The Last Habsburg

Blessed Karl I of Austria
On November 11, 1916, Archduke Karl von Hapsburg received the news he had long expected. It came in the form of a telegram, sent to him at his camp in Galicia, on the Russian front. Emperor Franz Josef was dying. Karl had to go at once to Vienna.

The end came swiftly for the 86-year-old emperor who, since 1848, had witnessed so many of the great dramas of European history. He died in the night of November 21 while Archduke Karl, Archduchess Zita and others knelt praying around his bed. Though Karl prayed for the dying monarch, he possibly prayed also for himself. Rising from his knees after Franz Josef had breathed his last, Karl was no longer archduke and crown prince. He was Karl I, the reigning emperor of Austria, and soon-to-be crowned king of Hungary.” (from Light to the Nations II)

Karl of Austria was born August 17, 1887. His parents were the Archduke Otto and Princess Maria Josephine of Saxony, daughter of the last King of Saxony. The emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Josef I, was Karl’s great uncle. Karl was not the direct successor to his uncle’s throne, but with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Karl became the next heir.

Karl was given a strongly Catholic education, and the prayers of a small group, devoted to his intentions and well-being, accompanied him from childhood. When Karl was 8-years-old, an Ursaline nun and stigmatist prophesied that Karl “would have to suffer greatly and be a target of Hell” and advised that he be enveloped in prayer.  This small prayer group became the “League of Prayer of the Emperor Karl for the Peace of the Peoples.” A deep devotion to the Holy Eucharist and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus grew in Karl and he turned to prayer before making any important decisions. 

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Karl & Zita on their wedding day
On the October 21, 1911, he married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma. The couple was blessed with eight children, five sons and three daughters, during the ten years of their happy married life. Karl declared to Zita on his deathbed: “I’ll love you forever.” When Karl was beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II, his wedding date was chosen as his feast day.

Five years later, the 29-year-old Karl inherited a country at war. World War I was underway, and he immediately set out to do what he could to relieve his people’s misery. Karl eliminated all luxuries at the palace, and the royal family was put on short rations like the rest of the country, while the imperial carriages were used to deliver food and coal to the poor. He spent his free time visiting and encouraging his people and the soldiers on the front lines, earning him the nickname “Karl the Sudden” because he was apt to appear anywhere without warning. Karl envisioned his office as a way to follow Christ: in the love and care of the people entrusted to him. Despite the extremely difficult times, he initiated social reforms, inspired by social Christian teaching. He was called “Emperor of the People,” and he loved that title the best. In the army, Karl banned flogging, ended the custom of duels between officers, stopped strategic bombing raids, and put strict limits on the use of poison gas. He established a pension fund for soldiers, knowing they would be broken men after this terrible war. On July 2, 1917, he granted amnesty to over 2,000 political prisoners. Karl placed a commitment to peace at the center of his war strategy, and he was the only one among political leaders to support Pope Benedict XV’s peace efforts. Both were thwarted in their attempts to end the Great War by the unresponsive Germans and especially the Allies, who wanted unconditional surrender.

Even as the war ended,  Karl thought of the good of his country and its peoples. He saw his throne as a trust given to him by God and he would not betray that trust by abdicating as President Wilson demanded. However, knowing that his decision might lead to civil war and dire repercussions on his people from the Allies, Karl stepped down from power and approved the new republican government that had been formed in Vienna, calling on the people of “German-Austria” to support it. Karl renounced all participation in the affairs of state. “The happiness of my people has, from the beginning, been the object of my most ardent wishes. Only an inner peace can heal the wounds of this war.”

Austria-Hungary, 1914

Karl remained in name Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, but was banished from his country. He and his family were exiled to the island of Madeira. They were not given any living expenses and so lived in poverty in an unheated mountain house, loaned by a banker on the island. In March 1922,  Karl caught a bad cold, which in his weakened condition developed into pneumonia. He offered his sufferings as a sacrifice for the peace and unity of his peoples. “I must suffer like this so that my peoples can come together again.” He did not complain during his sufferings and forgave his enemies; yet he longed for his homeland, telling Zita “I long so much to go home with you. Why won’t they let us go home?” He died on April 1, 1922 at the age of 34. On his deathbed he repeated the motto of his life: “I strive always in all things to understand as clearly as possible and follow the will of God, and this in the most perfect way.”

At the beatification of Karl of Austria, Pope John Paul II said:
The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God’s will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as “something appalling”. Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV. From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Blessed Karl’s family


Additional Resources:

Youtube video of Emperor Karl and Empress Zita’s wedding.
Make this Austrian cheesecake to celebrate Blessed Karl’s feast.
A Heart for Europe: The Lives of Emperor Charles and Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary







Tonypandy and St. Denis

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King Richard III
Recently I discovered the books of early 20th century, British, mystery writer Josephine Tey. In her Daughter of Time, the temporarily bed-ridden and bored Inspector Grant becomes fascinated with the character of King Richard III. Was he the monstrous villain who had his nephews murdered so he could rule England secure? Grant has doubts (based on his detective intuition), but his nurses, hospital visitors, Shakespeare and history books,  all paint Richard as a very black character indeed.  In his quest to uncover the true Richard, Grant introduces the idea of tonypandy.  Tonypandy stands for falsehoods written as history and believed as gospel truth for generations. Usually it stems from an historical event that is blown out of proportion to make it more exciting or glorious, but most often for use as propaganda. The name tonypandy comes from a place in South Wales where government troops were accused of shooting down striking Welsh miners. However, no shots were fired and no blood was shed in the riots that involved more local police action than troops. Yet a sensational, fictional account, believed as history, was written of the incident to rally the strikers and garner support for their cause.

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Boston Massacre
We can think of many instances of tonypandy: The Boston Massacre, where British troops over-reacted to mob harassment and killed three colonists, mortally wounded two and injured six — numbers not normally associated with a “massacre”; George Washington’s cherry tree-chopping incident, which was fabricated by his biographer to illustrate the first president’s honesty; the German sinking of the Lusitania — the ship was actually carrying arms to the Allies, so it was a valid target by the standards of warfare accepted at the time. How many Catholics erroneously believe that the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas was written with a hidden meaning to convey Catholic doctrine surrep-titiously? This last I found especially difficult to believe, since it is harder for me to remember how many maids are milking or lords leaping than the number of sacraments or natures in Christ.

It turns out, the history of the Church and the lives of the saints are not free from tonypandy either, as I found when reading about today’s saint — St. Denis of Paris, bishop and martyr.

It started in the year 827, when Byzantine Emperor Michael II sent as a gift to the Emperor of the West, Louis the Pious (the son of Charlemagne), copies of writings ascribed to St. Dionysius the Areopagite (first century bishop of Athens and martyr). They arrived in Paris and by coincidence were taken to the Abbey of Saint-Denis on the feast of St. Denis (the Frenchified name of Dionysius). The Abbott Hilduin translated the writings into Latin. A few years later, Emperor Louis asked Hilduin to write a life of St. Denis of Paris, and the work produced had all Christendom believing for 900 years that St. Dionysius/Denis of Paris, St. Dionysius the Areopagite, and the Philosopher Psuedo-Dionysius (another historical mix-up) were one and the same person. Whether it was an honest mistake, sloppy historical research, over-zealous piety, or a desire to please the Emperor with an entertaining biography when there was not much material to draw from, no one knows. The writing of history was also not a refined science in the early Middle Ages, and legends were considered an acceptable part of history. The Abbott fabricated a fantastic life for St. Denis, which included (after his leaving Athens) visiting Jerusalem to visit with the Blessed Mother and Ephesus to visit with St. John the Apostle; then making his way to Rome and eventually to Paris. After his beheading, Hilduin’s St. Denis (with his severed head in his hands) walks from his place of execution to the place where the Abbey of St. Denis now stands and is there buried, surrounded by singing angels. Hence the tradition of picturing Denis with his head in his hands and invoking his aid for headaches.

What is definitely known about St. Denis is not much — he was born in Italy, and he and six other bishops were sent by Pope Fabian into Gaul about the year 250. The Roman Emperor Decius’ persecution of Christians had spread even to the Roman provinces, and the once thriving Church in Gaul had suffered greatly, bringing a halt to evangelization. St. Denis and his companions — the priest St. Rusticus and the deacon St. Eleutherius — made their way to the area of Paris and settled on an island in the River Seine. Their fearless preaching of the Gospel resulted in many conversions, which aroused the anger of the local pagan priests. They persuaded the Roman governor to arrest and imprison St. Denis and his companions about the year 275. After much torture, the three holy men were beheaded and their bodies thrown into the Seine. Christians rescued their martyred bodies and gave them an honorable burial. A small chapel was built over their graves, around which grew the Abbey of Saint-Denis. There we leave St. Denis — quietly, but fervently revered — until 500 years later when he becomes the subject of tonypandy or overzealous hagiography. Eventually things were sorted out by theologians, historians, and academics, and we arrived at the true, although less colorful, life of St. Denis.  It seems to me, the life of a missionary and martyr does not need any embellishment. 

Beheading of St. Denis & His Companions


Victory through Telling Beads

This Day in History:
The Battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571


Today’s feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was originally called Our Lady of Victory by Pope Pius V. He instituted the feast to commemorate and express his gratitude for a great victory achieved during his reign on October 7, 1571 – a victory gained through the  power of the rosary.



Since the early 14th century, the Ottoman Turks — Muslims — had been pushing to extend their empire into the west from Asia Minor. By the mid-16th century, besides Constantinople, the Turks had conquered Bulgaria and Greece. In 1570 they attacked the island of Cyprus, the last bulwark of Christendom in the Eastern Mediterranean. “The brave defenders capitulated, left with only two days’ food. But the Turks broke the conditions of the capitulation and mutilated the prisoners in the most horrible way. Their commander Mustapha, turned the cathedral into a mosque. Sitting on the high altar, he watched the Christian commander Bragadino, being flayed alive, and jeered: “Where is your Christ now? Why doesn’t he punish me? Why doesn’t he free you?” Bragadino died praying the Miserere, and his body was hanged.”  (Founded on a Rock by Louis de Wohl) Thousands of Cypriot Christians were killed and many of the women and young men were sold into slavery.

Don Juan of Austria
That same year, Sultan Selim II plotted another invasion in the Mediterranean, looking further west to Italy. He began to assemble a large fleet capable of carrying an invading force of nearly 50,000 men. Pope Pius V entreated Europe’s monarchs to form an alliance against the Turkish threat; however, only three Christian kingdoms responded with ships and men. Spain, Genoa and Venice together with the Papal States formed the Holy League and assembled a strong fleet. Don Juan of Austria, half-brother of King Philip II of Spain, was given supreme command of the Christian force. He was only twenty-one years old but had shown military genius a year earlier when he put down the revolt of the Moors in southern Spain. The pope sent Don Juan a huge banner bearing the figure of Christ Crucified, to unfurl on the day of the battle. The pope asked all of Christian Europe to pray the rosary for victory, and all the sailors and soldiers of the Holy League carried rosaries.

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The Banner of the Holy League

On October 7, 1571, Don Juan caught the Turkish fleet, commanded by Ali Pasha, on the western coast of Greece and fought a fierce five-hour naval battle in the Gulf of Lepanto. The forces on the Christian side were 225 ships and 80,000 men; those on the Tukish side, 245 ships and 120,000 men.  
…The Turkish ships sailed in a crescent formation in hopes of flanking the Christian fleet. However, the Christian admirals at Lepanto, seeing this maneuver, avoided the trap.
            Even though the Christian ships were outnumbered by the Turkish fleet, they were much more heavily armed with cannon and musketry. As the Turkish ships approached, they met a hailstorm of cannon fire and musket volleys. On board the Christian ships, priests said Mass and gave general absolution. Don Juan went from ship to ship holding a crucifix and telling the men, “Live or die, we are here to conquer or to die, as heaven chooses.” Then he hung the crucifix on the mast of his flagship, the Ciudad Real.
            The Turks held hundreds of Christian captives chained to the oars of their galleysin a horrible and terrifying captivity. When a galley went down, the chained slaves went down with it. It appears that at Lepanto, the galley slaves helped prevent their Turkish masters from attaining the speed they needed to ram the Christian ships; the slaves rowed only halfheartedly and fouled the oars as much as they could get away with.
            These captive Christians could hear the sounds of the chanted rosary coming across the water, for the crews of the Christian ships sang as they fought. It was said that a vision of the Blessed Virgin appeared above the Turkish fleet as the Christians drew close to it. Inspired by this vision, the Christian mariners charged over the rails against the foe.
            Don Juan’s ship sailed straight toward the Sultana, the flagship of the Muslim commander, Ali Pasha. The Sultana was the first to be boarded after the two ships collided, and a two-hour struggle began. On decks awash with blood, the Spanish sailors and marines pushed the surviving Turks over the ship’s rails and then raised the banner of Christ Crucified on the Sultana’s mast.
            The Battle of Lepanto ended at 4 p.m. when what remained of the Turkish fleet sailed away toward Istanbul (Constantinople). The Christians, who had lost only 17 ships, captured 177 Turkish ships and destroyed 15 others. Twelve thousand Christian galley slaves were liberated; many more may have been lost to the seas as their ships sank.
            Don Juan of Austria’s fleet had won a great victory against the Turks and halted their invasion of Europe. The Turkish fleet was not destroyed at Lepanto, but thereafter it was no longer the threat it had been. Europe had once more been saved from Ottoman conquest. (from Light to the Nations I)
Far from the battle, Pope Pius V in Rome beheld a vision of the victory; he asked those with him to fall on their knees and give thanks for the triumph. He then set the first Sunday in October as the feast of Our Lady of Victory. A few years later, his successor changed the feast’s title to The Feast of the Holy Rosary. Finally, in the twentieth century, the date of the battle, the means of victory and the giver of victory coalesced into The Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, celebrated October 7th.  




Lepanto Trivia: The Spaniard Miguel Cervantes, author of the classic Don Quixote, fought in the Battle of Lepanto. Ill on board the galley Marquesa, he nevertheless begged to be allowed to fight, saying he would rather die for God and his king than remain safely below deck. He was wounded and lost the use of his left arm “on the grandest occasion that past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see.” This injury earned him the nickname el manco de Lepanto (the one-handed of Lepanto).  In the last stanza of G.K. Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, Cervantes sheathes his sword and has a vision of his future literary creation — “a lean and foolish knight.”

Other Resources:
Read aloud G.K. Chesterton’s stirring poem, Lepanto.
Coloring page for Our Lady of the Rosary
Coloring page for Mary, Queen of the Rosary
Spain’s Greatest Victory at Sea from Historical Tales by Charles Morris
“Don John of Austria” from A Child’s History of Spain by John Bonner
Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press)
Lepanto: The Battle that Saved the West by Christopher Check ( from Catholic Answers Magazine)