Following The Habsburg Way

The Habsburgs know death and dying and how to live a life that leads to that final moment.

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The godless and bloody French revolutionaries refused to let a priest visit Queen Marie Antoinette in her final days on this earth. Alone in her tiny cell, Antoinette, a devout Catholic, was greatly distressed that she could not confess her sins in the sacramental way before she met the executioner’s blade and then met her maker face-to-face. 

Her executioner rode with her in the cart that winded its way among mewling mobs calling for her head. He said later that she stood in the cart anxiously looking back and forth; looking for what, he did not know. At one point, he noticed that she had become calm, even peaceful. It turns out she had been looking for a disguised bishop standing in a prearranged window who gave her a blessing in extremis as she passed by and into the next world. What I did not know is that Marie Antoinette was a Habsburg, and she died in the Habsburg way—that is, prepared to see the face of Christ. 

A tiny book called The Death of An Emperor tells of the final days and death agony of Blessed Karl von Habsburg (d. 1922). He suffered greatly in mind because he was in exile from his lands and his people whom he dearly loved. He suffered in body from a deathly sickness and the ham-handed treatment doled out to him. He lived in exile on an island off Portugal after he tried in vain to stop the First World War and to restore his kingdom in Hungary. He said, “If one did not have prayer or the devotion to the Sacred Heart, all of this would not be tolerable.” He also said he “must suffer so much so my people can be together.” He died at 34 with the Holy Name of Jesus on his lips. 

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Having died in exile, far away from Vienna, Blessed Karl did not receive the “knocking ritual,” the way Habsburg Emperors are buried. 

The body is taken in procession and pauses at the Capuchin crypt near the Hofburg in Vienna. The master of ceremonies knocks three times on the door. 

“Who desires entry?” comes a monk’s voice from inside. And then is given the name and multiple titles of the Habsburg who has died. The list is always long. But the monk replies, “We do not know him.” 

The master of ceremonies knocks three times more. “Who desires entry?” The lengthy and impressive achievements of the Habsburg are then read out. Still, the monk replies, “We do not know him.” 

Again, three knocks. “Who desires entry?” Finally, the real answer of who awaits entry: “A mortal and sinful man.” The voice allows, “Then let him come in.” 

The Habsburgs know death and dying and how to live a life that leads to that final moment. These and other instructive stories are told by the unassuming yet dashing 56-year-old Hungarian Ambassador to the Holy See, Archduke Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen, in his delightful book The Habsburg Way, just out from Sophia Institute Press. 

Though there is a chapter on dying, the book really is about living, and it takes as its instruction the ways Habsburgs have lived through triumph and tribulation over the course of 1,000 years. 

The question may arise: Who wants advice from a fusty dusty long dead dynasty, what with their droopy mustaches, extravagant sideburns, and jutting lower jaw—the famous Habsburg Jaw? It turns out, we do, especially if you see the rapidly spreading devotion to various saintly Habsburgs, most especially Blessed Karl. 

The rules are these. Get married and have lots of children. Be Catholic and practice your faith. Believe in empire, and subsidiarity. Stand for law and justice, and your subjects. Know who you are and live accordingly. Be brave in battle or have a great General. Die well and have a memorable funeral. 

To be sure, not all Habsburgs lived the Habsburg Way. Joseph II (d. 1790) was maybe a smidge too “Enlightened” as he closed down 1,000 monasteries. The Annals of Basle tell us that Count Rudolph of Habsburg (d. 1291) “slew some knights in Strasbourg; besieged Basle for three days; levied unprecedented taxes, burnt down a monastery, and seized villages; destroyed Tiefenstein Castle, and marched on Freiburg, killing and burning the crops on the way; razed the village of Klingen” and much unHabsburgly more. 

But there have been saints among them, and not just Blessed Karl. There is Archduchess Magdalena of Austria (d. 1590), who was pious from her childhood, went on to found the Ladies’ Convent of Hall (still standing), and worked with St. Peter Canisius to fight the Protestant revolution. Her cause for beatification began in the last century. 

Both good and bad, one thing the Habsburgs got right from the beginning is a deep understanding of where they came from and who they are. The great Otto von Habsburg, the head of the family who died in 2011, often said, “Those who don’t know where they come from do not know where they are heading—because they don’t know where they stand.” 

Without a doubt, there is a slight touch of snake oil in the Habsburg patrimony. One of them jimmied up documents purporting to show their family was given title by Julius Caesar himself. Because of this document, to this day, all Habsburg males are called “Archduke.” Even so, the Habsburg of today know exactly who did this: Rudolf IV (d. 1365). What’s more, the Austrian line of Habsburgs actually died out when Charles VI failed to sire a male, but they arranged for the title to pass on to his daughter Maria Theresia, an inspirational figure who had 16 children and therefore continued the line down to this moment. The great accomplishment is to survive and live a life worthy of the Beatific Vision. 

What the Habsburgs have known all along is that it is not enough merely to form a family, one must found one. Dynasty is not a dirty word. It is something that all of us are called to do, even if we do not have vast fortunes, titles, and landed estates. Founding a family is not just for kings. It is for you and me. The Habsburgs, even today, have a centuries-long vision for their family. Today they may be accountants, doctors, businessmen, even race-car drivers, but they know who they are and where they are going, and in this wonderful new book, Eduard Karl Joseph Michael Marcus Koloman Volkhold Maria Habsburg-Lothringen tells us how we can do it, too. Indeed, how we must. 

[Image Credit: Natalie F Danelishen]

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