The following is drawn principally from a leaflet published by the Emperor Charles League of Prayer (www.emperorcharles.org):
Charles of Austria was born on the 17th August 1887 at Persenbeug castle in Lower Austria. His parents were the Archduke Otto of Austria and the Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony, the sister of the last King of Saxony. The Emperor Franz-Joseph I was Charles’ Great Uncle.
Charles was brought up consciously as a Catholic, receiving a mainly military but also political training. The young prince received little public attention, and he grew up to be a charming young man, devoted to his tasks whatever they were, charitable always, reverent and pious. “His greatest joy,” however, “was in being allowed to be an altar boy,” his tutor recalled. From a young age Karl had a special, life-long devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Sacred Heart. From his earliest childhood his life was accompanied by a prayer group, after a nun blessed with the marks of the stigmata, had foretold great suffering and personal attacks for Charles in the future. From an early age, Charles developed a great love of Holy Communion and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Throughout his life he sought to resolve all important decisions through prayer.
On the 21st October 1911, he married Princess Zita of Bourbon, daughter of the Duke of Parma. After their wedding Karl turned to her and said, “Now we must help each other to go to heaven.” In ten years of happy and exemplary marriage, they were blessed with eight children.*
On the 28th June 1914, the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo resulted in Charles becoming the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The death of the Emperor Franz-Joseph in the middle of the war was followed by Charles’ enthronement on the 21st November 1916 as Emperor of Austria. On the 30th December 1916 he was crowned Apostolic King of Hungary.
For Charles the inheritance of crowns was a personal vocation given to him from God’s hand. This duty in the service of his peoples was both unrenounceable and sacred. It was to be carried out if necessary in loving submission even at the expense of his own life as a true Follower of Christ. In the universal and faith-serving tradition of his house, he saw the alternative to nationalism and the other fatal currents of the twentieth century whose beginning would encompass the destruction of his empire. Throughout all this, the Empress was his strongest human support.
Charles’ rule expressed Catholic Social Teaching. His highly personal efforts to secure a peace were at the centre of his activities throughout a terrible war. On account of his political ideas, his beatification honored him as the pioneer and patron of a truly united Europe.
He created a social legal framework which is partly in force even today. Moreover, as practically the only statesman who was himself also a soldier, he had personal experience of the horrors of the front. As Commander-in Chief he made great efforts to humanize military tactics where conditions permitted.
Charles saw himself opposed by a violent propaganda inspired by international forces which actively worked for the destruction of his empire and therefore had a vested interest in discrediting him personally. These forces influenced also large parts of the leading internal military, social and political circles.
His constant sensitive conscience and courageous conduct enabled the transition to a post-war 0rder to occur without a civil war. Nevertheless both he and his wife were deprived of their homeland birthright and practically all of their possessions.
Loyal to his coronation oath and the express wishes of the Pope who feared Bolshevism was set to engulf central Europe, Charles tried after the war to take up again his ruling responsibilities in Hungary. Two attempts failed owing to the treason and dishonesty of his subordinates. King and Queen were first imprisoned and then exiled to Madeira, together with their children.
There the family lived in impoverished conditions where the already physically weak Emperor con- tracted a painful illness which finally killed him. Just as he had accepted dutifully the inheritance of crowns, he now accepted with equanimity also from God’s hand the cross of exile, painful illness and death, again as a sacrifice for his peoples.
Pardoning and forgiving all, he died on the 1st April 1922, his gaze fixed on the Blessed Sacrament.
Karl, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, said goodbye to his wife, Empress Zita. “I’ll love you forever”, he declared, just as he had eleven years earlier when they were married. Then he called his first born son Otto, to “witness how a Catholic and an Emperor conducts himself when dying.” The Emperor received the Sacrament of the Sick and spoke his last words: “Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes—yes. My Jesus, Thy will be done—Jesus.”
The motto of his life was as he repeated on his death-bed:
MY ENTIRE EFFORTS ARE ALWAYS IN ALL THINGS TO RECOGNIZE AND FOLLOW AS CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE THE WILL OF GOD EVEN IN ALL ITS COMPLETENESS.
* I first met the Emperor’s eldest son, the Archduke Otto, at Cambridge University sometime in the late 1950s; and I remained in touch with him intermittently over the years until his death in 2011. I last saw him in Rome, at the Beatification of his father in October 2004, when I was blessed to be a concelebrant with Pope St. John Paul II at the great Mass in St Peter’s Square.
Next Wednesday, October 18, EWTN will broadcast a program in which Fr Mitch Pacwa will be taking with several people connected with the cause for Karl’s canonization, including a member of the Habsburg family – Her Imperial and Royal Highness, Princess Maria Anna Galitzine, the daughter of Archduke Rudolf of Austria who was the youngest son of Emperor Karl I.
A book I highly recommend: A Heart for Europe, by James & Joanna Bogle. It tells the whole of this great and very moving story.