VIENNA, Austria (CNA) — Otto von Habsburg, a Catholic leader for a unified Europe and heir to the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, died July 4 at the age of 98. Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino remembered him as one of the 20th century’s “greatest defenders” of the Catholic faith and human dignity.
“Even well into his 90s, Otto von Habsburg campaigned tirelessly to uphold Europe’s Christian values and the sanctity of all human life,” the cardinal said in a statement from the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute.
“Otto von Habsburg’s father, (Emperor) Blessed Karl of Austria [who tried to bring an end to World War I and was beatified in 2004], instilled in him from an early age that the office of a ruler is one of holy service and selfless sacrifice for the good of the peoples entrusted to him. It was a philosophy that would influence him all his life. He will be greatly missed.”
Cardinal Martino, who is the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, noted that the dynastic leader’s “uncompromising position” on human dignity was evident in his agreement to become a patron of the Dignitas Humanae Institute despite his increasing frailty.
The organization advocates a universal declaration which bases this dignity on man’s creation in the image and likeness of God.
In 2007 Habsburg argued that lobbyists should examine the effective tactics of the “anti-family lobby” and use them to promote the protection of the most vulnerable, the cardinal recalled.
“Our thoughts and prayers at this time are turned towards the repose of Otto’s soul, the consolation of his family, and loss of the people of Austria; and we trust in the mercy of God that today this holy, humble man beholds the face of Jesus Christ, now into eternity,” the cardinal said.
Habsburg died at his villa in Poecking in southern Germany, where he had lived since the 1950s, with his seven children nearby, The Associated Press reported.
Although he was a witness to the dismantling of his family’s empire, he used his influence in an unsuccessful struggle to keep the Nazis from annexing Austria before World War II. He also opposed Soviet communism and worked for the opening of the Iron Curtain in the decades after the war.
Cardinal Martino said Habsburg was “particularly disturbed” by the rise of the major totalitarian ideologies and fought against both National Socialism and International Socialism “at significant risk to his own life.”
He was a member of the European Parliament for the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union in southern Germany. He also served as president of the Pan-European League from 1979 to 1999, using his position to briefly open the border between Austria and Hungary to allow 600 East Germans to flee communism in 1989, months before the epochal fall of the Berlin Wall.
He is also credited with helping about 15,000 Austrians, including many Jews, escape the Nazis during World War II.
“My father was a towering personality,” Habsburg’s oldest son, Karl Habsburg-Lothringen, told the Austria Press Agency. “With him we lose a great European who has influenced everything we do today beyond measure.”
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso praised Habsburg as “a great European … who gave an important impetus to the European project throughout his rich life.”
“I will particularly remember his strong stance against all forms of totalitarianism and on Europe’s fundamental values,” Barroso said in a statement.
Habsburg’s wife, Regina, died last year. Their eldest son has officially headed the House of Habsburg since 2007.
Habsburg renounced all claims to the Austrian throne in 1961, five years before the Austrian government repealed the laws banning all members of the former imperial family from entering the country.
His body was to be held in the St. Ulrich Church in Poecking for three days for people to pay their respects. His funeral will take place in Vienna on July 16. Requiems are also planned for Poecking, Munich, Mariazell, Vienna and Budapest.
He will be buried in the imperial crypt in Vienna beneath the capital city’s Capuchin church. An aide to Habsburg’s son Georg told the AP that his heart will be buried in the Benedictine Abbey in Pannonhalma in central Hungary.