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Blessed Charles Of Austria: A Role Model For Men

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A Book Review: Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy, by Charles Coulombe. TAN Books, Gastonia, NC, 2020.

  • + + In his Gospel account of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, St. Matthew relates that the admonition to leave the land of Israel was addressed by an angel to St. Joseph in a dream (Matt. 2:13). It is not without significance that this message came not to our Lady but rather to Joseph. When the Blessed Virgin arose in the dead of night and took the Christ Child into her arms to set out on this sudden, difficult and dangerous journey, she did so entirely at the command of Joseph, taking him at his word. It is a most powerful testament to the role that God has bestowed upon husbands and fathers as the heads of their families.
    As we begin 2022, Catholic men are sorely in need of role models cast in the mold of St. Joseph while facing all the dangers and hardships this new year is threatening to bring.
    It was precisely a century ago that one such man completed his mission on Earth to God, to his family and to his country, doing it all in less than 35 years — Blessed Charles of Austria (1887-1922), the last reigning emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 2004. It is only over the past twenty-five years that the story of Charles and his comparably remarkable wife, the Empress Zita (1892-1988), has begun to be addressed in earnest from a distinctly Catholic perspective in the English-speaking world, beginning with Joanna and James Bogle’s 2000 book, A Heart for Europe: The Lives of Emperor Charles and Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary.
    Much more recently, the acclaimed author and speaker Charles Coulombe has made a major new contribution to our knowledge and understanding of this exceptional royal couple with his 2020 book, Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy.
    One of the great advantages of having more than one biography of a particular saint or blessed is that each author brings to the subject a distinctive perspective in selecting, interpreting and highlighting the details of the holy person’s life. What Charles Coulombe brings to the table is his own wealth of knowledge of, and passionate interest in, the history of Catholic monarchies within the broader context of the history of western Christendom.
    Yet Coulombe is likewise a very talented and experienced story-teller who knows how to keep his readers engaged even while walking them through a sometimes dizzying maze of unexpected twists and turns in the course of Europe’s stormy modern history.
    The picture of Blessed Charles that emerges from Coulombe’s pages is that of a man who knew how to combine courage with compassion, to act decisively yet humbly, all within a continual context of ever seeking to love and serve God according to the duties of his state of life. Time and again, Coulombe cites the emperor’s special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as a hallmark of his spiritual life, as he does in relating Charles’ habitual recourse to his copy of the Daily Prayer Book of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as well as his avid reading and personal promotion of the devotional periodical, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart (p. 79).
    Then there is Charles’ telling reference to the Austrian Tyrol as his “dear little Sacred Heart country” (p. 138), which not only serves as a further illustration of the monarch’s religious devotion in this regard but also as a tribute to the uniquely intense Catholic fervor of the rustic people of this region of Alpine splendor.
    An especially touching detail of the emperor’s personal piety was his unfailing observance of the venerable custom of making the sign of the cross when driving past a church out of reverence for the Real Presence of Christ within the tabernacle (pp. 159-160), a tradition that really needs to be revived in our own time.
    To Coulombe’s anecdotes concerning the emperor’s piety, I will add here one other. As it was Charles’ custom wherever he lived to have the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a private chapel within his place of residence, time and again during the course of the day he would excuse himself to resort to the chapel, claiming he needed to check whether the sanctuary lamp had gone out, a mere pretext for his actual intention of going to visit the Blessed Sacrament.
    Charles’ stellar qualities as a Catholic head of state are much in evidence, from his tireless efforts to bring peace to war-torn Europe (pp. x-xi, 204) and his clemency to condemned prisoners (pp. 163, 165-166) to his enactment of legislation to ban the publication of obscene literature (p. 167). He likewise foresaw the tremendous evil that would arise from the German government’s 1917 plot to smuggle Joseph Stalin into Russia (p. 182).
    Coulombe’s book includes an appealing series of plates providing black and white photos of Charles and his family as well as color reproductions of official portraits of the emperor. What is particularly striking about these images is that we consistently see in the face of Charles nothing of the proud, strident, and aloof mien that has sadly marked the character of so many other monarchs and heads of state. Charles’ humility, affability, gentleness and approachability is here to be seen in his eyes, whether posing for an artist or chatting with soldiers. Yet never does he look happier than he does in the photo of his wedding day to the Princess Zita.
    It was on the eve of his wedding to Zita that Charles uttered to her the words that were to become an encomium of his spirituality as a married man: “Now we must help each other get to Heaven” (p. 108). One of the particular strengths of Coulombe’s book is his exposition of Zita’s relationship with Charles, with Coulombe regularly quoting directly from Zita’s own memories of their married life.
    Coulombe’s story-telling skills really come into play as he relates the series of dramatic events, often tragic, that brought Charles closer and closer to succeeding the Emperor Franz Josef on the Habsburg throne in 1916, as well as Charles’ very intense involvement in the saga of World War I. His accounts of Pope St. Pius X essentially prophesying to Zita Charles’ succession of Franz Josef five years before the fact (p. 107), as well as the heir-apparent Franz Ferdinand’s premonition of his own shocking and world-rocking assassination in the summer of 1914 (pp. 115-116), together with Bishop Joszef Lanyi’s prophetic dream foretelling this criminal act (pp. 119-120), all make for gripping reading.
    Another great asset of Coulombe’s presentation is his frequent citation of the Church’s ceremonies as Charles would have experienced them and participated in them. Early in the book, Coulombe quotes in full a highly colorful and fascinating 1895 eyewitness account of the Holy Thursday royal Mandatum (foot-washing) rite as practiced by the Austro-Hungarian emperors (pp. 64-67), citing this as a particularly illustrative example of the Habsburgs’ centuries-old tradition of acts of public piety, a phenomenon that scholars have dubbed “Pietas Austriaca,” a state piety, as it were, that in turn fostered an ethos of piety across the lands of the empire.
    Equally welcome is Coulombe’s detailed account of the coronation rites of Charles that ceremonially bestowed upon him the kingship of Hungary (pp. 149-158). Coulombe’s description of the 1916 funeral rites of Franz Josef reveals how the Church vividly reminded the faithful that there is no distinction of privilege or rank when it comes to standing before the judgment seat of God at the end of our lives.
    As Coulombe relates, when the body of the dead emperor was brought to the door of Vienna’s Capuchin church for burial in the royal crypt there, admittance would be formally sought with a knock upon the door. A friar within would reply by demanding to know who was seeking admittance. The first two attempts to gain admittance in this manner, identifying the deceased monarch by his various royal tiles and distinctions, would end in failure, the friar each time replying, “We do not know him!” It was only when on the third try those accompanying the body identified Franz Josef as nothing more than “a mortal, sinful man” that the friar finally opened the door to allow the funeral cortege to enter (p. 147).

Dire Poverty

Coulombe tells in detail the whole tragic story of Charles’s expulsion from the Austro-Hungarian throne by scheming politicians, ending in his exile to the eastern Atlantic island of Madeira in 1921. Stripped of virtually all his material possessions by his enemies, Charles and his family were quickly reduced to living in such dire poverty that the emperor, weakened by malnutrition, soon fell ill with a respiratory illness that led to a fatal bout of pneumonia.
The account of Charles’ passing is deeply moving (pp. 262-266). He faced the approach of death with his rosary and a crucifix in his hands, saying to his wife, “Let’s go home, let’s go home together — we are already so near” (p. 265). Shortly before dying on April 1, 1922, he assured her, “We will meet again in the Heart of Jesus!” (p. 348).
Coulombe devotes much of the concluding portion of the book to telling the inspiring story of the Empress Zita’s subsequent years as a widow (she is herself a candidate for beatification), including her harrowing escape with her children from Belgium and France as the Nazi forces were advancing across Europe in the spring of 1940 (pp. 278-279). This displacement led to a 14-year stay in North America that brought Zita to Quebec City and later to the secluded New York City suburb of Tuxedo Park. Coulombe notes that at the time of Zita’s arrival in Quebec (1940), it was “perhaps the most Catholic city in North America” (p. 280).
My late mother used to tell me that when she and my father went to Quebec City for their honeymoon in 1959, she was amazed to see on the dashboard of the public bus they had boarded a miniature statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, something, sad to say, scarcely imaginable nowadays.
Yet we do need to hope that somehow, someday, our Western culture may become genuinely Christian again, or rather, better yet, Catholic again. Blessed Charles is a flesh-and-blood example of what a Catholic head of state can and ought to be. But he is even more than this: He is a model of what every Catholic man can and ought to be. Blessed Charles of Austria, pray for us!

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