Quest for Holiness in the Sacrament of Matrimony

   The Quest for Holiness in the Sacrament of Matrimony: The heroic lives of Karl and Zita vonHapsburg-Lorraine

by Peter W. Frey, Ph.D.

In an age when the very concept of marriage is under attack and undergoing radical social transformation, it is important for Catholics in particular to be reminded that matrimony is a sacrament, a source of divine grace for living out one’s life in holiness.

Matrimony enables the wedded couple to live in holiness, seeking the mutual salvation of each other’s immortal souls, and those of their children. The Church holds out as a model of conjugal sanctity the lives of Blessed Karl I, emperor of Austria-Hungary and his wife Empress Zita vonHapsburg-Lorraine of Bourbon Parma.

Two events involving this heroic Catholic couple underscore the important lesson the Church conveys. In March 1989, in Vienna, ancient capital of the vast empire, occurred the formal State funeral for the exiled Empress, and fifteen years later the beatification of her husband, Emperor Karl I (Karoly IV of Hungary).[1] These events, televised throughout the continent, gave Europeans a look at their ancient heritage: monarchical and Catholic, as at a last glimpse of flaming embers of a dying fire. Modern Austria, like all of Europe, is living the post-modern, post Christian socialist-Marxist materialism of a neo-paganism in which there is no room for religion, where the practice of faith is looked upon as a quaint anachronism and the concept of marital fidelity replaced by a quest for newer "alternative life styles."

The state funeral evoked memories of ancient ritual and pageantry, emphasizing the Catholic concept of the universality and inevitability of death, which comes to royalty and commoner alike. It was a ceremony, which like the traditional Mass, evokes a spirit of transcendence, permanence, and a reach to the eternal. Seemingly inappropriate in the late 20th century, it was more reminiscent of something from the Renaissance or Baroque period.

The horse-drawn glass hearse, dressed in black crepe, stops in front of the non-descript Kapuchinerkirk or Kaisergruft (Imperial vault) in the heart of old Vienna. [2] The major domo of the Imperial household approaches the door of the chapel, and bangs loudly on it with his gold staff A cowled monk appears, and in impeccable Latin, asks "who disturbs our rest?" The major domo, speaking on behalf of the deceased also in impeccable Latin, replies "Her Imperial, Royal, and Apostolic Majesty, Empress of Austria Hungary and all her domains." The monk responds "away with you!!! I know of no such personage." Pause. Again he raps on the door, again the ritual question, "who disturbs our rest?" This time some of the Empress’s lesser titles are used. Again admission is refused. Yet a third time, but now a humble gentle tap. Again the monk appears and asks the same question. This time the reply is "Zita vonHapsburg, a miserable sinner humbly seeking eternal sepulture."

"Enter, and find rest" is the reply as the door opens and the hearse borne down the steps to the vault below, wherein lie the remains of 15 emperors, 16 queens and empresses reaching back to the Holy Roman Empire. [3] The ritual concludes as the band strikes up Hayden’s forbidden Imperial Anthem:

"Gott Erhalte unser Kaiser, unsern gutten Kaiser Karl"

The ritual reminds all not only of the equality of death, but of the virtues lived by the one being so honored with a Catholic focus on life eternal with its awesome judgment.

The drama which leads to this final event began in the twilight years of the 19th century when the ancient Empire, which stretched across mittleEuropa from the Alps to the Carpathians, and from the Adriatic to the Vistula, appeared at its cultural and economic zenith. This empire embraced at least 14 different ethnic nationalities, 22 languages and dialects, 16 provinces and divided into an Empire (Austria proper) and the kingdoms of Croatia, Bohemia and Hungary, of which the sovereign was equally king and emperor. [4]

What united this hodge-podge of peoples was the universality of the Catholic faith (despite minority Protestants, Jews and Muslims) and intense loyalty to the crown. Every peasant village had is humble church, its wayside Marian shrine, and the large cities boasted ancient cathedrals and centers of learning, such as the magnificent baroque Stefansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral), gutted physically by allied bombs in World War II and gutted spiritually in the wake of Vatican II "renewal." [5] This devotion to crown and faith was particularly true of the long-reigning Emperor Franz-Josef who assumed the crown in the revolutionary year 1848 and who reigned until 1916, in the age of airplanes and automobiles and universal war.

Archduke Karl was born in 1887, and received a strict Catholic, military and humanistic education. He became fluent in seven of his empire’s languages. Even as a young child he displayed traits of character such as kindness, docility and intense piety which would later endear him to his people. [6]

Zita was born in 1892, a daughter of the ancient house of Bourbon. Thus their marriage in 1911 united two of Europe’s most ancient and Catholic royal families.

Initially it seemed unlikely Karl would ever inherit the throne, and that he would live a life of ease as a lesser royal personage But the ways of God marked out a different course for their lives. The mysterious death of Crown Prince Rudolph in 1889, the Emperor’s only son, changed the succession to his nephew, Franz Ferdinand. But Franz’s choice to marry a commoner meant, according to the iron laws of the Hapsburg domain, that though he could become emperor, his heirs would be forever barred. Then Karl’s father Otto became heir presumptive, but his death propelled 21-year-old Karl as next in line. [7]

But issues of succession were far from his mind as he and his bride settled into life of raising their children, eventually eight in all, according to the principles of piety and their Catholic beliefs: prayer, rosary, daily Mass.

Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 was the triggering event which undid centuries of European stability and order. World War I pitted Austria and Germany against Russia, France, England and eventually the US. As a feldmarchall in the Imperial army, Karl saw first hand the atrocities of war, the suffering of his people and the futility of what he immediately saw as a disaster for his empire. Never neglecting his duties as husband and father, Karl instilled in his children a love for peace and devotion to their duties as Catholics to their country. He and Zita spent time ministering to the troops, attending daily Mass, visiting hospitals to comfort the wounded and dying, saw to the care of widows and orphans and in an attempt to share the privations of war, led a life of austerity and near poverty.

In November 1916, Karl assumed the throne on the death of his great-uncle, the aged Emperor Franz Joseph. Shortly thereafter he and Zita were crowned Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary by the Cardinal Primate of Eztergom. Solemnly swearing his coronation oath, Karoly (his Hungarian name) pledged his life and blood to defending the Catholic faith and the lands of St. Stephen. [8] The duties incumbent upon this oath were to bind the Emperor-King and his people in an unbreakable unity, and were to weigh heavily upon his soul for the rest of his life.

His efforts to end World War I most clearly demonstrate his commitment to Catholic principles. No war is justified that does not have a reasonable prospect of success. And therefore a morally responsible ruler cannot countenance the useless shedding of blood. [9]

Knowing in his heart that the war was lost, Karl immediately undertook secret peace initiatives through Zita’s relatives with the French government, even if this meant seeking a separate peace and a rupture of his alliance with Germany. He was fully guided by the peace proposals put forth by HH Pope Benedict XV, which called upon the warring nations to abandon violence and negotiate according to Catholic concepts of justice. Benedict’s proposals contrasted sharply with those of the Calvinist Woodrow Wilson, vitriolic hater of all things Catholic and possessing an ivy league notion of his innate superiority over "unenlightened people". Among Wilson’s proposals was a call for the breakup of the ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire, and "freedom" for its "oppressed minorities." In addition, the Masonic President of the anti-Catholic Third Republic, Georges Clemenceau, sought only vengeance and retaliation. Karl’s secret initiatives became public and he was forced to retreat in embarrassment, and submit to the dictates of his German "ally" The war would continue to its bitter end. [10]

The inevitable happened: Bolshevik revolution broke out in Russia and soon threatened to engulf the other warring parties. When finally all collapsed, the Monarchy was overthrown. Karl refused to abdicate but merely declined exercise of his power.

"My sacred deed (the coronation oath) entrusted to me by my God demands that I never give up this bond or my people." [11]

A socialist Republic was set up. This regime quickly confiscated all royal property, including the family’s own personal possessions. In effect, it rendered them penniless. But having already undergone privation even as Emperor, the family remained strong in its faith and devotion, especially to the protection of the Mother of God. Even the children, seeing the example of their parents, enduring their sacrifices gladly, offering daily intentions for the welfare of their country.

Fearing that the same fate which befell the Tsar and his family in Bolshevik captivity, the family was exiled to Switzerland. Even though their existence was relatively secure, the family could make no moves beyond the compound where they were surrounded by armed guards. Even attending daily Mass at the village church required permission of the authorities. Having no personal income, the family depended on charity from abroad or well meaning Swiss Catholic neighbors. Yet all these hardships were borne with Christian resignation. Even there, more children were added to the growing family.

But Karl’s greater sense of duty called him to reconsider his rightful position as King-Emperor (Kaiser und Konig)When a Bolshevik regime in Hungary was overthrown and replaced by a Regency[12] headed by Admiral Miklos Horthy [13], Karl saw an opportunity to recover at least his Hungarian throne, to which he was lawfully plighted. With the explicit request of Pope Benedict, who realized that the anti-Catholic structure which the Wilsonian order had created, was a permanent threat to the survival of the Christian social order, the Emperor embarked on a plan to overturn part of this settlement. [14]

He and Zita secretly left Switzerland in 1920, and after a brief meeting in Vienna, he moved across the border to Hungary. Donning his uniform for the first time in two years, he met with Horthy, and demanded his rights as lawful sovereign. But lacking broader support, Horthy forced him to back down. The King retreated. Still encouraged by his supporters he attempted to rally those loyal to him. But, for whatever reasons, he was again unsuccessful, and this time he and Zita were arrested. Because of his departure from Switzerland, that government revoked its guarantee of asylum. Therefore the royal couple were placed in the custody of the British navy and taken prisoner by royal battleship to the Portuguese island of Madeira for permanent exile. The British would have no dealings with any attempt to revise the "peace plan" under Papal and Catholic monarchical leanings. [15]

Madeira, lying off the coast of Africa, is noted for its damp and gloomy climate. But again the family, which was reunited, took up their exile with Christian resignation. Zita was now bearing her eighth child. In the nine years of their marriage, love and faith were the dominant values which they practiced on a daily basis.

Karl endeared himself to the villagers and shared whatever meager rations they had. Their clothes were threadbare and often the children had no shoes. Appeals to the Portuguese and British government went unheeded, and all contact with the Holy See was forbidden. Only the village priest could serve their spiritual needs. The damp climate took its toll on Karl’s fragile health, and he edged closer to death from tuberculosis.

"God has given me the grace that there now remains nothing on this earth I would not be willing to sacrifice out of love for Him, and for the benefit of the Holy Catholic Church." [16]

Denied even rudimentary medical care, it was the devotion of his wife who ministered to him round the clock until the saintly King Emperor returned his soul to Almighty God on April 1, 1921. After a simple funeral, he was buried in the church where he faithfully attended Mass all during his exile. When the coffin was opened in 1971, his body was found to be incorrupt. Thus began the process for his cause. [17]

As a widow with eight young children to rear, Zita was compelled to seek assistance from various monarchist and charitable agencies. At last able to travel, she journeyed to Rome for an audience with the new Pontiff, Pius XI. But he was preoccupied with the rising tide of Fascism and was at best a reluctant supporter of Zita and her needs. Whatever hardships she endured, she bore them with the same faith and trust in God which had marked her married life. Tragically, her oldest son Otto, the lawful heir presumptive, renounced his claims in order to pursue a seat in the secular European "Parliament" and eventually its Presidency. In effect he spat on his legacy and on the sacrifices his father and mother endured, all for the lure of secular "rewards" But perhaps in some future time, when Catholicism and Catholic monarchy may, by God’s grace be restored to Christendom, some heir to the ancient and august House will take up the crown and rule as a true son of the Church. Perhaps even the long prophesied "Great Monarch" will be born of the dynasty. [18]


God bestows on every human being a calling, a vocation. To a relative few, is given the gift of priesthood or sisterhood, consecrated celibacy. (Those who are incapable of this sacrifice are most unworthy of that calling). To most, it is the vocation to holy matrimony, a sacramental means for the mutual sanctification of man and woman, and to their children as a gift from God. Vocation is the means by which we are entrusted with the care of others and the greater good of society. It is, as our Lady of Fatima said, the doing of our daily duty in accord with our state in life with fidelity and sacrifice which manifesting itself in the most ordinary events, becomes a means of sanctification. Not all of us are called to "greatness" as the world may define it, but true greatness comes from humble service to one another and to the larger community. In his encyclical Arcanum Pope Leo XIII observed,

"If then, we consider the end of the divine institution of marriage, we shall see very clearly that God intended it to be a most fruitful source of individual benefit and of public welfare. Not only, in strict truth, was marriage instituted for the propagation of the human race but also that the lives of husband and wife might be made better and happier. This comes about by the lightening of each other’s burdens through mutual help, by constant and faithful love....and by the heavenly grace which flows from the has the power to strengthen union of heart in the parents, to secure the holy education of children, to temper the authority of the father by the example of the divine authority....From marriages such as these, the State may rightly expect a race of citizens Animated by a good spirit and filled with reverence and love for God, recognizing It their duty to obey those who rule justly and lawfully, to love all, and to injure no one." [19]

Karl and Zita exemplified this in their daily lives, mutual love and support, the nurturing of faith in their family life, strong devotion to the holy Mass, the rosary and other devotions to our Lady. In addition, they instilled in them a life long sense of duty to service in the name of Christ. This was no secular "ask what you can do for your country" kind of liberal blabber, but a real commitment to the truth, and to the temporal welfare of the social order and the eternal salvation of souls. [20]

Almost a century later, John Paul II stated in Familiaris consortio,

"The human family, disunited by sin, is reconstituted in its unity by the redemptive power of the death and resurrection of Christ. Christian marriage by participating in the salvific efficacy of this event constitutes the natural setting in which the human person is introduced to the great family of the Church." [21]

After an extensive investigation into the life and death of Emperor Karl of Austria, the Church now confirms definitively Emperor Karl is a heroic example of Christian virtues. Acquired during a life lived responsibly as a human being, statesman, husband and father, and developed even up until his death in exile, his virtues are shining examples of his personal journey toward Christ. His confidence, despite the uncertainty of his times, was motivated by the words of the holy Gospel, ‘thy will be done’ Even in the darkest, loneliest and hardest hours of his life, this was his clear aim. On his deathbed, Emperor Karl said, "I have to suffer so much so that my people can again come together." [22]

It was the tragic fate of Emperor Karl to be an able ruler with the very best intentions to whom history denied the time and circumstances to realize his plans for the welfare of his people.

But there is no doubt that the devotion to family, the love which bound him and Zita in holy matrimony, the Catholic care and upbringing of eight children, and the fidelity to each other which they maintained throughout their lives is a testimony to their saintliness. Their home, whether imperial palaces or simple, damp, poverty-laden cottages, was filled with a Catholic spirit of prayer, humility, mutual sacrifice, love, and a commitment to duty in fulfilling their state in life. Christ was the center of their lives. For this reason, it seems appropriate to call this couple a model of Catholic marriage and family life.

Today’s culture of death looks upon children as burdensome and in opposition to the modern hedonism, thus sanctioning contraception and abortion. But loyal Catholic families like Karl and Zita see children not only as a blessing from Almighty God, but as a pledge and expression of confidence in each other and in the future, raising sons and daughters to the glory of God and service to society and church. Bearing children even in poverty and hardship is such a testimony and a reproach to the evils which distort the notion of human sexuality and conjugal life.

Gott erhalte unser Kaiser, unsern gutten Kaiser Karl!!!


[1] Emperor Charles, Edward O'Brien Jr, Macmillan, 1975. p 53. [2] Der Kapuchinerkirch und Kaiser Gruft from an internet article. Wikipedia. [3] Ibid. [4] The Hapsburg Monarchy 1867-1914. A.J.P. Taylor, 1949, p. 84. [5] Ibid, p. 63. [6] Karl of Austria and His Wife Zita, God’s royal servants, from an internet article, [7] Taylor, p. 106. [8] The sacred coronation regalia were spirited out of Hungary in the closing days of World War II, to prevent their falling into the hands of Soviet invaders. They were handed over to the custody of US General Mark Clark, taken under armed guard to Washington where they were held for safe keeping until Hungary would be free. They were returned following the collapse of Communism, at the direction of President George H.W. Bush in 1989. [9] A Heart for Europe. Johanna Vogel, p. 35. [10] Taylor, p. 139-140. [11] [12] A Regency is defined as a monarchical form of government in which the lawful sovereign is unable to exercise his powers due to incapacity or being under the age of 18. The Regent acts in the name of the Crown and by its authority. [13] There is an inescapable irony of an Admiral with no navy ruling a land-locked country. [14] O'Brien, p. 54. [15] Vogel, p. 86. [16] [17] From the beatification documents of the cause of Emperor Karl I, Vatican internet site. [18] The writer met Archduke Otto prior to his renunciation, and addressed him as "Eiher Kaiserlikten Majestat" (your imperial majesty). The writer was not corrected by the Archduke. [19] Arcanum. Leo XIII, 1891. [20] Vogel, p. 143. [21] Familiaris Consortio. John Paul II, 1991. [22]

by Peter W. Frey, Ph.D.