Twenty years ago, March 14, 1989, to be exact, Zita was called back to God. Her solemn funeral in Vienna, celebrated according to ancient imperial ceremony, reminded the whole world of the story of the last Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary.
She was born on May 9, 1892, near Lucca, Italy. In 1911, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma married Archduke Karl of Austria, the great-nephew of Emperor Franz-Joseph. This union satisfied dynastic demands but it also represented a marriage between two people bound together by a profound love and nourished by the same Christian faith.
In 1914, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Heir to the Throne of Austria-Hungary, left Karl in the position of Heir Apparent to the Emperor. In 1916, when Franz-Joseph died, the young Archduke (he was 29 years old) became Emperor Karl I of Austria, and King Karl IV of Hungary.
His first priority, while World War I still ravaged the continent, was the reestablishment of peace. Using secret diplomacy, the new monarch began negotiations with all the belligerents. Some of his discussions with the Entente in 1917 passed through the intermediation of Princes Sixtus and Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, brothers of Empress Zita and officers in the Belgian army. Unfortunately, no one reached back and took the outstretched hand of Emperor Karl.
His second priority was social justice. By the Emperor’s decree, Austria-Hungary established a ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance, which was the first of its kind in Europe.
Wife and Mother of a Family
During the two years of his reign, from 1916 to 1918, Empress Zita stood by her husband’s side, supporting all of his initiatives. At the same time, the couple led an exemplary life, marked by great piety and blessed by the birth of eight children.
At the end of the war, Austria-Hungary was dismantled and the Emperor was forced to renounce his power. Exiled to Switzerland, he attempted in 1921 to regain his throne in Hungary. After the second attempt failed, the monarchs were deported by the Entente to Madera. It was there, on April 1, 1922, that Karl of Austria succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 34. He was entombed in the Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte (where his body remains today).
So, a widow at the age of 30, expecting a child that would never know her father and lacking any resources, Empress Zita started a long exile in: Spain, Belgium, Quebec (Canada), and the United States. During all these years, she stayed faithful to her principles and provided for her children’s education. Having fled Europe in 1940, she returned after World War II ended. But it was not until 1982, after 63 years of exile, that she was permitted to walk on Austrian soil again. When she returned to our heavenly Father’s home, it was the end of a long life lived under the triple signs of faith, hope and charity.
On October 3, 2004, Pope John Paul II beatified Emperor Karl, marking a focal point in a Cause that opened in 1949. The Church assigned the celebration of the feast day of Blessed Karl of Austria to October 21, the day Zita and he were married. A powerful sign. Indeed, the edifying life of Empress Zita, her unshakeable faith, and her moral strength in adversity make her a model of an exemplary wife and Christian mother. Through her family ties that cross over international borders, Empress Zita is a symbol of peace among the nations.
Since the institution of the family is today subjected to serious attacks, the Church is striving to promote the image of husbands and wives bound together by their deep faith. We have recently seen this with Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. After the beatification of Emperor Karl, could the Empress be next?
A Cause Is Opened in the Le Mans Diocese
In 2008, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican authorized opening the process of beatification for Empress Zita in the Diocese of Le Mans. The reason for this is because from 1899 to 1989 Solesmes (in the Diocese of Le Mans) was the spiritual center for the Empress: three of her sisters were Benedictines at Sainte-Cecile Abbey where the Empress frequently stayed, remaining in contact there until the end of her life. Moreover, the Empress was an oblate of Saint-Pierre Abbey in Solesmes.
The Association for the Beatification and Canonization of Empress and Queen Zita, Wife and Mother, has now been formed. Authorized by the Bishop of Le Mans, the Most Reverend Yves Le Saux, the board of directors includes among its members the Right Reverend Father Abbot of Solesmes, Dom Philippe Dupont.
The other members of the board are all lay people—Mr. Jean Sevillia, president of the association, a journalist and writer, is the author of a biography on Empress Zita (Zita impératrice courage, ed. Perrin) and another biography on Karl that was just published (Le dernier empereur, Charles d’Autriche, ed. Perrin); H.R.H. Princess Francoise de Bourbon Lobkowicz, is a niece of Empress Zita; Mrs. Elizabeth Montfort, is the general secretary of the association; Mr. Jean Peynichou; Count Francois de Rambuteau; and Mr. Jean-Marie Tissot, is treasurer of the association. Officially authorized by the Church, this association is the Actor for the Cause of the Beatification of Empress Zita, and is responsible for assuring its promotion. The association has proceeded with the nomination of a postulator whose role will be to lead the investigation of the Empress’ life: Reverend Cyrille Debris, a priest of the Archdiocese of Rouen and historian of formation.