His apostolic Church is the initial realization, that the Church should enjoy certain privileges in relation to the state. However, with the collapse of Christendom, the Church needed to rethink her relationship with political authority. The fruit of that rethinking is the realization that the essence of Christendom was never the political status of the Church.
Rather, it was the Christian culture, created and sustained by the Christian way of life, unified by the Christian consciences of the people, a culture that reinforced Christian principles and contributed to their transmission from one generation to the next. With this keener understanding, the Church expects from the state only that freedom that is necessary for her members to live according to their Christian conscience and to proclaim the mystery of Christ.
Shortly after Vatican I, Pius IX acknowledged the principle. In response to claims that that Council’s teaching on papal infallibility vindicates the power of popes to depose monarchs, he grants that in fact popes had formerly exercised this prerogative, but he denies that they did so by reason of the authority conferred on them by Christ. Pius XI stated:
There are many errors regarding infallibility, but the most malicious of all is that which would include in the doctrine the right of deposing sovereigns and declaring the people free from their duty of allegiance. This right was, indeed, exercised at times by Popes in extreme cases; but neither the claim to it nor the use of it have anything to do with papal infallibility. Its source was not papal infallibility, but papal authority. That authority, according to the public law then in force and by the agreement of Christian nations, which revered in the Pope the supreme judge of Christendom, included the judging, even in temporal matters, of princes and states.
But present conditions are altogether different from this, and only malice could confuse things and times so different; as if an infallible judgment concerning a principle of revealed truth had an affinity with a right which the Popes, solicited by the desire of the people, had to exercise when the common good demanded it.1
Butler’s comments on this passage are pertinent:
The direct purpose of Pius IX in this pronouncement was to assert … that the exercise of the deposing power had nothing to do with infallibility. But it would be incorrect to say that this is all he said. He explicitly based the right, not on theological grounds, as a right jure divino inherent in the papacy; but on an authority derived from the public law of the Christian Commonwealth of the Middle Ages, and by the agreement of the Christian nations, in conditions altogether different from those now existing. It is not too much to say that herein is an endorsement of the theory … according to which the deposing power was not exercised jure divino, and is not an article of Catholic Faith; but was exercised jure humano, as part of the common public law (jus publicum) of Europe of the Catholic centuries.2
It seems to me that this is precisely the distinction that clarifies the teaching of Vatican II in its Decree on Religious Liberty, and the passage in another document:
There are, indeed, close links between earthly things and those elements of man’s condition which transcend the world. The Church herself makes use of temporal things insofar as her own mission requires it. She, for her part, does not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority. She will even give up the exercise of certain rights which have been legitimately acquired, if it becomes clear that their use will cast doubt on the sincerity of her witness or that new ways of life demand new methods. (Gaudium et spes, 76)
The Reign of Christ in a secular culture
There is essential continuity regarding the nature of the kingship of Christ and of His kingdom in the teaching of the 20th century popes. Joseph Ratzinger incisively recapitulates it when he writes, “Christ governs by means of the conscience.”3
“For it is He who reigns within the minds and hearts of men,” writes Pius XII, “and bends and subjects their wills to His good pleasure, even when rebellious” (Mystici Corporis, 39). And his predecessor, Pius XI, anticipated this in his encyclical by which he promulgated the Solemnity of Christ the King:
It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of “King,” because of the high degree of perfection whereby he excels all creatures. So he is said to reign “in the hearts of men,” both by reason of the keenness of his intellect and the extent of his knowledge, and also because he is very truth, and it is from him that truth must be obediently received by all mankind. He reigns, too, in the wills of men, for in him the human will was perfectly and entirely obedient to the Holy Will of God, and further by his grace and inspiration he so subjects our free-will as to incite us to the most noble endeavors. He is King of hearts, too, by reason of his “charity which exceedeth all knowledge.” And his mercy and kindness (cf. Eph 3:9) which draw all men to him, for never has it been known, nor will it ever be, that man be loved so much and so universally as Jesus Christ. (Quas primas, 7)
In light of this essay’s insistence on conscience as the key to grasping Christ’s kingship, one could make the case that the theme of Christ the King is a singular key to unlocking the true pastoral nature of Vatican II. For, the Council’s goal is to unleash a new ardor for evangelization through bearing witness to Christ in deed and word, a witness that is the fruit of a profound renewal of Christian life through conversion. As Joseph Ratzinger puts it: “This is precisely what the Second Vatican Council had intended: to endow Christianity once more with the power to shape history.”4 The Church shapes history in the same way that God does: by shaping the consciences of the men and women who shape history, precisely through that violence likened to crucifying the old man (Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20; 5:24; 6:14) and the purification of consciences. For, “It is by forming consciences that the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society.”5
The restoration of Christian culture through spreading the reign of Christ is above all a function of the consciences of the faithful who are the agents of culture. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the coming of the kingdom in human consciences, and the resulting refulgence of Christ’s truth in culture, is the deplorable lack of interiority so prevalent in the secular and materialistic culture of Europe and North America. This is why one of the most important strategies for the restoration of Christian culture is to facilitate the encounter with Christ in the human heart and conscience. As Vatican II teaches:
For by his interior qualities he outstrips the whole sum of mere things. He plunges into the depths of reality whenever he enters into his own heart; God, Who probes the heart, awaits him there. (Gaudium et spes, 14)
Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. (Gaudium et spes, 16)
It is not difficult to discern the primary strategy of the evil one, who is opposed to Christ’s reign. If the only place in the universe where man, made in the image of God, can encounter God is the human heart or conscience, then the strategy is to prevent this encounter by keeping people so preoccupied with worldly concerns that there is no time in the day to turn inward. Incorporating the pastoral style of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, precisely in its teaching on conscience, alerts us to this practical corollary:
It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection:
“Return to your conscience, question it…. Turn inward, brethren, and in everything you do, see God as your witness” (St. Augustine).
The point has been made that to pray, “Thy kingdom come!” is to pray to be a person of conscience, to be a good steward of the baptismal gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ. It is essential that this be translated into a new commitment, or a recommitment, to the interior life and prayer, and to initiatives on the part of parents in relation to their children, of pastors in relation to their flocks, of Christians in relation to their neighbors, to invite them into the interior sanctuary of their consciences and to teach them that to be human means to seek the truth, to acknowledge the truth, and to conform one’s every thought, word, and deed to the truth.6
Such is the substance of a world worthy of human dignity. Such is the substance of the kingdom of God, which is within us. Such would assure the full, conscious, and active celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King.
(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted on November 21, 2020.)
1 As reproduced by Cuthbert Butler in The Vatican Council, 1869-1870 (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1962), 25. Butler takes this from La Civiltà Cattolica, August 1871, p. 4.
2 Ibid., 25–26.
3Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics. New Essays in Ecclesiology (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 60.
4 Joseph Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in Communio 31, n. 3, (2004), 482. This essay was republished as the preface to a new edition of Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 11–33. The quotation appears on page 13.
5 Benedict XVI, Address at a meeting of representatives of civil society, political, cultural, and business world, diplomatic corps and religious leaders, June 4, 2011.
6 See Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae, 1, 2.
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