Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?
Shakespeare, Hamlet, II:ii
On July 16, 2011, during the funeral rites of Dr. Otto von Habsburg, the last heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, a curious ceremony took place for what will almost certainly be the last time.
Following the requiem Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, his coffin was carted through the Innere Stadt, the historic old town, to the door of the Capuchin Church of Saint Mary of the Angels. There Ulrich-Walter Lipp, a family friend, used a staff to knock on the door three times.
Just inside the door was the custodian of the Imperial Crypt, Father Gottfried Undesser. “Who desires to enter?”
Lipp, taking on the role of a herald, then began to read Otto of Austria’s numerous titles. Former Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary. Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria. Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow, Duke of Lorraine, of Salzburg, Steyr, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukovina. Und so weiter.
Replied Fr. Gottfried, “We don’t know him!”
Lipp knocked three times again, and with Fr. Gottfried’s query, began to read Dr. von Habsburg’s many secular titles and awards. President and Honorary President of the Pan-European Union. Senior member of the European Parliament. Honorary doctorates from numerous universities; honorary citizen of many communities in Central Europe; member of honorable academies and institutes. And so on.
Again the denial: “We don’t know him!”
Lipp knocked again. This time, in response to Fr. Gottfried’s question, he announced “Otto – ein sterblicher, sündiger Mensch (a mortal, sinful man).” To which Fr. Gottfried replied, opening the doors, “So may he come in.”
Rituals are instructive as much as anything else. Think of the words attributed by Tertullian to the slave riding in the triumphing general’s chariot: “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!” The last boast of the Habsburgs was also the last reminder that, before God, all boasting is useless.
It reminds me of the last scene in Glory, as the body of that Bostonian child of privilege, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), is pitched into a mass grave to lie cheek-to-cheek with Silas Trip (Denzel Washington), the runaway slave who owned nothing but the scars on his back and the anger in his heart. “The great leveler” is a cliché, a formulaic expression … and yet we forget that the most salient fact of truisms is that they’re true.
What really triggered this rumination was a comment R. R. Reno made in passing while discussing Pope Francis’ America interview in First Things:
[Francis] speaks about himself in frank, personal ways that have the ring of authenticity. I don’t mean his comment that “I am a sinner,” which some secular commentators imagine a novel modesty. That sort of remark is Christianity 101 [bold type mine.—ASL]. Instead, I mean: “I am a bit astute … but it is also true I am a bit naïve.” “I am a really, really undisciplined person.”
“Christianity 101” — another cliché embodying an overlooked truth. College intro courses, the kind that get tagged “101” or “201”, lay down foundational concepts, sketch the outlines of the major paradigms, and teach the basic equations and theories of How We Xists See the World. Skip the intro course, and you’re lost in the others … assuming, of course, that you could even audit them without that key first exposure. “Key” is a particularly apt word, for the function of the key is to unlock that which is fastened against the uninitiated and unwary.
What I mean here is that the idea “I, too, am a sinner,” is so basic as to be almost forgotten — pardon me if that reads like a Yogi Berra line. You rarely hear anyone say “I am a sinner” with the same conviction with which they might say “I am a certified public accountant” or “I am a Republican” or “I am an Irish-American”. You can teach a parrot to say “I am a sinner”; the problem is not that we don’t treat it as a fact but that we treat it as just one more of a thousand facts about us of somewhat vague, perhaps trifling significance.
And yet, as the ritual at the Capuchin church reminds us, that we are sinful mortals is one quality in which we find our equality: stripped of the regal ermine, bereft of all the titles, diplomas and honorable associations, Otto von Habsburg was no more or less a sinner than the poorest, most illiterate wretch born out of wedlock who a century ago might have been one of his multitudinous subjects — a fact which Habsburg, an intensely Catholic man, took to heart. Before the blessed Mother we stand, sinful and sorrowful.
Consider the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10-14): The problem with the Pharisee was not that he was wealthy; likely the tax collector was equally rich if not richer. Rather, as Bl. John Paul said in Veritatis Splendor, “The Pharisee … is self-justified, finding some excuse for each of his failings. … The Pharisee represents a ‘self-satisfied’ conscience, under the illusion that it is able to observe the law without the help of grace and convinced that it does not need mercy.” By contrast, “The tax collector might possibly have had some justification for the sins he committed, such as to diminish his responsibility. But his prayer does not dwell on such justifications, but rather on his own unworthiness before God’s infinite holiness: ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Op. cit., 104)
The absolutely mind-bending marvel that the Creator of the Universe loves His creatures, so much so that He would send His only Son to become flesh and dwell among us (cf. John 1:14), to call us into a new relationship in which we become His adoptive children and co-heirs with Christ (Roman 8:16-17), is not due to our merits — not as a species, not as individuals. Man’s insignificance in cosmological terms is no new discovery but ancient revelation: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
Not “Therefore, God loves us,” but “Nevertheless, God loves us.” Even “regardless”.
When we recognize ourselves as sinners, we begin to see ourselves in others whom we formerly regarded as beneath us: in the criminal, in the wastrel, in the beggar holding up the WILL WORK FOR FOOD sign at the intersection, in the roué and the addict and the crack whore. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” is another deep truth spoken so often that we forget how true it is. Only in full awareness of this truth could St. Philip Neri know that, in the absence of Jesus’ special care, he could easily betray him like Judas.
We are called to be merciful to others because we stand in need of mercy ourselves, and we shall receive mercy as we render mercy. (Cf. Matthew 5:7, 6:14-15, 7:12)