The Church calendar commemorates several familiar medieval kings - for example, England's Edward the Confessor, Germany's Henry II, and, most famously, France's Louis IX. Nor is there any shortage of canonized queens - Margaret of Scotland, Elizabeth of Portugal, Elizabeth of Hungary, for example. In the modern world, by contrast, sanctity in political leadership seems to have been much less frequent, or at least much less frequently recognized.
Today the Church in certain places commemorates Blessed Kaiser Karl I (1887-1922), the last Austrian Emperor and Apostolic King of Hungary (1916-1918), who heroically tried - and abysmally failed - to extricate his country from the "suicide of European civilization" (Pope Benedict XV) that was "The Great War" (World War I). In the end, we could call Karl one of the few authentically admirable (if admittedly ineffective) statesmen during that terrible and pointless war, one who was also at the end one of that war's conspicuous casualties, as was what he represented.
Less than two years after his accession, Karl found himself cheated out of both his crowns. Yet, as he wrote to Pope Benedict XV in 1919, "In all my troubles, I have never lost my faith, I have never despaired."
Deprived by the vicissitudes of history and by the narrow-minded short-sightedness of the war's victors of the opportunity to lead central Europe into a better future than the painful one which the 20th century would soon give it instead, this last Hapsburg Emperor recalls an older ideal of political leadership that entailed life-time service and sacrifice for one's subjects, statesmanship as a moral as well as political vocation, one which few, if any, of our contemporary political figures remotely resemble.
In his homily at Kaiser Karl's Beatification in 2004, Pope Saint John Paul II said: From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!
After two unsuccessful restoration attempts in 1921, he died in impoverished exile in Madeira within the year. But the tragic history of the 20th century has been more than sufficient to rehabilitate both his personal reputation as a statesman and peacemaker and the reputation of his House and its onetime empire.
In The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill wrote about the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy: "For centuries this surviving embodiment of the Holy Roman Empire had afforded a common life, with advantages in trade and security, to a large number of peoples none of whom in our own times had the strength or vitality to stand by themselves in the face of pressure from a revivified Germany or Russia. There is not one of these peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Hapsburgs to whom gaining their independence has not brought the tortures which ancient poets and theologians had reserved for the damned."
When, as an undergraduate studying German in the summer of 1970, I first visited Vienna's Kapuzinergruft (the Capuchin crypt where most of the Hapsburgs lie buried), there were still daily fresh flowers at the tomb of Karl's predecessor, Kaiser Franz Josef I. Since then, Karl's wife Empress Zita and his son Crown Prince Otto have been entombed there with all the traditional Hapsburg burial rites. But Blessed Kaiser Karl remains buried alone - still in in exile - in Madeira, a lonely symbol still of the tragic turn the 20th century took 100 years ago, the catastrophic consequences of which the world remains still very much imprisoned in.
Political failure that he may have been, Karl embodied the loftiest aspirations of his house and the long-lost mirage of Christendom, echoed so eloquently in the opening bars of the old imperial anthem:
Gott erhalte, Gott beschütze
Unsern Kaiser, unser Land!
Mächtig durch des Glaubens Stütze,
Führ’ er uns mit weiser Hand!
God preserve, God protect
Our Emperor, our land!
Powerful through the support of the faith,
He leads us with a wise hand!