They were at the very peak, yet for the last Austro-Hungarian emperor and his wife, God came first
It’s only fitting that the first Sunday St Mary’s Cathedral reopens is the annual Marriage Mass. In times like these it is the courage, joy and unity of holy marriages and the holy families they create that will reignite the one, true Faith in a culture crumbling with fear, anger and division.
The Life, Marriage and Family Team decided a year ago that we would like to host this Mass as close as possible to the Memorial of Blessed Karl von Hapsburg of Austria, in order to draw attention to his extraordinarily virtuous relationship with his wife, Servant of God Zita of Bourbon-Parma.
Married in 1911, Karl and Zita’s 11-year marriage had to endure some of the greatest tumult of the twentieth century. In the eyes of the world Emperor Karl, the last bastion of old-world political power, was a failure. His attempts to halt World War I, to strike peace deals, and to retain both his throne and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were all unsuccessful. It was a resounding ‘good riddance’ to traditional Catholic monarchy from the only real victor of the Great War: secularism.
Karl and Zita’s ultimate victory came from their virtue and sanctity, storing their treasure in heaven even while they were exiled to the Portuguese island of Madeira with their eight young children. One of them, Archduke Rudolf, wrote this of his parents:
“He was a deeply pious man, a faithful husband, an excellent father … an expert army officer, a notable Chief of State with an extraordinary memory, a very hard worker, strong and prudent. He was a very good spouse to my mother, herself an energetic and active person, of great foresight and deeply in love with her husband. Both loved their countries and their inhabitants.
They did everything they could to obtain peace and the welfare of their peoples. At the end of the war they were expelled from their country, had all of their property confiscated, and were forced [into exile] where, without a cent, my father died as a result of pneumonia and a heart attack.”
Karl and Zita were totally committed to Christ and His Church, seeing their position as having been given from on high.
From the beginning of their relationship Karl and Zita were totally committed to Christ and His Church, seeing their position as being given from on high, making a pilgrimage to a Marian Shrine before commencing their honeymoon, and prioritising an audience with Pope St Pius X soon after their betrothal.
When the going got tougher and Karl headed for the front during World War I, something he was not obliged to do, he had his wife engrave on his sword the words: Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genitrix (We fly to your protection, O Holy Mother of God).
Another hallmark of a holy and virtuous marriage is encouragement to make tough, courageous, and even unpopular decisions. This is certainly present in the Hapsburg’s marriage most notably when Karl was being pressed to abdicate his throne.
It was Zita’s encouragement that kept Karl faithful to his vocation of governance even when the writing was on the wall: “A sovereign cannot abdicate…never, never. I prefer to die with you,” she wrote to her husband. Following Karl’s death Zita remained faithful to his legacy even though she had become a widow at only twenty-eight.
There is much to be learned from the example of the Hapsburgs as the division and cultural foundations on which we have all grown up in the 20th and early 21st centuries begin to crumble more visibly than ever.
The Hapsburgs’ world really did collapse beneath them in almost Job-like fashion, yet they lived a well-ordered life following the Gospel-centric principles of placing God first, marriage second, family third, and nation fourth.
In this they have showed all married couples what it means to build one’s house on the rock, and for this Bl Karl was raised to the altars by Pope St John Paul II in 2004, and Zita who died in 1989 at the age of 97 has been declared a Servant of God.
Even as things begin to take on the semblance of normalcy once again let’s all pray and take the initiative in our own marriages to live a heroic love like the Hapsburgs.