The history of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary begins with a sainted king and ends with a blessed king. These two facts map out the height from which we can look at Europe, Central Europe and Hungary – and also at our own lives: as Christians and as Hungarians. There is, of course, a still higher point, to which the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke directs our attention. It runs thus: “Glory to God in the highest”.
In gathering here for today’s service of thanksgiving, the message we convey is that there are people who, through their lives, are able to lift our gaze up towards the loftiest heights. Saint Stephen of Hungary and Blessed Charles IV of Hungary were just such men. These heights are inseparably linked to the depths, part of the interdependence between things above and things below. A country, a nation, a government’s work can only be successful and be “blessed” (here in church we must say this, and at other times we must avow it), if it attends to those who are at the lowest level: to those who have lost – whether or not this is their fault. They are in need, they are in trouble, they have lives of hardship. Noticing them, offering them opportunity, raising them up through the provision and practice of work, education and healing: all this is an essential part of governance. Examples of those who did this are the sainted queens and princesses, and the sainted Hungarian kings – among them Stephen and Charles IV.
In relation to the last Hungarian king, the second half of this Christmas message is just as apt as the first. It runs thus: “and on earth peace, goodwill toward men”. Only a man of goodwill can know true peace, because peace is not simply a truce or a lack of conflict: peace means that things are in their proper place. Reconciliation emerges, and after reconciliation a new life together can start. Today we would call this “social peace”. The following wording might be more appropriate: a dignified life for everyone who is a subject of the crown. It strikes me personally as an important and endearing embodiment of this sense of dignity that, as king one of the first journeys Charles IV made was to the Reformed Great Church of Debrecen.
The Habsburg Monarchy’s mission was to keep the nations of Central Europe together, and to safeguard their place on the European political map. This was to prevent them coming under the yoke of peoples arriving from the East, South or West. What did the monarchy give its peoples as part of this? We need only think of the railway stations and county halls, from the Southern Carpathians to the Adriatic. We need only think of the sense of security which those peoples felt as part a unified power bloc, and the awareness they had of their own value. When it was working well, the Habsburg monarchy was not an empire held together exclusively by the authority of the ruler, or by a technocratic bureaucracy governed by the all-embracing imperative of an ancient, unifying imperial conception; it was one guided by rational consensus. We could say that the Habsburg Monarchy was one long series of compromises, resulting from the recognition of interdependence.
Charles IV was a tragic hero. He was in no position to save the throne of the kings of Hungary, just as he was in no position to save the integrated body of peoples and communities entrusted to him. He was likewise unable to create true peace. His was a lonely voice amidst the roar of armaments: a voice warning a Europe rushing towards ruin that peace terms must be agreed, and that it must live in peace. His painfully short life and work show that history is not simply a catalogue of wars and violence. If, through a misplaced sense of modernity, one succumbs to the temptation to despise the lessons of history, one can be forced into centuries-long blind alleys – a shorter but extremely bloody example being the 20th century. In that century people sought to replace life’s eternal laws with the resonant – but confused – conceptions of a variety of utopias. Europe therefore had to endure the two brutal, totalitarian dictatorships of national socialism and international socialism.
Charles IV was a tragic hero, and the catharsis of his life story was also ours; it was tragic, yet blessed. Life – our life – has a dimension which is more than the success which can be created or the failure suffered. This message can be ours if we want it to be, if we listen to the message of the blessed king: tragic, yet “blessed”.
Today we are witnessing a revival of the Central European idea. We have concluded peace and we are ready to conclude peace with each other, so that, entering into alliance, the nations stricken by communism – by “actually existing socialism” – can occupy their rightful place in the international and European arena. Because today Europe needs rebirth, and a true renaissance. Today the European Union and the European integration project are also in need of transformation. This must not be built on unrealistic utopias, kept on the agenda by the cliquish interests of individuals and lobbies, which render the present impossible and cast doubt on the future. New European cooperation is needed: a better, more democratic cooperation, which will properly serve the will and interests of voters. There is a need for European cooperation which accepts responsibility for both the present and the future: responsibility for survival, for interdependence, and for material, intellectual, spiritual and moral growth.
Today it is the Central European nations which are most vigorously striving to represent the spiritual and intellectual values which created Europe and formed the European Union. And here let us remember another who shared in this historical inheritance. Let us remember a little boy with blond curly hair, who during the coronation of Charles IV behaved with enthusiasm, but dignity: Otto von Habsburg. This Europe is also his inheritance.
We have gathered for a thanksgiving Mass. Indeed we have something to give thanks for in this church, which is at once a symbol of national glory and wealth, of the arts and culture, of faith and survival, and also of a new beginning: in this city, here in Buda, where the foundations of Buda Castle were laid shortly after the end of the Mongol invasion. This church has become a sign that life – the communal life of this nation – has always been stronger than adversity, and that it has the power to not only rebuild ruined walls reduced to rubble, but also the power to fill them with life again.
Today this is how we think of Blessed Charles IV, of his life and his deeds – because we have much to be thankful for, and much to show gratitude for.
Soli Deo Gloria.