|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.
|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.”
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!