Blessed Karl: A Man For All Peoples

By Zita Ballinger Fletcher

Blessed Karl was exemplary in his dedication to working as a public servant on behalf of all people in his domain, regardless of creed, religion, race or ethnicity. He served everyone with equal heroic selflessness and commitment.

This makes Karl a truly remarkable leader in the history of the Austrian monarchy. It sets him apart from a vast majority of his predecessors, who ruled with a particular bias against certain religious and racial groups in the realm. The former Austrian Empire was very multicultural—filled with many diverse people, such as members of Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Ukrainian and other Eastern European communities. It was also religiously diverse—home to many Eastern Rite churches and a large Jewish population. Over the centuries, the Austrian monarchy expanded its control over diverse territories and brought many of these ethnic and religious groups into submission. Austrian monarchs tended to favor the German majority culture and historically showed less respect to the many different Eastern European populations in the kingdom. Historically, relations between ethnic Germans and Eastern Europeans were poor, as were relations between Catholics, Jews and Eastern Rite churches. Some Austrian monarchs had very difficult relations with Hungarians due to racial prejudices and lack of communication.

This was not the case for Blessed Karl. From the moment he became king, he viewed himself as a public servant with important responsibilities to everyone regardless of their religion or background. He devoted himself to healing past relationships with Eastern Europeans in his lands, especially the Hungarians, and building on those relationships to bring about peace. In fact, he placed such great emphasis on healing past wounds with ethnic minorities that he voluntarily participated in Eastern European customs, wore traditional Eastern European clothing and had his children taught to speak Slavic languages from their earliest years. He personally reached out to members of the Austrian Jewish community, who were historically very mistreated, and became a strong advocate for Eastern Rite churches. He did not make moral or racial distinctions about anybody. He valued all people whom God called him to serve. 

Today, Karl is fondly remembered by the many diverse people whom he served with such unparalleled dedication. Even today, his picture—be it in the form of a carving or icon—is displayed by members of Czech, Polish, Hungarian, and Ukrainian cultures, and shrines in his honor exist in Eastern Rite churches. No other Austrian emperor has ever earned this distinction. 

Zita Ballinger Fletcher is a journalist for CNS (Catholic News Service) who resides in Washington, D.C. She was named after Empress Zita and took the name Karl as her confirmation patron. She is devotee and member of the Emperor Karl League of Prayer for Peace Among Nations.  

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