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Are the Habsburgs Catholic?

As is so often the case, the answer is: “That depends.” While the Habsburg family guaranteed the presence of Catholicism in Europe for nearly a thousand years, there were ups and downs in their “Catholicity.” For example, after the death of Rudolph, archbishop of Olmütz (1788–1831), for almost two hundred years there were no priestly vocations in this “most Catholic of clans” until my own brother Paul became a priest in the 1990s—and not for a lack of young men.

Yet every now and then you discover a family member whose life is a shining example of Catholic faith. I recently learned that Blessed Emperor Karl is not the only Habsburg on the path to sainthood; we also have a sixteenth-century archduchess who is Venerable. The Archduchess Magdalena, born in 1532, was the fourth daughter among the fifteen children of Emperor Ferdinand I. The children were instructed in the Catholic faith from an early age. Magdalena’s mother, Anne of Bohemia and Hungary, entrusted her and several of her sisters to a governess, the devout Countess Thurn. She encouraged the countess to have little Magdalena carried to Holy Mass every day, even as a baby in her cradle. As Magdalena grew, she continued to attend daily Mass with her sisters. She exhibited great piety in her youth and regularly prayed in front of a crucifix that can still be seen today in the Spitalskirche in Innsbruck.

Anne died when Magdalena was only fourteen. From then on, Magdalena became like a mother to her two younger sisters, Margareta and Helena. Magdalena also loved to make pilgrimages to chapels and shrines dedicated to Our Lady, as well as to the site of a eucharistic miracle in Tyrol. Beautiful and bright, Magdalena was fluent in German, Italian, and Latin. This would come in handy later in life.

Magdalena’s father, Ferdinand, intended to marry her off. But Magdalena and her younger sisters wanted to remain unmarried and create a community of pious women. Fortunately, Magdalena had a saint for an ally. In the early 1560s the famous Jesuit preacher Peter Canisius became Magdalena’s confessor and helped her spiritual vocation to mature. In 1563, through his intercession and that of her sister Anna (who had married the Duke of Bavaria), she begged for her father’s permission to found the new community. He twice refused. Undeterred, Magdalena continued to pray and write to Prague, where her father’s court resided. In the end, her father acquiesced. Around this time, the Italian master Arcimboldo painted his now famous portrait of the archduchess.

After her father’s death in 1564, Magdalena and Helena made a vow of virginity. In 1567, Magdalena founded the Haller Stift, a royal convent in the Austrian town of Hall in Tyrol where both aristocratic and bourgeois women could serve God under Jesuit direction. Magdalena worked untiringly to help the poor and orphans in Hall, and to form and educate the youth (in part to combat the influence of Protestant thought).

Magdalena also wrote for her community a rule of life for growth in prayer and holiness. The ladies began an intense prayer regime from the moment they awoke each day. Those who could read prayed the Little Office of Our Lady, while those with lesser reading skills prayed the full Rosary (the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries). They assisted each day at three Masses, one of which was always offered for the poor souls in Purgatory. Magdalena was very strict about arriving on time to Mass; if she was ever late to Mass herself, she would spend the entire time kneeling outside. When they weren’t praying, the women cared for the sick and worked with their hands. Some of the priestly vestments and altar cloths embroidered by Magdalena can still be admired today.

Magdalena at eighteen

But Magdalena’s greatest gift was her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. In the spirit of the Council of Trent, she spent many hours praying before our Lord. Through her personal piety she managed to win back many priests who, in the confusion of the Reformation, had abandoned their vocation. With her help, they returned to the right path.

Not all Habsburgs were pious Catholics. Magdalena’s brother Maximilian II was very tolerant toward Protestantism, stopped going to Holy Mass halfway through his reign, and even renounced Last Rites before his death in 1576. His son Rudolph II dabbled in astrology, alchemy, and esoteric arts in his castle in Prague, and rejected confession as he lay dying. Their politics in matters of faith were catastrophic from a Catholic viewpoint and led to a dramatic situation in the empire. By the mid-sixteenth century, up to 90 percent of the empire’s population had—in name or behavior—become Protestant, including priests and aristocrats. The famous monasteries along the Danube were closing left and right. Something had to be done.

When Papal Legate Jerome de Porcia arrived in Innsbruck on behalf of Pope Gregory XIII to convince the Habsburgs to embark upon the important work of the Counter-Reformation, he knew he could not rely on the lukewarm Emperor Maximilian II. He therefore went directly to Magdalena in Hall. This was the greatest moment in Magdalena’s spiritual life. First, she went to her brother, Archduke Ferdinand. He listened to her and in turn convinced Archduke Carl II, their brother, to take up the cause. With her sister Anna on her side, Magdalena was able to initiate the so-called Munich Conference in October 1579, which brought together archdukes Ferdinand, Carl, Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria, and the Papal Legate Porcia. Together they hammered out a fascinating agreement (Münchner Beschlüsse) that was a step-by-step plan on how to bring the Austrian countries back to the Catholic faith. Without this conference, there would be far fewer Catholics in Austria today.

Magdalena died in 1590. Years later, two more Habsburg nieces followed in her footsteps and entered the same house. The Haller Stift existed for 216 years. Unfortunately, on July 9, 1783, Emperor Joseph II dissolved it and left its church desecrated, as part of his campaign to eradicate monastic life (a total of 1,300 monasteries were suppressed). In the centuries that followed, the convent would eventually become a Sparkasse bank—until 1915, when Blessed Emperor Karl rededicated the monastery and invited a new order of nuns from Belgium—the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—to reside in the same sacred space where his saintly ancestor had lived 350 years before. Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament continues at this convent even today.

When the monastery was rededicated, the initial steps were also taken in Magdalena’s process of beatification. Sadly, this process is presently dormant, but perhaps, with the help of your prayers and with Magdalena's intercession, we might get it moving again. I include a beautiful prayer for her beatification and intercession, translated from the original German, below.

Most kind and gracious Jesus,

You granted your servant Magdalena of Austria the grace to renounce all worldly honor and wealth and to long only for heavenly riches. Inspired and supported by your grace, she worked constantly for the salvation of souls, by fighting false doctrines and persevering in the true faith.

She instructed the young, cared for the poor and the sick, and above all promoted adoration of your true presence in the most holy eucharist. Beloved Jesus, your servant Magdalena assisted so many during her life by her actions and after her death continues to come to the aid of those who invoke her intercession. We beseech you to show forth the power of her intercession by granting miracles to those who call upon her. Hasten the day when your servant Magdalena will be counted among the blessed, and when our suffering fatherland will have a new intercessor, patroness, and protectress. Amen.

Eduard Habsburg is Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See.

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