Zita, Catholic Empress in Exile

Zita, Catholic Empress in Exile

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by Meghan Ferrara

2014 marks 100 years since the beginning of the Great War, which tore European civilization asunder in ways that we are only now beginning to grasp. In this look back at that turbulent era, Meghan Ferrara turns the spotlight on an enduring Catholic marriage, which just happened to take place at the pinnacle of European society — on the ancient Throne of the Holy Roman Empire.

In their wedding photos, they are so young, in those far-off days before World War I ripped into their lives. She, in particular, is luminous. It is difficult to believe, observing the smile of the joyful bride, that she and her husband were destined to be at the center of one of the major conflicts of the twentieth century.

In the midst of World War I —  which Pope Benedict XV failed to prevent despite all his efforts — and through a series of extraordinary events, Charles and Zita von Hapsburg  ascended the Imperial throne of Austria-Hungary. Upon the death of Emperor Franz-Joseph in November 1916, they became Emperor and Empress of all the Austro-Hungarian territories. By the end of the “War to End All Wars,” they would be deposed from the Imperial throne, and exiled from Austria.

Their reign, though brief, and their legacy would make an indelible mark on modern history. Their deep commitment to the Faith manifested itself in all areas of their lives. Today, both Charles and Zita are in the process of canonization – a rare and remarkable feat in modern times.

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By the end of that War, Charles and Zita would be deposed from the Imperial throne, and exiled from Austria. Their reign, though brief, and their legacy would make an indelible mark on modern history.

From a very young age, both Charles and Zita held great reverence for the Faith. Attending daily Mass and receiving the Sacraments on a regular basis were established routines in both Charles’s and Zita’s childhoods; they continued this practice with their own children. In addition, they both developed a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Eucharist.

An integral part of Charles and Zita’s Catholic education was a keen awareness of the weakest and most vulnerable of society and the desire to help them. They each donated money, clothes and other necessities to those in need. Despite their royal rank, the Faith taught Charles and Zita  to maintain a servant’s heart towards those less fortunate.

Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma was born Zita Maria delle Grazie Adelgonda Micaela Raffaela Gabriella Giuseppina Antonia Luisa Agnese on May 9, 1892 in Parma, Italy. She first met Charles when they were children, and they played together quite happily. Their friendship quickly rekindled when they met again as young adults. While the marriage was dynastic, their union was also a true love match. Charles and Zita were devoted to each other and they continued to support and love each other despite the difficulties they faced.

For Charles and Zita, their marriage was a sacramental union blessed by God with special graces. The day before their wedding, Charles remarked to Zita, “Now we must help each other to reach heaven.”

This observation formed the basis for their marriage and family life, as they raised their eight children with the same love of Christ and the Catholic Church that they shared. When their eldest son, Otto, received his First Communion, Charles dedicated his family to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Often, Charles and Zita taught the children their Catechism lessons personally and Zita continued this tradition with their grandchildren.

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Charles and Zita raised their eight children with the same love of Christ and the Catholic Church that they shared. When their eldest son, Otto, received his First Communion, Charles dedicated his family to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Charles followed Catholic teaching in all areas of his life, including his political activities. Though he had been well prepared for the Imperial throne, Charles’s political life was fraught with extreme difficulties and danger.

 As a soldier, Charles witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the war. When he ascended the throne, his most ardent desire was for peace, earning him the nickname, “the peace emperor.” However, there were few who shared Charles’ vision, and this isolation cost him dearly. His advisers blocked his efforts and even, in some cases, betrayed him. In addition to his quest to end the war, Charles, inspired by the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, put into practice many innovative social reforms to help his people, such as social security and social welfare systems.

Zita worked in tandem with her husband, frequently visiting nursing homes and hospitals, volunteering for the Red Cross and traveling with him when possible. As rulers, the imperial couple always put service to their people above everything else, in accordance with their coronation oaths and the principle of Catholic kingship. This adherence to service endured long after their exile following the war and remains an important aspect of the family’s life today.

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Zita worked in tandem with her husband, frequently visiting nursing homes and hospitals, volunteering for the Red Cross and traveling with him when possible.

Charles died in exile on the island of Madeira in 1922. Shortly before his death, Charles promised Zita, “We will always be together in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

The last words Charles ever spoke were, “Jesus, my Jesus,” as he kissed his crucifix.

The courage that Charles demonstrated in accepting his death and that Zita displayed in assuming a future without her husband reflected their profound trust in God’s providence. Even when faced with widowhood, the education of her children and the protection of the Hapsburg legacy, the empress never wavered in her confidence in Christ. Zita remained devoted to her family, her people and her Faith for rest of her life.

Zita lived to be almost 100 years old; she died on 14 March 1989. Today, the Cause for Canonization of Blessed Emperor Charles and Servant of God Empress Zita of Austria is only the next stage in the journey of this holy couple.

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Even when faced with widowhood, the education of her children and the protection of the Hapsburg legacy, the empress never wavered in her confidence in Christ. Zita remained devoted to her family, her people and her Faith for rest of her life.

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