As you probably learned in school, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo was an important event that led to the outbreak of the Great War, which is perhaps better known as World War I. The death of the archduke placed a certain Charles of Hapsburg as the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungary throne. Just two years later, when the Emperor Franz Joseph died, the twenty-nine-year-old Charles became Emperor of Austro-Hungary. Today, that certain Charles is now known as Blessed Charles of Austria.
Early Life of Charles of Hapsburg
Charles was born in 1887 to Archduke Otto and Princess Maria Josephine of Saxony. The marriage of the archduke and the princess was not necessarily a good match, but they were committed to raising their children and preparing them to be successors to the the throne.
Charles received a strong Catholic education which helped grow his devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His catechist was the Dominican Fr. Nobert Geggerle who described the young boy as, "a very modest child, as pious as he could be, who loved the truth and had a tender conscience ... He was never angry, self-willed, self-righteous or quarrelsom; he didn't hold a grudge." Although initially privately taught, he took his high school classes at a Benedictine school in Vienna.
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When he was seventeen years of age, he entered the army. After a year of military training, he was made a lieutenant and was assigned to a cavalry regiment. Over the next several years, with the exception of four semesters spent studying law and political science in Prague, Charles served in the military. His assignments included being stationed in Bohemia, Galacia, and Vienna. By the age of twenty-seven, he had been promoted to colonel.
After the death of Archduke Ferdinand which made Charles the heir to the Austro-Hungary throne, the Emperor Francis Joseph had Charles visit the troops at the various command posts and become familiar with the military high command. He led several campaigns in Italy and Romania which, although showing a good grasp of strategy and daring, were only somewhat successful.
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Marriage to Princess Zita
In 1911, he married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma. They had met when Charles was stationed in Bohemia and had been introduced by Charles' aunt. Over the course of several months, they fell in love and began to build a relationship which would be strong enough to see them through good times and bad times. Zita was a wonderful match for her husband. They shared a great love of Christ and His Church and were firmly committed to living the Gospel in their roles as husband and wife, parents, and royalty.
During their marriage of ten years, they had eight children. As committed Catholics, they practiced marital fidelity, attended mass, obeyed the authority of the Church, especially in the pope, and had great devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Ascending to the Throne and Efforts for Peace
Then on November 21, 1916, Emperor Franz Joseph, who had ruled for sixty-nine years, died. Subsequently, Charles became the emperor of the Austro-Hungary empire and commander-in-chief of all the military forces of the empire. He immediately began efforts to use his authority to foment social reform and peace. As Archduke Ferdinand had been, Charles was opposed to the war. Charles had seen the horrors of modern warfare firsthand, and he was committed to bringing peace as soon as possible.
When Pope Benedict XV proposed a peace plan, Charles I was the only European leader to support it. Charles I also began secret peace talks with the French that broke down with disagreements regarding the recognition of certain territories in Italy.
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At the end of the war, Charles I proclaimed that the peoples of Austria and Hungary could determine what government they should have. He stopped short of abdication with the hope that the people might want the monarchy to be part of the new government. Eventually, the Austrian parliament exiled him and he relocated to Switzerland. With the loss of his throne, his income, and his country, he had been brought to a very low point indeed. Yet, both Charles and Zita continued to trust in God and in each other.
With the support of Hungarians, he twice attempted to regain his throne. However, because he did not want to start a civil war, he stopped the efforts both times.
Eventually, he traveled with his family to Portugal where he died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-four. Shortly before his death, he prayed to commend his wife and all his children, including the one who would be born after his death, to the Lord. The last words he whispered to his wife were: "I love you endlessly."
The Legacy of Charles of Austria
World War I was one of the deadliest wars of all time and many leaders in Europe were viewed unfavorably in its aftermath. However, the French novelist, Anatole France wrote,
𝘌𝘮𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘰𝘳 𝘒𝘢𝘳𝘭 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘰𝘯𝘭𝘺 𝘥𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘳 𝘪𝘯 𝘢 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘱 𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯, 𝘯𝘰 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘪𝘮. 𝘏𝘦 𝘴𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘱𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘦, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘥𝘦𝘴𝘱𝘪𝘴𝘦𝘥 𝘣𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘭𝘥. 𝘐𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘢 𝘸𝘰𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘧𝘶𝘭 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘭𝘰𝘴𝘵.
At his beatification on October 2, 2004, St. 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.
Interestingly, when the Church set his feast day, instead of setting it on the day of his death like many saints, the Church placed the feast day on October 21st which is the anniversary of his marriage to his wife Zita.
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Feast day (memorial): October 21st