In this year marking the anniversary of the First World War, your correspondent has just been attending a conference in Austria honouring the memory of Blessed Kaiser Karl von Habsburg, the last Habsburg emperor, and the one European ruler who tried to bring about peace in 1916/17. He failed, but the Church can honour failure. Blessed Karl was beatified by John Paul II and will be canonised in due course. His story should be better known. You can find out more by reading about it in, for example, A Heart for Europe (Gracewing Books, 1991)
The Kaiser Karl Gebetsliga, which promotes his cause, joined with the Abbot and community at the big abbey of Heiligenkreuz, just outside Vienna, for an important conference to honour the memory of Blessed Karl and to talk about the Europe of today. The President of Austria attended and spoke, I think sincerely, about the human search for meaning and for a spiritual message in life. He emphasised his personal agnosticism, but seemed genuine in his affirmation of the value of the Christian message. Members of the Habsburg family were present, led by the head of the family, Karl, son of Otto and grandson of the last Emperor. There was a good speech from a Bishop, and a delightful one from a professor of history who concentrated on stories of the last Emperor, fascinating, well-told, and rather touching.
The final speaker of the day was Herman von Rompouy, President of the European Council. This is the unelected position at the head of the bureaucracy of the European Union. He is a practising Catholic, and laced his speech with quotations from Chesterton and John Paul II and the Second Vatican Council. But I found it all given an unconvincing slant. He spoke as if we were still living in the 1950s, saying that the crucial need in Europe was for reconciliation and unity. He spoke, and rightly, of the great men who forged the original European Economic Community – de Gasperi, Schuman, Adenauer – and emphasised that all were Christians. But the crucial issue is about Europe today: what would these men think of the imposition of same-sex unions, the destruction of the meaning of the word “family”, the hideous forms of “sex education” foisted on children in Europe’s schools, the tragic divorce rate, the fearsome future created by the failure to restrict the experiments on human embryos, the ghastly legalising of euthanasia?
Blessed Karl von Habsburg was a young man when he inherited the throne following the assasination of his uncle Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. Karl had been trained as a soldier but was essentially a man of peace, and he tried in every way he could to end the war – negotiating secretly via his wife’s brothers who were serving with the Belgian army, using every link he could to reach the Western allies. He was thwarted at every turn and finally died in exile in 1922…the story is a tragic one, and honouring him is important. This last of Austria’s emperor was perhaps the finest one of all. Over the next century, he will take his place in the roll-call of saints that children will learn about in Catholic schools and churches honour with pictures and statues and devotions. One of the main messages of his life was that of the importance of marriage and the family: as a young Archduke he was already rejecting the fashionable immoral activities of the aristocratic set and sought to live the Christian way. He also had a vigorous concern for the poor and as Emperor worked for social justice and denied himself luxuries in solidarity with the suffering.
He is a good figure for modern Europeans to see as a model for politicians, statesmen, and all who seek to serve in public life. The conference honouring him was a wonderful event, and we finished by filling the magnificent ancient church of this thriving monastery, and joining the young monks at midday prayer. Glorious chant filled the vast spaces above our heads as we prayed together, packed into the wooden pews. In 1914 Europe was perhaps a trifle smug in its certainties, and supremely confident of its place in the world. When the Christian nations lined up their young men to machine-gun one another, no one seemed to be able to put a stop to it, and the horror and the tragedy formed the gateway to a century of bloodshed and sorrow. A hundred years later, we face new problems but at least we are not smug about them. We must give the future humbly into God’s care.