Blessed Karl and Pope Francis Part 1: Family

By Fr. Boniface Hicks, O.S.B.

Although at first glance, the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire may seem like a relic of a past age, we can find in Blessed Karl von Habsburg a shining example of the most significant themes of the modern magisterium of Pope Francis. Pope Francis said as much when addressing the Habsburgs who made a family pilgrimage to Rome on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the coronation of Blessed Karl as king of Hungary: “His spiritual presence among you ensures that the Hapsburg family is not turned today to the past in a nostalgic way, but, on the contrary, is actively present in the ‘now’ of history with its challenges and needs.” (Pope Francis, November 5, 2016 speech to the Habsburgs, translation by Peter Falco) Blessed Karl does not act like an anchor pulling us back to a past age, but rather animates us in the present to move us forward into a better future.

What areas of Blessed Karl’s life, in particular, exemplify Pope Francis’s magisterium? In his address to the Habsburgs, the Holy Father mentioned two areas and we can also add a third. The two that Pope Francis held out for us explicitly are family and peace. In studying the teaching of Pope Francis while also looking at the life of Blessed Karl, a third emerges, namely socially responsible governance. There are other significant themes that we can easily highlight, but for now we start with these three, and in Part I of this article, we focus on family.


Emperor Karl, Empress Zita, and Crown Prince Otto, ca. 1916

Emperor Karl, Empress Zita, and Crown Prince Otto, ca. 1916

Husband and Father

When addressing the Habsburgs, the point that Pope Francis made first and most strongly was the importance of family. “...the family in the broad sense, with the richness of its bonds and of its variety, is a value to be rediscovered in our times.” Blessed Karl was a happy married man. On his wedding day, he famously declared to his beautiful wife, Zita, “Now we have to help each other to get to heaven!” They were even more devoted to God than to each other and they inscribed their relationship with God into their daily lives together. Blessed Karl proposed to his lovely Zita at the Shrine of Mariazell in Austria and they inscribed a prayer inside their wedding bands, “Sub tuum presidium confugimus, sancta Dei Genitrix” (We fly to take refuge under your protection, O Holy Mother of God). Their love was intense and lasted to the end of Karl’s life. For her part, the Empress Zita never remarried but continued to carry the memory of her husband and she blessed others with the title she had received from him.  Her love for him was unwavering and she remained at his bedside for a fortnight as Karl’s life slowly, painfully slipped away before her eyes. She was consoled by his faith and blessed to be present to hear his last words to the world as he spoke directly to her, “I love you so much.” His last breath followed some mutterings that appeared to be part of a private conversation with the Lord as the mutterings were intermixed with the name of Jesus.

Emperor Karl was also a good father, as Pope Francis recognized explicitly, “Karl of Austria was above all a good father of a family...” He was a man who delighted in each of his children: Otto, Adelheid, Robert, Felix, Karl Ludwig, Rudolph, Charlotte, and even Elizabeth, though he never saw her outside her mother’s womb. He passed on his faith and wisdom to his children, “Nothing could better express the pride and emotion a father feels when he understands that he has handed down to his child what really matters in life, that is, a wise heart.” (Pope Francis, General Audience, February 4, 2015) After Blessed Karl asked that his eldest son, the Crown Prince Otto come to see him in his death bed, he explained, “it was necessary to summon him to set an example. He should know how one ought to behave in such situations–as a Catholic and as an Emperor.” That and many other lessons formed Otto to be the great leader the world would come to know through his work in international politics and his life of dedicated service. Blessed Karl could not have been more proud of his children and the wisdom and faith he passed on to them continued to spread to the successive generations as Pope Francis confirmed, “some of you play leading roles in organizations of solidarity and human and cultural promotion; as well as in sustaining the project of Europe as a common home founded on human and Christian values. With joy, I have also learned that in the new generation of your family some vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life have matured.”

Emperor Karl fishing with three of his children during exile in Switzerland, ca. 1922

Emperor Karl fishing with three of his children during exile in Switzerland, ca. 1922

In a catechesis on fatherhood, Pope Francis asserted that, “The first need, then, is precisely this: that a father be present in the family. That he be close to his wife, to share everything, joy and sorrow, hope and hardship. And that he be close to his children as they grow: when they play and when they strive, when they are carefree and when they are distressed, when they are talkative and when they are silent, when they are daring and when they are afraid, when they take a wrong step and when they find their path again; a father who is always present.” (Pope Francis, General Audience, February 4, 2015) Blessed Karl exemplified this teaching on fatherhood. Although his duties as head of state required a great deal of time, he always prayed with his children and took time personally to instruct them in their catechism. Then the opportunity to be even more present to his family was a significant consolation for him when he suffered greatly in being exiled from his beloved nation. While exiled in Switzerland Karl declared how happy he was to be able to spend time with his family. “This time of being together – whether all in one room reading, playing and praying together, or outdoors walking or hiking together, or doing other activities such as hunting, boating, [sledding] and fishing – was a great treasure for him.” (Br. Nathan Cochran, O.S.B., Why Canonize an Emperor) When he was taken into exile on the island of Madeira, his greatest suffering was the initial separation from his children and the uncertainty that he would ever see them again. Their reunion three months later was a scene so moving that it could have drawn tears from the hardest heart. Karl awaited them like the father of the Prodigal Son, and ran to them as they landed at the pier in Funchal. Tears glistened on his face as he picked up the youngest, Rudolph, and carried him in his arms and welcomed them all “home.”

Although Blessed Karl was a key figure in a tumultuous time in history, we see that the thread of goodness and love that ran through his life began in the family and ended in the family. Blessed Karl played a minor role in the history books; he is barely mentioned in most and spoken poorly of in some.  But his story features prominently in the story of the Church as evidenced by his beatification in 2004 by Pope St. John Paul II. This reminds us what is most important in life, not so much doing great things, as doing little things with great love.  When his best efforts met with failure and he lost everything, he still had his faith and his family and the great love that they shared is the best story, the Church’s story as Pope Francis has taught us, “The Church journeys among her people, in the history of men and women, of fathers and mothers, of sons and daughters: this is the history that matters to the Lord. The great events of worldly powers are written in history books, and there they will remain. But the history of human feelings is written directly in the heart of God; and that is the history that will endure for eternity. This is the place of life and faith.” (Pope Francis, General Audience, September 9, 2015)

In the next two parts, we will consider Blessed Karl as Peace Emperor and People’s Emperor, exemplifying those significant themes of Pope Francis’s magisterium — peace and socially responsible governance.

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