Commemorating Blessed Emperor Karl

Nothing can be made again exactly as it once was. That would include the Catholic Christendom which consisted of the peoples of the lands of Europe and their overseas outposts whose laws and customs were rooted in and conformed to the teachings of Our Lord as recorded in Holy Scripture and of the Latin-rite branch of the Church He founded. It is possible, however, to envision the rise of a new Christendom one day, if not in the lifetime of anybody now living.

A new Christendom cannot arise from nothing. If it is ever to come into being, the idea of it has to exist, an idea which will be realized by men of belief and prayer as well as action drawing from their knowledge of what once was, the Christendom of the past. Towards that end it is vital for Christians today to keep alive the memory of the past, of tradition, the idea itself — the idea of Christendom. How may they do this?

There are many ways. One is by commemorating men and women whose lives exemplified Christian living. One such is Bl. Emperor Karl I, last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, successor state of the Holy Roman Empire, who was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 2004, his cause having been introduced in 1949, following his death in exile in 1922 at the age of 34.

For the past several years he has been commemorated by a Mass for his canonization offered at the Church of St. Mary Mother of God in Washington D.C. on his feast day, October 21. (The Church usually assigns to her saints as their feast the date of their entrance into heaven. Bl. Emperor Karl is unique in that his feast is the date of his marriage in 1911 to Zita of Bourbon-Parma, whose own cause was officially introduced a few years ago.)

The Bl. Emperor Karl Masses at St. Mary’s are organized by the indefatigable Suzanne Pearson, probably the foremost advocate of the Blessed’s cause in the English-speaking world, and this year’s, a Pontifical Solemn one in the Traditional Latin Rite, promises to be even more special than usual. The celebrant will be none other than Bishop Athanasius Schneider. No words of mine are needed to explain to readers what he has come to represent to Catholics still clinging to the undiluted Faith.

More than 200 books in various languages have been written about Bl. Emperor Karl. The facts of his life are easily ascertainable. I have written about them before now on this website and elsewhere. What I want to do here is reprise some reasons why he may be seen as a fit subject for Catholic devotion now and one day, God willing, will be raised from the status of Blessed to the Church’s altars as a canonized saint.

In a day when political leaders do not scruple to wage war in “anticipatory self-defense,” even fabricating stories of non-existent weapons of mass destruction to justify it, Bl. Emperor Karl’s statesmanship in seeking an honorable peace to end World War I, an effort he undertook in tandem with Pope Benedict XV, could be a model for leaders of today who would put their peoples’ well-being and prosperity ahead of the interests of Big Business and Big Finance, as well as the prospects of their own re-election. The Blessed was a champion of peace.

He was also a champion of social justice. He had in mind Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum, the first modern social encyclical, when he established a Ministry of Social Welfare, inviting the redoubtable Msgr. Ignaz Seipel, whose life was dedicated to the implementation of the Church’s social doctrine, to accept its portfolio. It was typical of the Blessed that during the brutal winter of 1917-18 he commanded imperial court carriages and automobiles to carry coal to Vienna’s poor. That might not seem like much in an age when citizens expect and demand massive government relief programs in times of difficulty, but real charity begins with our doing what is in our own power to accomplish.

The Blessed strove to transform his empire into a confederation of individual ethnic nations, each having internal autonomy, but with their security and other benefits provided by a national defense, a common market, economic and financial union, and foreign policy. Had there been time enough for his efforts to succeed, the later expansionism of Hitler and Stalin would have been blocked. Instead, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s requirement of the empire’s dissolution as a condition for ending World War I left independent small nations sandwiched between the Third Reich and Soviet Union easy prey to the dictators. As important, if not more so, the Blessed was acting against the tendency of the modern state to concentrate political power in central government. This was in keeping with the fundamental principle of the Church’s social doctrine: subsidiarity.

The Blessed was a champion of Christian family life. The fact that as head of a state at war he found time every day for Mass, family devotions and catechism gives the lie to our modern excuse of “lack of time” to pay due attention to religious obligations. The life of the family he headed stands in contrast to the spirit of a society dominated by liberal materialism and in which mortal sin is a normal and socially accepted way of life. The emphasis Bl. Karl placed on the Christian formation of children and the role of the family as the school or “domestic church” in which this formation should take place makes him an example to modern families struggling against the allure of “alternative life styles.” On his deathbed he prayed for the preservation of his children from mortal sin. What a contrast to the presentation today of contraception, abortion, “sexual freedom” and uninhibited sodomy as “human rights”!

The Blessed was a champion of the pre-born. As he lay dying he placed his hand over Empress Zita’s womb and prayed for the daughter who would be born after he was gone. The gesture challenges contemporary society in which the human sacrifice of abortion on the altar of liberal democracy is claimed as a “right.” Further, although the first five of his eight children were born when he possessed his civil list (i.e., his salary as archduke and then emperor), the last three came into the world after he had been dethroned and left virtually penniless. This sets an especially instructive example for the many modern couples who deliberately limit the number of their children, or have none at all, choosing instead an affluent life-style over having a family.

The Church tells us we are not supposed to lead a double life, a private “spiritual” one and a second “secular” one in relation to the world around us. Bl. Emperor Karl did not. He was Christian as a man and as a ruler. In a word, he was a whole man. It is how he became a saint.