‘A humble sinner’

This summer marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. While many factors led to the war, the spark that ignited the conflict was the assassination in Sarajevo, Bosnia, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie.

The archduke’s wife was not a princess. Under Austrian and Hungarian law at the time, their children were regarded as legitimate, but were excluded from succession to the throne. This meant that after Franz Ferdinand, the heir was his young nephew, Karl von Habsburg. In 1916, Karl succeeded to the thrones. In 1918, he was forced to renounce both titles.

Even today, Karl as a political leader has not that many admirers. Probably, by the time he attained the crown, nobody anywhere could do anything to reverse all the bad things that the war, and the system itself, had brought to bear. Certainly, however, Karl is credited by many scholars for doing his best. He is admired for his Catholic holiness, and his goodness was highly regarded even in his lifetime. Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, was named for him. Eventually, in 2004, this pontiff beatified Karl, the unlucky emperor-king.

As a young man, Karl met Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma. Italian by birth, the princess came from a dynasty that long before had lost its power, but her blood was as blue as the Danube. She was the granddaughter of a Portuguese king, and she descended from the kings of France.

What partially attracted Karl and Zita to each other was their strong religious faith. In time, they decided to be married, with the full blessing of their families and of the Austrian and Hungarian governments. At this point, they made a decision that prospective spouses today should well consider imitating. The young royal couple made formal spiritual retreats a critical part of their plans. Karl went to a monastery, Zita to a cloistered convent, simply to put God, and their Catholic beliefs, in the very center of their marriage.

It is said that both believed that, for a Catholic, the most important part of marriage is to draw more closely to God in and through the relationship and to assist the spouse also to come more closely to God. Their marriage was not easy. As already noted, their plight was to preside over a collapsing empire. When Karl abdicated, they were thrown out of the country. Their assets were confiscated, or least denied to them. They wandered across Europe, all the more difficult because they had eight small children.

Finally, they settled on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Karl died there of pneumonia in 1922. Zita survived until 1989, but she was never permitted to return to Austria or Hungary. At last, she made a home in a small Swiss town, in a house next to a church, selecting the site because it enabled easy access to daily Mass.

When she died, the Austrian government allowed for her remains to be buried in Vienna and all the old pomp and circumstance were brought back. After the funeral Mass, the body was taken to the crypt of Vienna’s Capuchin church for entombment, but the doors were closed. An official demanded entry for the “most exalted empress of Austria and queen of Hungary.” The pastor refused. Another demand followed, to admit “the empress and queen!” The pastor refused. Finally, the official pounded on the door pleading entry simply for “Zita, a humble sinner.” The pastor threw open the doors. “Come forth in the peace of the Lord!”

This brief ceremonial exchange perfectly describes Zita’s priorities. First, last and always, she was a Catholic, humble before God, trusting in God. She is a candidate for beatification.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.