WHY AN AUSTRIAN EMPEROR SHOULD BE CANONIZED:
An American Perspective
Br. Nathan Cochran, O.S.B.
"Are you a monarchist?"
"Why does an American care about an Austrian Emperor?"
"Is your family from Austria?"
In the course of promoting the cause for the canonization of Emperor Karl, I frequently hear these questions, as well as many others. More often than not, an Austrian or some other national from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire makes the inquiry. And, more often than not, it is asked in disbelief-as though they cannot fathom what might be special about this man.
The questions may be innocent enough, but they demonstrate that Emperor Karl's story has not been told often enough or far enough. In American history books-as well as many Austrian ones-Emperor Karl's reign is frequently relegated to a footnote. His importance, however, is far greater than that acknowledged by historians-especially historians who may not be entirely without bias. I say this because if they were familiar with the story of the last Habsburg Emperor, they would realize that Karl's life, character, honor, and fidelity have universal inspiration and appeal to everyone-regardless of politics, race or nationality.
The three questions mentioned above, therefore, are really irrelevant to the subject. The question that should be asked is: "why is Karl of Austria worthy of canonization?" The answer to that is five-fold: because Blessed Karl was a man of faith, a Christian family man, a Catholic monarch, a resolute peacemaker; and a seeker of God's Will.
A MAN OF FAITH
Karl became the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1916, during the First World War. During his brief reign, he continually worked to make peace between all of the belligerents. He was socially aware, creating many human services for the welfare of his people. In this regard, he was ahead of his fellow heads-of-state. By the time the fighting was over, the empire was collapsing, and Karl would soon be forced to withdraw from governing. He was then sent into exile in Switzerland. From there he made two attempts to regain his Hungarian crown, with the support of the Vatican, the French Prime Minister, and many loyalists in Hungary, however both attempts ended in vain. He was then sent to the island of Madeira, where he died within five months on April 1, 1922, at the age of 34.
From a young age and throughout his life, Karl of Austria demonstrated an awareness of God's presence and Christian duty. As a child, he loved praying at daily mass with his mother, Archduchess Maria Josefa, and was known for his charitable acts. He knew all the prayers a typical Catholic youth would learn, and loved praying them, particularly the rosary. As a youth and later as an adult, he loved making pilgrimages to Marian shrines.
As a young child, he was concerned about the poor and needy, so he did odd jobs around his home in order to earn money to give to them. There are records from when he was 18 years old recording his almsgiving, and even as Emperor he continued his private charitable giving. There is testimony from one of his aides who was in charge of distributing the Emperor's alms from his personal household. The aide informed him there was no more money left, and Karl said: "The need is so great, find the money from somewhere else and distribute that."
Blessed Karl loved to pray throughout his life. He received Holy Communion daily, and at the end of mass prayed "Veni Creator." He prayed Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the rosary daily. He frequently prayed the Litanies of the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Saint Joseph; he was a member of Our Lady's Confraternity and wore the scapular. Karl was devoted to adoring the Blessed Sacrament, and could happily spend hours in adoration. He was routinely found praying wherever he was, at home, in the office, and on the battlefield. He encouraged all of his soldiers to pray and frequently asked those around him to join him in prayer to begin a meeting or some action. Furthermore, the Emperor had a devotion to the angels, especially Saint Michael the Archangel, whom he made patron saint of the imperial army.
Karl of Austria was obedient to the Holy Father, acknowledging him to be the Vicar of Christ; and he treated bishops and priests with respect. He was known as a loyal, kind, generous and jovial comrade, who lived and practiced his faith without artifice. From the testimony of those who knew him well, it is clear that Blessed Karl took his faith seriously and fostered his relationship with God, devoutly following the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
A DEVOTED CHRISTIAN FAMILY MAN
As a young boy, Archduke Karl frequently met and played with the children of Duke Robert of Parma at their home in Schwarzau, which was near his boyhood home in Reichenau. When he began to look seriously for a wife he remembered the young Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, one of Duke Robert's 24 children. Karl's mother had originally tried to interest him in one of Zita's older sisters, but his heart was set on Zita. After a short courtship, their engagement was announced on June 13, 1911, and they were married in the Bourbon-Parma family chapel at Schwarzau on October 21, 1911. Their union produced eight children: Otto, Adelheid, Robert, Felix, Karl Ludwig, Rudolph, Charlotte, and Elizabeth (who was born after Karl's death).
Both Karl and Zita were devout Catholics, and from the very beginning they brought their faith to their relationship. Karl proposed to Zita in front of the Blessed Sacrament at the Marian Shrine of Mariazell. They made their wedding retreat with the famous Jesuit preacher, Fr. Karl Maria Andlau, and on the eve of their wedding, Karl told Zita: "Now we must help each other attain heaven." His devotion to the Blessed Mother is apparent on his wedding band, where he had the following antiphon inscribed: "Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, sancta Dei Genitrix" (We take refuge under your protection, O Holy Mother of God).
The wedding ceremony was conducted by Monsignor (later Cardinal) Bisleti, Papal Legate of Pius X, who read a nuptial blessing prepared by the Pope, and presented them with a gift from the Pope as well. While on their honeymoon, they returned to Mariazell to place their union under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Karl and Zita had a loving relationship, and were each other's soul mate. They were devoted to each other, supported each other, and had the same Christian values. Their children were brought into this loving environment, and each child was cherished as a gift from God. They were taught their prayers and catechism as soon as they could understand, and many of these religious lessons Karl taught the children himself. The family prayed together daily and First Friday devotions were observed. When Otto, the oldest child, made his first Holy Communion, Blessed Karl consecrated his family to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Likewise, the first Holy Communions of all their children were important family events that were celebrated with special joy.
As a father, Karl was loving, devoted, and caring. In the midst of some of his greatest trials-war, rejection, poverty and exile-his children brought him his greatest joy and comfort. His only consolation in losing his throne was the fact that he could spend more time with his wife and family. This time of being together-whether all in one room reading, playing and praying together, or outdoors walking and hiking together, or doing other activities such as hunting, boating and fishing-was a great treasure for him. As he lay dying, he prayed for all of the children by name, and one of his frequent prayers was: "Look after my little ones. Let them die rather than commit a mortal sin- keep them in body and soul."
A CATHOLIC MONARCH
The Habsburg monarchy had a long relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. As the political descendant of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg monarchy had dual responsibilities for its subjects' spiritual and temporal welfare. In this context, the Austro- Hungarian monarch was head of both the State and Church; however, it must be noted that although the Habsburg emperors were Apostolic Majesties mandated to spread the Catholic faith and foster the Church's welfare, they were also tolerant of non-Catholic faiths found in their empire. Jews, Muslims, and Protestants were protected by the crown, and permitted to observe their faiths in peace. Karl was perfectly suited for this role, and is an excellent model of a head-of-state who diligently works for the spiritual and temporal welfare of his people.
In order to reign constitutionally in the Hungarian half of the dual monarchy a coronation was required. Since the First World War was raging and speed was necessary, the coronation in Budapest was pushed forward earlier than usual, but nevertheless it was celebrated with great solemnity. Karl and Zita spiritually prepared for the event, which was a moving experience for both of them, and nourished their souls. They were anointed and crowned as Apostolic Majesties by the Hungarian Cardinal Primate. After receiving Holy Communion, they were given the commission to uphold the Hungarian constitution and the welfare of the Roman Catholic Church.
Karl took both of his mandates seriously. He strove to make the correct ethical and moral decisions, even when overlooking some of his duties might have been easier for him, and perhaps may have even allowed him to maintain his throne. Every decision, act, order and law was made with ethical and moral deliberation, using the criteria of whether what was being proposed fostered both the temporal and spiritual welfare of the people. For him, these two functions could not be separated, as they were mandates given to him by God, through the auspices of the Church-hence a sacred trust.
He upheld this sacred trust in all that he did. At home, Emperor Karl established a Ministry of Social Welfare-the first of its sort in the world. Its mission was to deal with such social issues as youth welfare, war disabled, widows and orphans, social insurance, labor rights and job protection, job placement, unemployment relief, and emigration protection and housing. He commuted death sentences whenever he could, and constantly urged his Hungarian ministers to enact universal suffrage in Hungary (unfortunately, his ministers resisted his instructions and suffrage was not legislated during Karl's reign). Karl ordered rationing to be instituted at the palace, just as it was throughout the rest of Vienna. He organized soup kitchens, used the palace's horses and wagons to deliver coal to the Viennese, fought against usury and corruption, and gave away most of his private wealth by distributing alms beyond his means. He went among his people, suffered with them, and comforted them with his presence and words. His subjects called him "The People's Emperor," a title he cherished more than his noble and royal titles.
On the warfront, Emperor Karl halted strategic bombing of civilian populations and buildings, restricted the use of mustard gas, and was adamantly opposed to submarine warfare and the mining of harbors. He abolished the military punishment of binding wrists to ankles, prohibited duels, and forbade flogging. He decreed an amnesty for anyone sentenced by military or civilian courts on charges of high treason, insults to the Royal Family, disturbance of the public peace, rebellion or agitation. At risk to his own life, he visited the soldiers on the frontlines and in the hospitals, giving all of the moral support he could, and observing the fighting firsthand. As Supreme Commander, Karl would not send his men anywhere that he himself would be afraid to go. His trait of showing up unexpectedly at anytime, anywhere, caused his soldiers to affectionately nicknamed him: "Karl-the-Sudden." His presence inspired courage and valor.
Morally, the Emperor was concerned for the spiritual welfare of his people. He had plans to build many churches throughout Vienna to make access to churches easily available to all Viennese. He also insisted that the name of God be cited in all laws and acts of his government, because laws should be motivated by the love of God and one's fellow man. He enacted laws to protect readers from obscene reading material, started a movement to provide soldiers with good books, and fostered the printing of Catholic reading materials by implementing the formation of a Catholic printing press. Although he incorporated many laws and movements to raise the morality of his people, he primarily led them by the example of his life. A life dedicated to God, family, and homeland.
At the end of the war, revolution was beginning to spread throughout the empire. In Vienna, members of his government approached him requesting that he abdicate. He resolutely refused, stating: "My crown is a sacred trust given to me by God. I can never forsake that trust or my people." With the empire literally falling apart, and the Austrian government in chaos, he was finally coerced into signing a renunciation document in which he temporarily removed himself from governing until the people could decide on what form of government they desired. It was not an abdication-he would keep his sacred trust, even if it meant exile and poverty.
Emperor Karl went into seclusion at Eckartsau, a family hunting estate outside of Vienna and from where he would later be sent into Swiss exile. While he was in exile, he was approached several times by unscrupulous people and groups offering to return him to his throne. They, of course, had ulterior and selfish motives for making their offers. He refused them saying: "As a Catholic monarch, I will never make a deal with the devil-even for the return of my throne." Because of his continual refusal to abdicate, he was sent into exile in Switzerland.
He spent a couple of quiet years with his family in Switzerland, but requests from Hungary continually begged him to return. Hungary was still a monarchy at this time and Karl was the rightful monarch. He staged two attempts to reclaim his throne from his regent, Admiral Horthy. The first time, Admiral Horthy convinced him that it was not yet time to restore Karl to the vacant throne, and that more preparations had to be made. However, back in Switzerland, Karl continued to receive requests for him to return, along with reports that convinced him that Horthy had betrayed him, and had no intention of returning the throne. He attempted a second restoration bid, which had the support of the French government and the Vatican, but this time, Admiral Horthy lied to university students in Budapest, armed them, and sent them against their rightful king. Thinking the King was held captive by Slovak forces, the students created a standoff with the army, which was loyal to Karl. When he saw that there would be bloodshed in his name, instead of pressing on to the capital with his loyal troops, the Emperor-King surrendered saying: "The return of my crown is not worth the spilling of innocent Hungarian blood."
Emperor Karl was taken prisoner, and then sent into exile on Madeira island, where he soon became fatally ill. Towards the end of his illness, he called his eldest child, Crown Prince Otto, to his side. He wanted his son and heir to witness the faith, with which he approached death, saying: "I want him to see how a Catholic and an Emperor dies." This too clearly shows how Karl perceived his spiritual and temporal mandates to be irrevocably intertwined.
Like a loving father and good monarch, Karl's prayers during the final days of his life were for the people of his former empire. He forgave his enemies, and those who betrayed and exiled him. His most fervent desire was to return to his homeland. He prayed for his homeland, saying: "I must suffer like this so that my peoples can come together again."
A RESOLUTE PEACEMAKER
From the very beginning of his reign, Karl worked to create peace for his empire. He had been against the declaration of war, and now he was in a position to put an end to the needless killing and fighting. In his accession speech he proclaimed: "I will do all within my power to banish the horrors and sacrifices of war at the earliest possible date and to win back for my peoples the sorely missed blessings of peace . . ."
Emperor Karl's deepest desire was to end the killing and suffering brought on by the First World War. As an archduke and military man, he saw first hand the killing and mutilations created on the battlefields of the various fronts. As Emperor, he saw the suffering and starving of his people during his visits to various cities, towns, and villages throughout his empire. As hereditary monarch, he foresaw the impending doom for his dynasty from numerous revolutionaries.
Karl tried to enter into secret negotiations with the Entente Powers. His brotherin- laws, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma and Prince Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, who were serving in the military on the Entente side, acted as intermediaries between the Emperor and the French and English leaders. The princes were secretly smuggled into Austria, so they could discuss with Emperor Karl possible solutions to the war. As a result of their discussions, the Emperor wrote a confidential lettered addressed to Prince Sixtus, which could be shown to the Entente Powers to indicate Karl's good faith to negotiate a peace, and willingness to help lead his German ally to the peace table. He ended the letter stating: "Hoping that in this way we shall soon be able, on both sides, to put an end to the suffering of so many millions of men and of so many families that live in sorrow and anxiety."
Because the success of this attempt relied totally on its confidentiality, a great scandal occurred when a dispute between the Austrian Foreign Minister Count Ottokar Czernin and the new French leadership occurred. The contents of the letter were reveled, and during the subsequent accusations and denials by the various ministers, Karl's influence on his allies was compromised and his standing with the Entente as a realistic instrument for peace was ruined. The peace initiative collapsed, the war was prolonged, and some of the bloodiest days of fighting occurred, resulting in the loss of over two million more lives.
Although the "Sixtus Affair" ended peace negotiations through his brother-in-law, Emperor Karl did not stop his pursuit of peace. He made it clear that his sole intention was to end the war as quickly as possible, and because he was not one of the original belligerents he was the ideal person to bring the war to an end. During the second half of his reign, he ordered negotiations to continue. This time the talks were in Switzerland, and between Count Czernin for Austria-Hungary and Count Armand for the French. The talks continued to almost the very end of the war, but the discussions unfortunately came to nothing.
Another avenue of peace that Karl supported was Pope Benedict XV's peace proposal. Karl accepted the proposal unconditionally. Responding in a letter dated August 1, 1917, he wrote to the Pope that from the earliest days of his reign he sought peace. He continued:
. . . we expressed the hope for Austria-Hungary to find a peace that will free the future lives of people from rancor and revenge, so as to protect generations to come from the use of arms. In the meantime, our government has not stopped repeating our continual call for peace-a call heard by the entire world-expressing the desire and agreement of the people of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to put an end to the bloodshed according to the peace plan that Your Holiness has before you.
However, the other belligerents flatly rejected it because the plan basically reestablished pre-war borders. The other combatants wanted the war to continue for their own selfish purposes. The Italians wanted the war to continue because the Entente promised them any Austrian territory they occupied at war's end-and the Italians did not occupy any promised territory. The French wanted the war to continue so that they would be winning at war's end and able to punish Germany, and take Alsace-Lorraine from them. The English also wanted to be in a dominant position at the conclusion of the war in order to better negotiate terms. Finally, because the Germans were winning the war at the time, they wanted it to continue so they could expand their territory even farther.
When the United States of America entered the war, the tide began to turn against the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. When President Woodrow Wilson proposed his famous Fourteen Points, Emperor Karl accepted all the points unconditionally. The war might have ended then, but France and the United States surprisingly recognized a group of Bohemian refugees in Paris as a legitimate Czechoslovakian government in exile, rather than accepting Karl's compliance to Wilson's demands. The other ethnic groups and nationalities in the empire saw their chance at independence and began declaring their separation from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. France and the United States encouraged them, and it soon became clear that the Empire was being dismantled from within and without-with nothing Karl could do to halt the process.
It is uncontestable that Karl tried everything in his power to bring peace to his empire and to Europe. Even writers from his enemy combatants recognized this trait. The French novelist and satirist, Anatole France, wrote:
Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost.
Herbert Vivian, an English writer, wrote later in life about his meeting with the Emperor:
Karl was a great leader, a prince of peace, who wanted to save the world from a year of war; a statesman with ideas to save his people from the complicated problems of his empire; a king who loved his people, a fearless man, a noble soul, distinguished, a saint from whose grave blessings come.
"THY WILL BE DONE"
On March 9, Emperor Karl took his two oldest children with him to the town of Funchal to buy a birthday present for Karl-Ludwig who would turn four the next day. At the top of the mountain where they were living, the air was densely foggy, cold, and damp; while at the base in town, it was sunny and warm. On the return trip, the Emperor became overheated with exertion, and was not properly dressed for the chillier climate on top of the mountain. This affected a chronic lung problem he had suffered from for several years. A few days later, Karl went down to Funchal again, but on his return he went to bed exhausted, with a cough and fever. Since he could not afford a doctor, he delayed calling for medical aid, and his sickness became worst, developing into pneumonia and influenza.
Finally doctors were summoned, but Karl was seriously ill, and in a weakened state. They injected him with camphor, turpentine and caffeine; they applied mustard plasters, and gave him small balloons of oxygen when it could obtained.Finally in desperation, they cupped his back-a painful procedure meant to suction infection out of the body.
Despite his suffering, the Emperor never complained about his pain or agony. In fact, he was more worried about the trouble he was causing the household, and the possibility that he might be contagious to others. The extent of his suffering was evident when he was overheard speaking to himself: "How good it is that there is confidence in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Otherwise, it would be impossible to bear with all this." Karl's devotion to the Sacred heart was particularly strong. Everywhere he traveled, he took with him an image of the Sacred Heart, which he kept under his pillow. During his final illness, he also kept a relic of the True Cross, a second-class relic of Pope St. Pius X, and a relic of Br. Conrad.
His wife stayed with him throughout most of his ordeal. She would hold him, sooth him, and pray with him. He prayed for his oldest son Otto, as well as all of his children. He forgave those who betrayed him, and prayed for his subjects. On the evening before he died, he uttered: "I must suffer like this so that my peoples can come together again." But his most frequent pray was: "Thy Will be done!"
On the morning of his last day he whispered to his beloved wife: " I love you unceasingly," and she held him in her arms for the rest of the morning. He prayed aloud: "Jesus, I live for You, for You I die, dear Jesus come!" The Emperor rested for a while. He later requested Holy Communion, which Father Zsambóki administered to him, and anointing him a final time. The Eucharist was exposed in his room, and he prayed in the Lord's presence. About ten minutes before he died, he prayed: "Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes-yes. My Jesus, as You will it-Jesus." Then he whispered "Jesus" softly, and died. It was shortly after noon on Saturday, April 1, 1922. He was only 34 years old.
By now it should be obvious why the three questions at the beginning of this essay are not important. They are not important because Blessed Karl's story has universal appeal. His story touches North Americans, Latin Americans, Asians, Africans and Europeans. His faith inspires Catholic men and women, husbands and fathers, military men, politicians, and heads-of-state. His influence reaches out beyond the borders of Austria and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and embraces the world with his Christian example.
Blessed Karl of Austria must be canonized! Not because he needs it, but because we need his inspiring and selfless example.
BLESSED KARL OF AUSTRIA-PRAY FOR US!