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Blessed Karl of Austria

Feast day: 1 October

Blessed Karl I of Austria (1887-1922) was born in the castle of Persenburg in Lower Austria. His parents were the Archduke Otto Franz of Austria and Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony. His great uncle was the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. Karl was not initially expected to succeed him. However, after the death of Crown Prince Rudolf at Mayerling, the Emperor had no other male heir and so his brother and then nephew Franz Fedinand became next in line to the throne. Since Franz Ferdinand had a morganatic marriage, his children were excluded from the succession, which made Karl heir to the throne after his uncle.

As a child Karl was very devout. He attended daily mass with his mother and recited his prayers, especially the rosary. He would do odd jobs to earn money to give to the needy. As an adult he loved making pilgrimages to Marian shrines, was a daily communicant and prayer was very important to him. In the war he would recommend that the soldiers pray.
 He was privately educated but - contrary to custom in the Imperial family - he attended a public gymnasium for demonstrations in scientific subjects. On the conclusion of his studies he entered the army and spent the years from 1906-1908 as an officer, chiefly in Prague where he studied law and political science concurrently with his military duties. In 1907 he was declared of age and was stationed in various Bohemian garrison towns. His relations with his great uncle, the Emperor Franz Josef and his uncle, the heir apparent, Franz Ferdinand were not close. Karl therefore had very little experience of affairs of state until Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914, thus making Karl the next in line to the imperial throne.

In 1911 Karl married Princess Zita of Parma-Bourbon. They had met as children but did not see one another for ten years. In 1909 his dragoon regiment was stationed in Bohemia, from where he visited his aunt and met Zita again. The old Emperor was very anxious for Karl to marry her since she was a devout Catholic and of royal lineage. Karl decided to court her lest some other suitor get to her first. He proposed to Zita in front of the Blessed Sacrament at the Marian shrine of Mariazell. They made their wedding retreat with the famous Jesuit preacher Fr Karl Maria Andlau. Karl saw his marriage to Zita as a path to holiness. He said to her on the eve of their wedding:

"Now we must help each other to attain heaven."

They had eight children, the last of whom, Elizabeth, was born posthumously. The children were brought up in a religious atmosphere, being taught their prayers and catechism. The family prayed together and First Friday devotions were observed.

After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Franz Josef began to initiate his new heir in affairs of state; but the outbreak of World War I soon afterwards disrupted this education and Karl was stationed at Teschen. He then became a Field Marshal in the Austro-Hungarian army. He went on an offensive in Italy which came to a standstill and then went to the eastern front as commander of an army operating against the Russians and Romanians.

In 1916 Franz Josef died at the age of eighty six and Karl became Emperor Karl I, ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which not only encompassed Austria and Hungary but a large part of central and eastern Europe. There was huge ethnic diversity and a multitude of languages were spoken there. Karl took his role as Emperor very seriously:

"My crown is a sacred trust given to me by God - I can never forsake that trust or my people."

However he was young and inexperienced, and had inherited an empire which was falling apart. Each ethnic group - Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Italian, German, Austrian, Czech and Slav - was clamouring for its national rights. He was also plunged into a war which was not of his making and many of his subjects were starving. Karl tried to provide food but this proved to be a enormous task. He seems to have done what he could. The Ministry of Social Affairs,  whose remit included responsibility for widows, orphans, war disabled, unemployment relief and labour protection, was founded during his reign. This ministry exists in Austria to this day. He ordered coal to be delivered to the poor in palace carriages. He also made reforms in the army forbidding the use of flogging and other harsh punishments.

Karl's chief objective, however, was peace. As an archduke he had initially approved of the war but very soon began to see the need for it to end. He tried to initiate a peace process following the example of Pope Benedict XV, who had proposed a seven-point peace plan. In 1917 Karl secretly tried to negotiate peace unilaterally with France through his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma. However, because of the demands of the allies, which Karl felt he could not meet, the plan came to nothing. He had been prepared to cede territory which would certainly have upset many of his subjects. When news of the overture leaked out Karl denied it, but the French produced letters signed by him.

There were attempts by Karl to reorganise his Empire, but one by one the various nationalities declared their independence and on 11 November 1918, the day of the Armistice, Karl relinquished his powers, though he never officially abdicated. He and his family moved to Switzerland. He made two attempts to regain his Hungarian throne in 1921 but both failed. The allies decide to exile the family to Madeira, where it was felt Karl would be powerless to continue any struggle to regain his throne. By this time Zita was pregnant with their eighth child. They were given Quinta do Monte, a summer holiday home belonging to a banker, 2,000 feet up a mountain, which was unheated and had fungus growing on the wall. Their property and funds had been confiscated so they were very poor.

Karl caught a fever after a trip to Funchal, where the weather was much warmer, and because he could not afford a doctor it turned to pneumonia and influenza. His lungs had always been weak and, when the doctors were eventually summoned, their painful treatment was of no assistance. Before he died he said:

"I must suffer like this so that my peoples can come together again."

His most frequent prayer was:

"Thy will be done."

On his last day he said to Zita

"I love you unceasingly."

He had two heart attacks and died on 1 April 1922. He was 34 years old. He is buried in the Church of Our Lady of Monte, Madeira. His heart and that of his wife are entombed in Muri Abbey, Switzerland. Empress Zita lived till 1989 and is buried in the Habsburg crypt in Vienna. Her cause for canonization has begun.

Karl has been criticised by many historians because of his lack of experience and naivety and his tendency to rush to sudden decisions. However, the legacy he inherited from his great-uncle Franz Josef was an impossible one. Franz Josef had reigned for sixty eight years, holding together a fragmenting empire under an archaic regime. Karl’s was not the only empire to crumble; those of Russia and Germany also collapsed. It would seem that Karl did his best, searched genuinely for peace and did actually achieve some reforms. His reign has until recently been consigned to a footnote in history due to hostility towards him in the aftermath of the war in Austria, which became a new and much smaller state. Nazi propaganda in the Second World War further blackened his reputation. The following statements however give an insight into his character.

"Karl was a great leader, a prince of peace, who wanted to save the world from a year of war; a statesman with ideas to save his people from the complicated problems of his empire; a King who loved his people, a fearless man, a noble soul, distinguished, a saint from whose grave blessings come." (Herbert Vivian, English writer)

"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 was therefore despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost." (Anatole France, French novelist)

"He tried to compensate for the evaporation of the ethical power which emperor Franz Joseph had represented by offering ethnical reconciliation. Even as he dealt with the elements who were sworn to the goal of destroying his empire, he believed that his acts of political grace would affect their conscience. These attempts were totally futile; those people had long ago lined up with our common enemies and were far from being deterred." ( Memoirs of Paul von Hindenburg, German commander-in-chief and later President of the Weimar Republic)

The campaign for his canonization began in 1949. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 3 October 2004.

Blessed Karl of Austria ,husband ,father and emperor pray for us.