The family and faith of Blessed Karl and Zita

Last Friday, the feast of the Holy Rosary, saw the opening webinar at the Family and Life Academy. People from over 20 countries assembled on the platform to watch, listen and put questions to His Excellency Eduard Habsburg, ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See, in an inspiring webinar on his holy kinsman and kinswoman, Blessed Karl and Servant of God Zita von Habsburg — “a giant of the faith, who married a giant of the faith”.

In this intimate look at two young Catholic spouses, parents and heads of state, their great-great-nephew revealed that, “on the eve of their wedding, Karl told Zita, ‘Now we must help each other attain Heaven!’ … If there ever was a better and more wonderful definition of what Christian married life is, I don’t know it.”

If you begin to live with Blessed Karl, read his life, study what he has said, ask his intercession, become friends with him, have an image of him in your room, your marriage will become centred on God automatically … and if marriages are centred on God, then families grow and thrive. 

You have the example of a family with eight children. Now, I live in Italy. Most Italians expect to have 1.3 children, more or less, and it would do our nations good to have families with lots of children. My wife and I have six children — my wife is very courageous — and having a large family is the most wonderful thing in the entire world. 

You can learn that from Blessed Karl … you can actually talk to him. He’s a Blessed of the Church! You’re allowed to address yourself to him and ask him to change your family life, to help you find a wife … All of these things would bring incredible fruits and would help to heal our countries. That is why I think it is absolutely worthwhile to promote and proclaim the story of these two lives.

Speaking of Blessed Karl, His Excellency emphasised that, “when I mention him, I always think of Zita too”, highlighting that they “were one heart and one soul and an example for every marriage”. He also shared his profound impression of their marriage as:

one of deep love and deep understanding … they didn’t just pray together; they shared everything, they talked about everything. Zita was the closest and most trusted companion of Karl, at home and in his duties. She might have been more passionate and fiery on many issues in politics. He was probably more gentle and weighing things … I have the impression that Karl was just a bit more the locomotive in faith … He very often taught his children the Catechism himself. They prayed together daily.

The importance of Servant of God Zita, whom His Excellency had the privilege to meet as a child, was further emphasised, with anecdotes demonstrating the graces that Blessed Karl drew from their holy marriage:

on the eve of their wedding, Karl told Zita, ‘Now we must help each other attain Heaven.’ If there ever was a better and more wonderful definition of what Christian married life is, I don’t know it. I think this is it. You help each other into Heaven; and after 27 years of marriage myself, I can tell you, it’s always one of the two who gets the force to help the other along. It’s the way a marriage is supposed to be and they lived it totally.

He also pointed out the significance of the feast day of Blessed Karl, celebrated on 21 October (enough time from the publication of this article to start a novena), which is not the date of Blessed Karl’s death, as holy as his death was, but the date of his marriage to Zita. 

[It was] planned to beatify both of them together … it didn’t work out that way; in the end, Karl was first out in the race, and Zita is now on the way, but they will both have 21 October as their feast once Zita is also among the blessed and saints.

His Excellency went on to describe Blessed Karl’s accession to the throne in the middle of the First World War, just one and a half years before the end of the monarchy, and the profound impression which his coronation as king of Hungary made on him. 

I can tell you that because I spoke with Empress Zita about this moment‚ and she told me that it informed everything that he did afterwards, because, like a priest, he lay on the floor during the consecration … he was anointed and he made a solemn oath to defend Hungary as a King.

This deeply religious ceremony shaped his sense of duty — to his peoples and to God. This would drive his tireless efforts to restore peace in Europe, where he was the only head of state to respond to the call of Pope Benedict XV, urging an end to the bloodiest conflict in history. The peace efforts of Blessed Karl and the outrage that they stirred among the central powers would be an important factor in his deposition after the war and in the exile of the imperial family.

In their first exile, in Switzerland, Karl and Zita and their seven children had something which resembled a normal family life for the first time; but they were not permitted to rest from their labours for long. The situation in Europe following the catastrophe of the First World War, and the cry of his people in Hungary, called the royal couple back to their duty. 

Blessed Karl knew later on that he could never renounce the throne — not because he was power-hungry and hanging on to it‚ but because he had promised it to God in a very impressive way.

Zita accompanied him in two frustrated attempts to reclaim his throne in Hungary, which had every hope of succeeding. But man proposes and God disposes, and after the second attempt, Blessed Karl was sent into his last exile. Despite being pregnant with their eighth child, Zita never left his side during his last political combat or this long and anguished journey to Madeira, where they were soon joined by the rest of their children. It was there, at the end of a short and courageous life, characterised by ardent devotion and the highest virtue in his words and actions, that Blessed Karl would give the ultimate testimony of his faith, far from home and from his people, in the freezing fog of a small island, seldom visited outside of summer.

It’s known that in Madeira, in his exile, he had offered his life to God in a moment of prayer for his peoples. By the way, Zita was absolutely not agreeing with this … She didn’t want that; she had so many plans for him. And at the same time, she was at his bed all the time without ever taking time for herself … holding him and praying with him through his last hours and minutes, while he suffered very, very strongly with incredible peace and prayer; once he said that, if he did not have the Blessed Sacrament and the Heart of Jesus, he could not bear it. And he really, really died like a saint … and in her arms, the last words he said to her were, “I love you endlessly”. And the last thing he said before he died — Jesus”.

His Excellency went to relate that, during a pilgrimage which 200 members of the Habsburg family made to Madeira shortly after the death of Karl and Zita’s eldest son Otto in 2011, he asked the young members of the family whether they had read Death of an Emperor by Dr Hans Karl Zessner-Spitzenberg. And seeing that many of them had not, he read it to them himself that evening.

And for many of them, this was the first time that they experienced this deeply moving story of his death, which everybody should read at some point in his life, because all of us are going to die and Blessed Karl showed us how to die as a Catholic.

He continued:

It’s very important to understand that, for him, this was the end of his earthly life but, for Zita, life was just beginning. She was 19 when she got married. She was 29 when she became a widow, with seven children — pregnant with the eighth, who would be born in exile — and then she lived 60 more years as a widow.

To learn more about this example of faith, love and heroism in the courtship and married life of Karl and Zita, and in the later life of Zita and her children — “the visible remainder of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy” — before and after the Second World War, we recommend watching the whole webinar, Blessed Karl and Empress Zita: a model of family and nation, available now at the Family and Life Academy.

We would like to express our gratitude once again to His Excellency Eduard Habsburg for opening the Family and Life Academy programme in such an inspiring away, and for generously sharing his insight into the lives and legacy of these lovable models for Catholics facing the challenges of living the faith in today’s world.

The Family and Life Academy webinar series will continue on Friday 18 November 2022 with Attacks against the family: a historical overview by Professor Roberto de Mattei.