Friday, April 1, 2022

"Innig bleibt mit Habsburgs Throne"

In its 1951 reform ("restoration") of the Easter Vigil, the Roman liturgy finally replaced the Exsultet's prayer for the Holy Roman Emperor, Respice etiam ad devotissimum Imperatorem nostrum (Also look upon our most devoted Emperor), with the blander prayer, Respice etiam ad eos, qui nos in potestate regunt (Also look upon those who rule in power over us).*  This change was a belated acknowledgment of the Holy Roman Empire's effective abolition, thanks to Napoleon, in 1806, and, perhaps more poignantly, of the effective end of the Holy Roman Empire's final vestigial expression in the surviving Hapsburg Empire, which collapsed in 1918 as one of the many tragic consequences of World War I. That thousand-year dream of European Christendom quietly came to its calamitous end, 100 years ago today, in a sick room on the  Portuguese island of Madeira, where the ignominiously exiled last Hapsburg Kaiser Karl I died of respiratory failure in 1922 at the age of 34.

The world is still reaping the whirlwind of constant conflict in Eastern Europe, which was sown in the destruction of the Hapsburg Empire, as the "successor states," historically threatened first by Nazi Germany then by Soviet Russia, remain imperiled in so many ways - not least by the perennial prospects of dictatorship within and Russian invasion from without.

It used to be said that the Hapsburgs had a drawerful of crowns. Kaiser Karl was, after all, heir to the kingdoms of Hungary, Bohemia, and Croatia, as well as Austrian Emperor. It was Karl's lamentable fate to inherit the throne in the middle of the "Great War" and, as happened to other losers in 20th-century wars, to lose his throne and all his accumulated crowns.

His exemplary life of heroic virtue and his reputation for sanctity and intercessory power (recognized in the medically inexplicable healing of a Brazilian nun with debilitating vein disease) have, however, gained him a yet greater crown. He came Blessed Kaiser Karl  when Pope Saint John Paul II beatified him in 2004. On that occasion, the Pope declared:

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. ... Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV.

"Christendom" was an imperfect aspiration at its best. Lost once and for all, it cannot be recovered or reclaimed - least of all by spurious, dubiously Christian fantasies, such a contemporary Catholic "integralism." What perhaps might be recovered, through devotion to Blessed Kaiser Karl and other exemplars of virtuous statesmanship, is a renewed commitment to a realistic politics re-centered on the authentic nature and destiny of human persons and human community.  

As for the romantic ideal of "Christendom," let its highest spiritual aspirations be salvaged, while leaving its historical failures behind for the human judgment of history.

Both coexist is the almost forgotten hymn, now unsung for a century:

Gott erhalte, Gott beschütze
Unsern Kaiser, unser Land!
Mächtig durch des Glaubens Stütze,
Führ’ er uns mit weiser Hand!
Laßt uns seiner Väter Krone
Schirmen wider jeden Feind!
Innig bleibt mit Habsburgs Throne
Österreichs Geschick vereint!

God preserve, God protect
Our Emperor, Our Land!
Powerful through Faith's support,
He lead us with a wise hand!
Let us defend the Crown of his Fathers
shield against every foe!
Forever with the Habsburg Throne
Austria's Fate remains united!

* For whatever reason, this intercession for those who govern in the ciivil political world was unaccountably excised from the Exsultet in the Paul VI Missal, along with the intercessions for the Pope and the Bishop that immediately preceded it in the traditonal text.

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