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The 21st-century Habsburg mission

Pope Francis with Habsburg children in the Clementine Hall at the Vatican (Severin Meister)

To be born a Habsburg is cool and weird at the same time. It is great to be part of a fantastic family with roots that reach back over 1,000 years. It’s definitely nice to have a cousin to stay with in almost every country in the world. But you are, in a way, under constant surveillance. Classmates turn around in school and stare at you whenever the name is mentioned in history lessons (basically in every century since the 13th). I’m sure you’ll believe me when I say that it’s quite an experience.

And there’s one nagging thought that is somehow always present: what does it mean to be a Habsburg today? What is the set of values that come today with this name when our family hasn’t ruled for almost 100 years?

In a way, that was the question that the family asked itself when we decided to hold our first worldwide gathering in more than 15 years. We decided to return to our (Catholic) roots and make a pilgrimage to Rome, at the end of the Year of Mercy, to meet the Successor of Peter. It proved to be a great decision.

After months of preparation, nearly 300 Habsburgs from all over the world descended on Rome for one intense weekend. The pilgrimage brought together family members who had never met before (except on a private Facebook page that we have used for the past two years), but who have one thing in common: that they belong to this great family. We spent time with each other, and ate pasta, prayed and walked the streets of Rome together.

At our meeting with Pope Francis it turned out that the values that were at the core of our family for centuries are still the ones that will carry us into the future. It all came together for us in the Pope’s speech in the Clementine Hall, with Francis surrounded by scores of Habsburg children, while gently conversing with the none (grandmothers) among us.

The Pope spoke to us about our great ancestor, Blessed Emperor Charles (whose relic we gave him as a present). He noted that Blessed Charles was, first and foremost, a family man. Francis encouraged us to help the world rediscover the value of family in our times. That’s a natural thing for us to do. Yours truly, for instance, is blessed with a lovely wife and six children – a far cry from the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresia, who had 16, but still…

He also asked us to imitate Blessed Charles by helping to build our common home of Europe – something many of us do through our engagement in politics or, in my case, as a diplomat.

Pope Francis encouraged us in the many social activities that we perform, such as promoting peace (as one of our cousins is doing in South Sudan), feeding the poor (several cousins), reaching out to the periphery in everyday life and helping minorities (as the head of our family, Karl, does).

The Pope was very happy that there were priestly vocations in our clan – my brother Paul is the first priest in the family for almost 200 years, and there are others “on the road”, so to speak.

Above all, he asked us to be a beacon of peace in our very troublesome time, as Blessed Charles had done from the first minute of his reign, which began 100 years ago this November. He was the only monarch in Europe who had experienced the horrors of war first-hand and the only one to heed Pope Benedict XV’s appeal for peace. That, in the end, this peace initiative didn’t work out was not his fault. The Pope called us, like Blessed Charles, to promote peace “even at the cost of being misunderstood and ridiculed”.

During our audience we all grasped the great charism of Pope Francis: his instinctive understanding of people, groups and countries and their possibilities in our times. Through the apparatus of the Holy See, Pope Francis is engaged in mediation and peace processes all over the world. Now he has shown us what it means to be a Habsburg today.

We discovered that we don’t have to search outside for meaning, that if we really live our Catholic faith all the elements click together. In that spirit, we are, of course, planning our next family meeting. Let’s see where that will take us.

PS I’d like to take this opportunity to reach out to our English-speaking friends and ask them always to write Habsburg with a “b”. The “Hapsburg” variant has been around since the 17th century, but that doesn’t make it the correct spelling. Thanks.

This article first appeared in the November 18 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here