Compassion for those who suffer

      As a child, the Servant of God was encouraged to serve others by following the example of her saintly patron who was indeed a servant!  Zita remembered that: “though we studied less during the summer holidays… we still had a lot of work to do: sewing, mending, repairing clothes. And not only our own clothes and stockings, but also the clothes of elderly and sick people from Schwarzau. We also had to include on that list our ‘twelve additional children’ from the village. Indeed, each year, we had to sponsor poor young girls from Schwarzau. We had added a boy to the group, one Ferdinand, one of those goatherds who may have suffered slight mental retardation, but who was so proud of being the only ‘man’ among so many girls!
       “We ourselves, and I mean the youngest siblings in our family, were sponsored by our elder brothers and sisters, that is by the children from our father’s first marriage (twelve of them as well).  And each year, the eldest of our family would take us to a textile plant in Neunkirchen (an industrial town close to Schwarzau), where they would buy for us (at a good price as if there was an end-of-summer sale, and direct from the manufacturer), large quantities of scrape material that we used all year long to sew clothes for the poor of Schwarzau, as well as for those of Pianore, where the situation was worse than in Austria.
       “I remember that my sister Franziska and myself were calling ‘our bounderies’ an imaginary line that ran from our house, located on a hill above the village, along the road, down to the sea.
      To the left of the road, where people were really poorer than on ‘my side’, was Franziska’s territory. My territory was on the right side of the road.
       “We had a horse-drawn carriage – sometimes only the horses – at our disposal to carry our goods.
       “Sometimes Franziska would have to do really extraordinary work. Indeed, many people suffering from serious tuberculosis or other infectious diseases lived in her territory. In my territory, work seemed somewhat easier, but I had more elderly and persons living alone.
       “This may sound strange nowadays, but in those days there were no publicly-funded social or health programs. The sick were taken care of by their family in most cases; otherwise, when that type of support was missing, we had to step in.
       “In the evening, when we would come back from our tour of visits, often exhausted, we had to wash thoroughly and, according to our mother’s instructions, disinfect our hair with alcohol and change clothes. This was to protect our younger siblings. Now this being said, when we took this disinfection procedure too seriously, our mother would say: ‘All right! This is enough! Charity is the best remedy against risks of infection!’”

       Later on, this compassion for the suffering of others did not decrease. Indeed, while Zita was still reigning Empress she tried to promote various measures of social assistance. Once a widow, this compassion increased even more. In fact, once one has experienced suffering, one is more sensitive and compassionate towards those who suffer. Compassion is a noble feeling of sympathy, in the etymological sense of the word: to suffer with. This is only possible through a certain type of friendship which allows for the sharing of everything with the friend, whether it be good or bad (as long as it is borne and not inflicted). When this becomes a habitus, the virtue also tends to include even those who are not entirely known to us. “December 28, 1987: Her Majesty has received my brother Richard and his wife, who has since died, and their two children. Later, when my sister-in-law was very sick with cancer at the age of 30, Her Majesty always participated in the life of that family and always supported my sister-in-law in her pain by prayer and acts of solidarity.“At the beginning of Advent [1988], Her Majesty sensed that her death was not far. At that time, her interest in world events decreased and she withdrew more and more from the world. However, she still participated, in a very impressive manner, in the calvary being endured by my sister-in-law, for whom there was no hope of survival. Almost every evening she would ask me to call them on the phone and get the latest news. She also had a Holy Mass said for her.”

       To be able to suffer for those one barely knows means that one is very close to suffering in the stead of another person. This vicarious suffering, or expiation, was without a doubt what happened during the agony of the Servant of God Zita: “Her Majesty had taken part in the suffering of my sister-in-law with deep compassion and helped ease her last days”. We were under the impression that Her Majesty had fought not only her own fight in her final weeks, but that she had also borne in many ways the expiation for others.” This attitude is also eucharistic in nature: “Her great respect and her decorum in front of the Blessed Sacrament could only be the fruit of much suffering, through which her faith had grown.

       Her physical pains and the mere realization that her strength was progressively leaving her were, for this woman capable of great energy, difficult to accept at times; but she lived in union with God and offered up everything for her peoples. She had lost her sight, could not move herself and had to admit that, at times, she suffered hallucinations. She did not, however, want to be a burden to others and would even help her nurses with her own care as much as she was able to do it. While still in good health, if she happened to know that someone from St. Johannes-Stift in Zizers (which had become a retreat house for her), was going to die, she would visit them and pray with them.

       Love of Enemies

       The Servant of God was the victim of much defamation, even more than her husband was. She had to endure 63 years (1919-1982) of an exile that was unjust, because she had refused to sign the Act of Renunciation to claims to the throne, that both the first and second Austrian Republics were demanding from any member of the Imperial family who was born before November 1918 and who wanted to enter the country. At last, it was the Austrian government of Bruno Kreisky which authorized the return of the Servant of God in 1982; this authorization was the fruit of negotiations with the king of Spain during the summer holidays of the Austrian chancellor in the Balearic Islands. But this decision was based also on the fact that the High Court of Administrative Justice had recognized that, as a member of the Habsburg family by marriage only, Zita was not subject to the anti-Habsburg exile laws, since she had been born a Bourbon-Parma princess. Indeed, according to the ancient succession laws of the Habsburg dynasty, she had no succession rights for herself. That blatant injustice, which had now been officially recognized as such, did not lead to bitterness or anger on the part of Zita, who nevertheless had suffered greatly from the exile, both in her own flesh as well as her family. Quite on the contrary, this news was the cause of great joy and she was not expecting the kind of triumph that was awaiting her. She had offered up everything to God in order to be able to return to the country she considered her own : “‘Madam, the Lord has not made all difficulties disappear.She answered: True! I am blind, I cannot hear, I cannot walk! The good Lord has taken everything: but we agreed on that. I told Him that He could take everything if I could only go back to Austria. Well, I am now in Austria. We agreed on that.’”

       As a general rule, to avoid being critical of others, “she always saw the good side of people and things – her sense of humor was always charitable.

       In spite of exiles, she never ceased to love and help her peoples. All throughout her life, Zita was concerned with their fate. She was especially happy with the fact that the countries under Communist control were finally liberated towards the end of her life. One of her daughters-in-law noted a correlation between the expiation lived by Empress Zita and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, the dismantling of the Wall started on May 2, 1989, less than six weeks after her death, and it happened exactly at the border joining the two parts of the former Empire, i.e. at the Austro-Hungarian border!