Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
The Solemnity of Christ the King: Auctoritas
He represented the greatest empire the world ever saw. Its boundaries extended as far west as Iceland, as far east as the Mongolians and Ottomans, as far south as the top third of Africa, and as far north as Denmark. He was called the procurator by later historians, but was in fact a Prefect, a military governor. He commanded a small legion, but could call on the full force of Rome from its main Eastern base in Syria. His responsibilities included collecting taxes and supervising construction projects, but his main role was to maintain the law, as the Romans defined it. He had the power of judgement, including life and death. He came from the lowest rank of the Roman families. He was an equestrian, a knight. But that no longer mattered, for as prefect, or as later writers would call him, as procurator, he had auctoritas. Auctoritas was more than simply authority. He had prestige, clout, influence, and the ability to rally support around his will. He could make people do what he wanted just by being who he was. He wasn’t just Pontius Pilate, prefect later called procurator. He was Rome.
He most likely reclined as he spoke to the man who was his polar opposite. Jesus had no social rank. He wasn’t even a Judean. He was a Galilean. He did not command armies. He did not represent a physical power. As far as Pilate was concerned, Jesus possessed no auctoritas. He was accused by his own people of calling himself a king, but he certainly didn’t appear to be a king. Pilate amazed himself that he even bothered to engage this commoner in conversation. But Pilate’s wife, Claudia Procula, had just sent him a message to have nothing to do with this just man who haunted her dreams. Like any husband he did the opposite of what his wife said. Present company excepted, of course. Pilate was fascinated with Jesus. He asked him if he was the King of the Jews. Jesus returned the question by asking Pilate if he was merely responding to what others had said about him or if he was sincerely seeking to know who Jesus was. After Pilate’s bluster, “I am not a Jew,” Jesus spoke about his kingship. He said that his kingdom was not here, but was beyond this world. Jesus also had auctoritas, auctoritas infinitely greater than the world had ever seen before. Jesus had the auctoritas of God. Indeed earlier the people had been amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he spoke with such authority.
The Solemnity of Christ the King demands that we consider where we seek authority. Who are those whom we acknowledge as people of power and prestige? And what degree of authority do we give them over us? We respect the authority of our police, and do as they say when they ask us to leave an area, go someplace, or simply, slow our car down. We recognize the authority of our firefighters when they tell us not to enter a burning building, even if it is our own house. We recognize the authority of our military leaders as they lead our men and women to defend our country. We recognize the authority of our political leaders, as they seek to advance our society. We recognize the authority of our doctors and nurses and all in the medical field as they seek to care for us. But all these people, and those representing so many other professions, only have a limited authority over us. They cannot force us to think as they think. The fascists and the communists tried that. They tried to impose thought on people. They couldn’t. At least they couldn’t impose thought on people who were aware of the limitation of civil authorities. They couldn’t impose thought on people who recognized the authority of God.
We cannot allow elements of our society to dictate what we are to think, to say, and to do. We cannot be told that something is right because it is supported by a civil law. Slavery was supported by the law until the thirteenth amendment was passed on January 31,1865 and was ratified December of that year. But slavery was always wrong. Civil law cannot surmount natural law, the law of God written in our consciences. Thousands, tens of thousands of martyrs have willing accepted death rather than give civil authorities ultimate authority over their lives. From 12 year old Agnes of Rome to 80 year old Ignatius of Antioch, from Thomas More, the second most powerful man in sixteenth century England, to Blessed Miguel Pro, a simple parish priest in twentieth century Mexico who died calling “Vivo Cristo Rey,” God’s authority remained supreme. And so it must be for us. We recognize the auctoritas of God, not that of Pilate.
Nor can we allow popular opinion to dictate our consciences. We cannot be slaves to pollsters. We cannot submit our consciences to the prevailing mood of what some claim is a majority, although those claiming to be Bolsheviks are usually Mensheviks, those claiming the majority are usually the minority. We have to take a stand for the truth, whether it is popular or not.
“As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord,”Joshua announced after Jericho was conquered and the Hebrew people were establishing their families in the Promised Land. He would be a man of God inhabiting what had been a pagan land. We also must be people of God. We cannot submit to the slavery of the mind police. We cannot give anyone ultimate authority over our lives. Our Kingdom is not of this world.
Following Jesus Christ, the King, demands that we stand apart from those elements of society that refuse to recognize His authority. Following Jesus Christ our King, forces us to make decisions that are determined by the law of God, not the popular opinion of the day. Following Jesus Christ the King necessitates that we be separate from much of society. To be separate is to be holy. Giving auctoritas to Jesus Christ frees us to be holy. Allowing God to be the ultimate authority in our lives gives us the capacity to be the unique reflections of God’s presence He created each of us to be.
Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth. Were there ever two more diametrically opposed participants in a conversation? Only one of them understood what authority really was. And He died on the cross to which the other had condemned Him.
It sounds so lovely to say that Jesus Christ is our King. All of us want to affirm that we choose Jesus, not Pilate. It is wonderful to proclaim to the world that Jesus Christ is our King. But to live like this, well that is different. That is difficult. It takes all the courage, all the spiritual strength that we can muster up to be members of his Kingdom.
We call upon our King today to help us be holy.