Peter Anthony on the lessons for society of two Kings called Charles
Almighty God, Lord of Lords and King of Kings, in Your infinite fatherly love you are keeping watch over the fate of men and nations. You called Your servant, Charles, to serve as a father to his peoples in difficult times and to promote peace with all his strength. By sacrificing his life, he sealed his willingness to fulfill Your holy will. Grant us the grace, with his intercession, to follow his example and serve the true cause of peace, which we find in the faithful fulfillment of Your holy will. We ask this through him, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
This prayer celebrates a remarkable man. Ascending the throne in his twenties, he lived through unimaginably turbulent times. He endured political trials, rebellion, and the unspeakable ravages of war. He was desperate to preserve peace, justice, and true religion; and he foresaw the tyranny that ensues when demagogues claiming revolution in the name of the people get their hands on unfettered power. His defence of that conviction cost him his throne. Yet through all that turmoil, those around him noted an extraordinary loving respect and charity with which he treated all those he knew and met. They noticed his personal piety, and his love of the poor and needy. Above all they noticed his unshakable conviction that the role given him as sovereign was nothing less than a divine vocation bestowed by God. It was not for him to shirk or side-step, but a cross for him to embrace and take up in order to follow his Lord and Master. And so closely did his daily walk with God bring him to Christ that after his death there was a strong sense, in a wide range of enemies and friends alike, that here in this man’s life they had encountered a saint – a saint who now rested with God, and made intercession for the people he had led: people who after his death were plunged into even grater chaos, greater tyranny, and greater despair than they had known whilst he was alive.
But the Charles I am talking about, and the prayer with which I began is talking about, is not Charles Stuart. The man I am talking about is Blessed Charles Habsburg, the last Emperor of Austria. The cause for his beatification and canonisation has become a focus of great interest and debate in Austria. Pundits have been puzzled as to why the life this shy, quiet, rather unprepossessing man has proven to be of such great interest to youngsters who have never known what it is like to live under a monarchy. His story has prompted discussion in younger generations about the nature of government and the rights of the people, the strengths and shortcomings of democracy, and whether retaining the Habsburgs might have prevented Austria being drawn into the catastrophe of Nazism.
Charles of Austria was not executed for his faith as Charles Stuart was; but I think there are parallels between these two men, born centuries apart, which might help today to reflect on their shared vocation. We see in the life of both men the fundamental assertion that they had been chosen to exercise earthly power by God. Charles Stuart knew his vocation was a divine gift. If he exercised any sovereignty on behalf of his people, it came from God. Those entrusted with the government of human society exercise a sovereignty which is not ultimately bestowed by elections or parliaments, constitutions or referendums, let alone by revolution and war. It is first and foremost a reflection of God’s sovereignty over His creation. In our secularized, post-modern, democratised West a King is a deeply countercultural figure – a monarch shows that beyond political power, and above human law lies a greater power and a higher law. A king reveals a truth it is dangerous to forget. That truth is this: we might think we control our own destiny and that human society is ours to form and shape as we want, but ultimately that is a fraud and a lie. Our very existence – human society – is a gift from God, who calls us to enjoy it in the knowledge that we are his beloved sons and daughters.
All across Europe, certainly in Austria and in the United Kingdom, there has been much debate over the past year about where true sovereignty in the political process lies. In Austria, a new generation of younger minds is asking the question of which their parents would never have dreamed: Is there something in the rule of a good monarch that tells us what true virtue and justice and peace looks like, in a way that the structures of globalized secular democracy cannot?
If this is happening in Austria, with their saintly Emperor Charles, then there is surely an opportunity for us in this country who venerate our own saintly King Charles. It may not be possible to say every political action of Charles Stuart was wise or advisable. But in one matter he had an unshakable faith – that above him and above all human society reigned a higher King, to whom all allegiance is due. And when a society forgets that, and has no church rooted in apostolic tradition to guide it, monstrous tyranny becomes more likely. A tyranny in which all claims to truth are equal, in which human life is less valued, and in which government falls into the hands of the powerful and the rich to manipulate how they see fit. That is what Saint Charles of England died to save us from – and from heaven he prays that in our days we might strive to preserve a just and free society, which sees its truest liberty in serving and worshipping the One who created it.
The Revd Dr Peter Anthony is Priest-in-Charge of St Benet’s, Kentish Town, London. This is an edited version of a homily preached at High Mass at the Banqueting House on 30 January, under the auspices of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. www.skcm.org.