Holy leaders: the example of Emperor Charles I


Politicians have a bad reputation. Few, if any, appear to be holy. However, it is possible to be a world leader and holy. An example in modern times is that of Blessed Charles, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Remarkably, Wikipedia lists 83 canonized kings and queens. In addition, there are a myriad of other royal saints and a long list of those who are considered saints. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_royal_saints_and_martyrs

Most people probably think these royal saints lived in medieval times or earlier, but there are still a few European royals who adhere to their Catholic faith. For example, the Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg refused to approve the legislation on euthanasia in 2008 and suffered the removal of part of his authority as a result.

The history of the First World War always begins with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, but then largely neglects the 27-year-old who became Emperor of Austria Charles (or Karl) I in 1916.

The faith of Charles and Zita

Charles, alias Charles IV, King of Hungary, found the war odious. Taking seriously his duty as Apostolic King of Hungary, Charles advocated for the peace plan devised by Pope Benedict XV. He secretly tried to negotiate the exit of Austria and Hungary from the war, but without success.

Emperor Charles I of Austria

Historians are not nice to Charles because of his political failures. They question its sanctity in light of wartime complications. They forget that good people aren’t necessarily good leaders.

Honorable intentions can be overtaken by the forces of evil. What God is looking for is what people do to love Him and seek salvation, not their mastery of political maneuvering.

Take for example former President Jimmy Carter. Historians do not consider his presidency a success, but public opinion is that he is the best pass president of all time. Carter’s humble nature and good works are valued far more than his political achievements or lack thereof.

Charles was not an autocratic king but one who viewed his position as one of service and welfare. He involved his faith in his political decisions and in his marriage. When he married Princess Zita von Bourbon-Parma of Italy in 1911, he told her that they had to help each other to go to Heaven.

Zita was just as devout. Her family regularly undertakes to distribute clothing, food and medicine to the poor, a practice she continues with Charles. Three of Zita’s sisters became nuns, and later in her life Zita spent several months each year in their monastery.

Exile after World War I

At the end of the war in 1918, his empire dissolved, Charles and his family were exiled to Switzerland. He spent two years trying to restore the monarchy in Hungary, but was pushed back and sent to a second exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

There, under reduced circumstances, his ill health deteriorated and he died of bronchopneumonia at the age of 34 in 1922. He offered his final suffering for his people and his last words were: “As you wish, Jesus. “

Church of Our Lady of the Mount in Funchal, Madeira Island and Shrine of Blessed Charles

Zita, who was pregnant with their eighth child at the time of her death, came into mourning and wore black for the rest of her life. She died at the age of 96 in Switzerland.

The cause for Charles’ canonization began in 1949 and he was declared a Servant of God in 1954. In 1972, when his tomb was opened, his body was discovered to be incorruptible. (How can historians doubt his holiness after this?)

In 2003, a miracle attributed to Charles is attested. He was then beatified in 2004 by Saint John Paul II who praised Charles’s efforts for peace.

In 2008, a second miracle was attributed to Charles, and the following year the beatification process began for Zita.

Leadership and Faith

In a previous blog, I spoke about politicians who understand respect for a moral code. I referred to former US Representative Daniel Lipinski, who wrote an essay on being Catholic first in your life and the effect of faith on political decisions. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/musingsfromthepew/2021/10/p425/

It is this idealism and dedication that our leaders need most. We have far too many elected officials in this country who claim to be devout Catholics but publicly challenge the teachings of the Church. They do not conform to faith in their decisions but to their own ambitions. They seek popularity rather than seeking God.

Political figures like Emperor Charles and Grand Duke Henri exist, but they are not in the majority and are always in danger. We must pray to Blessed Charles and the Servant of God Zita that these leaders will be supported and have the courage to endure.


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