As Benedict XVI prepared to step down from his pontificate, he offered the following words to those who feared that his resignation marked a dangerous departure from tradition: “The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ.” These words were not his own, but rather those of his intellectual mentor, Romano Guardini (1885-1968). Much of Benedict’s writing has been, at least implicitly, a long meditation on the work of Guardini. In some cases, the connection has been more explicit: Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000) is in many ways an updating of Guardini’s own 1918 work, also titled The Spirit of the Liturgy. That original work inspired a dialogue between Guardini and the phenomenologist Max Scheler, whom Karol Wojtyla would make the subject of his doctoral dissertation under Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange. As a student in Munich during the 1980s, Jorge Mario Bergoglio considered writing his dissertation on Guardini himself; more recently, as Pope Francis, he invoked the legacy of Guardini in some of his earliest public addresses of his pontificate.
Who is this man who has had such a profound influence on our last three popes? How are we to understand his vision of the Church as a dynamic, living reality when such an understanding has so often served as a rationale for rejecting traditional understandings of Church doctrine? Is not the turn to phenomenology and other philosophies of experience responsible for what Pope Benedict himself has called the “tyranny of relativism”? Guardini’s work had a profound influence on the Second Vatican Council and can still induce anxiety among the kind of traditionalist who views any departure from mid-century Thomism as apostasy. His distance from the dominant Thomism of his day was, however, a measure of his proximity to an older Augustinian tradition that seemed to offer the possibility of a more fruitful engagement with the modern world. With his emphasis on the need for an intimate encounter with the person of Christ and his openness to seeing the good in the modern world outside of the Church, Guardini deserves to be considered among the earliest fathers of the New Evangelization.
Romano Guardini was born in 1885 in Verona, Italy. Soon after his birth, his family moved to the city of Mainz, Germany, where his father went to pursue his career as an import/export merchant. Guardini grew up in a faithful, if not excessively devout, Catholic home. This merely conventional Catholic upbringing left him unable to respond to the intellectual challenges posed by the rampant agnosticism and atheism he encountered as a young man attending the University of Munich. Guardini soon began to question his own faith and underwent a period of spiritual crisis that he would later compare to that of St. Augustine. Guardini’s tolle lege moment came while on vacation from university at his parent’s home in Mainz while on vacation from university. The scripture passage that drew him out of his confusion was Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Apart from all of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God stood the primary, existential submission of the will:
It became clear to me that there exists a law according to which persons who “find their life,” that is, remain in themselves and accept as valid only what immediately enlightens them, lose their individuality. If they want to reach the truth and attain the truth in their very selves, then they must abandon themselves….
Even as Guardini recognized the submission as a means to true freedom, he also realized the dangers of a freedom conceived apart from any communal authority; his personal conversion came with a renewed appreciation for the necessity of the Church as an objective referent giving meaning and order to freedom.
After resolving his crisis of faith, Guardini returned to his secular studies, but soon felt called to the priesthood, eventually receiving holy orders on May 28, 1910. Over the next ten years, he held various parish assignments in Mainz as he pursued the degrees necessary to qualify him to teach in the German university system. Never questioning the authority of the Church in matters of doctrine, Guardini would nonetheless devote his priestly and scholarly life to moving beyond narrowly juridical notions of the Church in favor of a fuller appreciation of the Church as the font of freedom and love.
Sadly, in the wake of Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism in 1907, words like freedom and love had acquired the odor of heresy. Guardini chafed under the rigid discipline of the seminary at Mainz; the textbook Thomism devised as a bulwark against the errors of Modernism left him cold. His decision to explore the Platonic/Augustinian tradition of the Church by writing his thesis on St. Bonaventure (rather than St. Thomas) brought him into conflict with his clerical superiors and eventually prevented him from securing a teaching position at the diocesan seminary.
Guardini’s search for a way to bring freedom, love and unity together within the Church eventually led him to the liturgical movement. The movement began as part of the renewal of Benedictine monastic life in nineteenth-century France. By the early twentieth century, Pius X sought to direct the movement outward to the parishes in the service of cultivating a more conscious, active participation of the laity at Mass. In his classic The Spirit of the Liturgy, Guardini presented the experience of the liturgy as an antidote to the cold rationalism and narrow moralism that he saw afflicting the Church of his day. Against these, Guardini sees in the spirit of the liturgy a spirit of playfulness: “The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity; it must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with saying and thoughts and gestures, without always immediately asking ‘why?’ and ‘wherefore?’” The liturgy is, to be sure, serious play, with set rules and complex symbols, but these are all in service of at deeper experience of God. This experience, while personal, is never private. Guardini feared that the popular devotions that had energized the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century had fostered a spiritual individualism in which prayer had become simply a tool for accruing merit in the quest for individual salvation. Against this, the spirit of the liturgy is above all a spirit of community, uniting the faithful with each other even as it unites them to God.
Guardini would develop this theme of community more fully in his next major work, The Church and the Catholic (1922). Based on a series of lectures delivered to a meeting of the Catholic Academic Association, the book nonetheless addressed a problem facing the broader Western world: the absence of community. Modernity had destroyed the bonds of traditional society and marginalized the Church as a source of social unity, leaving in its wake the anarchic individualism of liberal capitalism. Communism offered an alternative to this anarchy, but only at the expense of eliminating individual freedom. Against the extremes of Communism and individualism, Guardini held up the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ, an organic union of persons that made possible the full flourishing of the “free personality,” which is “the presupposition of all true community.” Guardini’s Catholic message struck a chord with the non-Catholic world, earning him the chair of Philosophy of Religion and Catholic Weltanschauung at the very Protestant, and still largely anti-Catholic, University of Berlin.
Guardini’s academic position at a non-Catholic university put him in an unusual position with respect to the intellectual life of the Church. His ideas on community and liturgy would find papal approbation in Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis (1943) and Mediator Dei (1947), yet his fellow Catholic academics largely ignored him. He did not speak the language of Thomism and generally avoided the axe-grinding, triumphalist apologetics that were the stuff of mainstream Catholic “engagement” with the world. His lectures did, however, attract some of the brightest young minds of his day, including Josef Pieper, Hans Urs von Balthasaar and Hannah Arendt. In reaching out to the world, Guardini looked for theological themes in places where Thomists feared to tread—namely modern literature and Eastern religions. In these explorations, Guardini often found himself perceived as too “liberal” for mainstream Catholics and too Catholic for mainstream secularists. In writing on non-Catholic figures such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Eduard Mörike and Rainer Maria Rilke, Guardini was able to express an appreciation for the depth and beauty of their accounts of human experience, yet still hold them accountable to Catholic truth. Similarly, at a time when so many intellectuals were abandoning Christianity for Eastern religions, Guardini saw the need to acknowledge the truth and goodness in Buddhism while insisting on the absolute uniqueness of Christianity. Jesus Christ is not a wise man who points us to the truth; He is the Truth. Christianity is not based primarily on a set of dogmas, but on the person of Jesus Christ.
Guardini’s vision of Catholicism and its relation to the modern world won him many accolades from the non-Catholic world. Though hardly a “representative” figure of early-twentieth century Catholic theology, his writings, along with those of the French ressourcement movement, had a profound effect on shaping the vision of the Second Vatican Council. Like so many of those French theologians, Guardini recoiled at the early efforts to implement the vision of the Council, most especially the liturgical innovations that worked directly against his understanding of the spirit of the liturgy. Those who directed the life of the Church in the decades following the Council were bad Thomists without being good Augustinians. It would take good Augustinians and careful readers of Guardini such as Josef Ratzinger to help set the Church back on the right path.
This path, however, involves neither a return to the pre-Vatican II Church nor a “conservative” interpretation of the Council. Guardini, Ratzinger, Wojtyla and Bergoglio have all in various ways sought to fashion a Catholic modernity, a new Catholicism appropriate to our time yet faithful to tradition. Catholics since the Council have largely either retreated into a fortress of unchanging, timeless truth or surrendered to the tyranny of relativism. Our Church offers us another way to think about living in time and embracing historical particularity. No one age can embody the entire truth of the faith. God gives us each age as a gift embodying the particular aspect of the faith most needed at a particular time. Romano Guardini was one of the first to offer to the modern world a vision of the Church nurturing the flourishing of free personality within community. If secular modernity has yet to recognize this vision, it is perhaps because Catholics themselves have yet to embrace it.