Romano Guardini: Father of the New Evangelization

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 1950Romano 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.

Christopher Shannon


Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996) and, most recently, Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010).

  • lifeknight

    “Catholics since the Council have largely either retreated into a fortress of unchanging, timeless truth or surrendered to the tyranny of relativism.” Unchanging and timeless truth seem to be the route most Catholics should take! The Liturgy is our most beautiful prayer offered to God and it should remain free of the confines of the modernity imposed by the “dynamic” Church of today. I thank the Lord, the Pope, and the many young priests who have taken the time and effort to reinstitute the Traditional Latin Mass. “Community” is one thing that should be a unification by sacramental attainment, not because we can all jump around on the altar, touch the Sacred Host, or wish everyone “Peace” at the most important moments in Mass. Give us the unity of a sense of the sacred!

    BTW: Why is the photo of this older man —ostensibly a priest— in street clothes? I guess I know the answer.

    • Crisiseditor

      There are pictures of Guardini in his clerical garb but they are small. This larger one was taken for academic purposes. I’ll let readers decide if that was wise or necessary.

    • father robert

      He is not dressed in street clothes, he is dressed proper to his being a priest in Germany. This is the approved garb of priests in Germany.
      I don’t see the benefit of dedicating one’s efforts to re-institute the Traditional Latin Mass, when they do so at the expense of serving God’s people. As a priest, I see many “traditionalists” love the distance the use of Latin puts between the priest and the people. If only the effort was spent towards ministering to people and their needs. Instead we have a lot of cold, aloof priests who are not making the effort to allow people to encounter Christ in their priesthood. There is no demonstrable evidence in Sacred Scripture that Christ even spoke Latin. However, we don know that Pilate was fluent in Latin.
      Ironically, Father Guardini was one of the major influences on Vatican II’s wise decision to translate the Mass into the language of the people.

      • lifeknight

        Dear Fr. Robert,
        Priests ARE separate from the people AND the language of the Church is Latin. Why one who takes Holy Orders wishes to be just one of the crowd is not sensible to me. Consider the sacredness of the Evangelical counsel you receive—you are given more graces and you should use them to help those of us in the pews. We don’t need pals—we need graces!

        The Mass in the vernacular has tainted the universal nature of the Faith. Thank The Lord the priests who take the time and effort to learn the TLM do so to send grace out into the world.

  • poetcomic1

    As I read the same tut-tutting about the ‘stodgy old Thomist days’ I am reminded of writer Rebecca West, “It is of no avail to point out to a son weeping for his mother that she was old and plain.” The dynamism subtly embraced in this article is restless and ‘exciting’ but in the end empty – how many times and in how many ways must this be proved?

  • fidesvisest

    Chris—this article is about as nonsensical as your effort to have Cesar Chavez raised from the dead and knighted as a poster boy for social justice and new evangelization along with a number of Catholic bishops. “ personality within community.”—you make that up Chris?

    Let’s fall back and regroup partner—this story is too fictional and ad hominem for prime time—take a break, think through your commitment and resolve to promote understanding among men. Spend some time with a quality scholar and man of God, a priest—

  • Edie

    Disappointing article, really cannot get behind this.

  • bethannbee

    Unchanging and timeless Truth is an oxymoron, isn’t it?

  • Agnieszka

    Has anybody here actually read Guardini?

    • guest

      Some years ago I read “The Lord” by Romano Guardini. Each chapter is a meditation on an aspect of Jesus Christ. I found it and read it while looking for Joseph Ratzinger’s book on Jesus Christ. I thought it was excellent and similar to the writing of Ratzinger in his book on the Lord.

      • Agnieszka

        I agree.

    • Guest

      I read one or two of his books when I was in the seminary back in 1964-65. Just reading this article on him as the father of the new evangelization ring a bell… and I began to think.

      • Agnieszka

        You might want to re-read them then. He is worthy of re-reading.

  • Glendon Cheshire

    I am trying to understand how serious Catholic academics can view the pandemic of Ressourcement, Phenomenology, and Personalism as a necessary and positive development for the Church when this unholy trinity has overseen the utter decimation of the Church in every conceivable aspect? What’s more disturbing is that Christendom students are now imperiled by a sentiment that would utter:

    “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.”

    It is a shame to see a conservative institution become, in real time, what men used to joke about secular conservatives: “How do you define a conservative? What a liberal was thirty years ago.”

    The unholy trinity of Ressourcement, Personalism and Phenomenology have been unable to achieve a single objective they set out to achieve, even though they were thrust into a leadership position nearly overnight at the hand of good Pope John, and have had a near monopoly on every single degree and licentiate issuing university on the planet since the Council. They grope along, still trying to figure out how to spin the Fathers and Doctors for answers while they poo poo Scholasticism as a tired bunch of traditionalist reactionaries as they crank out more and more books, and teach more and more DREs and lay professionals.

    Although we received a bit of a respite in Pope Benedict, the present Holy Father seems ready to unquestionably resume the Guardinian freedom and love and mutual understanding bandwagon, so there seems to now be no good light at the end of the tunnel for Catholics who just want the conciliar nightmare to be over and dead with.

    As stunning as this might be, perhaps we ought to instead try to go back and find out what’s wrong with Catholics themselves that they think Scholasticism is so awful, and embark on a plan to inject more vim and vigor into “the cold rationalism and narrow moralism that he saw afflicting the Church of his day.”

    Scholasticism actually showed itself quite capable of governing souls and the Church effectively for most of the past 800 years. If this unholy trinity of modern theosophy cannot do its job – defend the Deposit of Faith in an orthodox and hermeneutically consistent fashion, shepherd souls to Heaven and persuade the modern world of its errors and show it the Truth of Church, His Church, and His Sacraments and doctrines, perhaps the Church needs a profound alteration of course and leadership, with a complete scrapping of this “Guardinian” conciliar experiment.

    As everyone accuses Scholasticism, the same things are said. It’s cold. It’s dry. It has all the answers. But this last comment is the real problem with Scholasticism. There is FAR too much money to be made writing books on new theology and teaching new theology, because CHANGE MEANS MONEY. If you are reading books from the last 600 years that have all the answers, there’s no MONEY to be made in that. No magazine subscriptions, or books and books and booklets and pamphlets and CDs and DVDs and textbooks to market and hawk. If Catholicism is pretty much figured out, and was figured out 100 years ago or more, well, there’s no money in that, is there?

    The modern world, for all intents and purposes, is DEAD. Modern financial systems are DEAD. Modernism as a theology is DEAD. Protestantism is DEAD. Communism is DEAD. Socialism is DEAD. Materialism and consumerism are DEAD. And the only non-Catholic religion that isn’t DEAD is Islam, and it is a brooding din of heresy and immorality.

    The naive desire to create an air of love and happiness and understanding amongst all men, like some sort of masonic dream, is dying a slow, sure death. And yet the last three popes almost idolize a man who’s outlook was to continue the attempt to reconcile the Church and the world in some sort of atom-smashing syncretism, with Dr. Shannon seem all too willing to contribute to the Catholic Church’s demise.

    • Susan

      What a very confused post. Every single “ressourcement” theologian (and I personally know a number of them) I know loves the Extraordinary Form. The “phenomenology” they like is NOT the phenomenology of, say Husserl, but the completely different phenomenology of Blessed John Paul II (who wrote many, many brilliant re-visionings of phenomenology) and St. Teresa Benedict (Edith Stein). There is modern “personalism” and then there is totally different CATHOLIC personalism. And so on.

      There is very, VERY little money being made by the ressourcement theologians I know. You may have them mixed up with liberal dissidents, whom they despise.

      And as for Scholasticism, it was NEO-Scholasticism that was objected to by people like Pope Benedict, not AQUINAS.

      Aquinas had issues of his time to deal with. We’ve dealt with them, and HIS brand of scholasticism did a fabulous job, never to be overcome. Yet we can STILL usew Aquinas to deal with the issues of TODAY – if he were alive, do you think he’d still be writing about the Manicheans, or would he, like Benedict and John Paul II and etc. etc. etc. be writing against Heidegger? Do you understand that the ressourcement theologians ARE IN FACT using for example Aquinas’s view of existence to fight back against Heideggerians, etc.? Do you have ANY NOTION how orthodox these theologians are, and how they fight tooth and nail against not only modernity, but also clearly show what is wrong with post-modernity?

  • wc4mitt

    While Ratzinger is familiar w/many theologians during his long years – it is really a stretch to say that Guardini was a ‘mentor’ of his. In fact Ratzinger has described Guardini as being of the melancholy bent whereas Pope Benedict XVI aka Ratzinger is extraordinarily joyful person. Ask anyone who knows him, has been a student of his, or has read, listened, and observed him during his long lived life as a servant of the Church.

  • GrahamUSA

    “nourishing a free personality within a community…” And yet that community is under attack with an hierarchy mostly unable to recognize the fact never mind respond to it. How can the Church address the responsibilities of being a “free personality” regarding the practice of the Faith when bishops, priests, and religious won’t recognize that this now comes at a cost that grows greater with every 21st century “rights movement” and every piece of legislation and judicial decree that theses “movements” and “struggles” produce? Retreating into the abstractions of intellectualism doesn’t seem like much of a response to me. Did Fr. Guardini address the fact that he developed his ideas in a Europe that produced two fascist states of the 20th century? “Community,” “freedom,” “love,” — we have seen so many debris fields in their wake in the past sixty years or so. Perhaps His Holiness Pius X was merely insightful and perhaps prescient as well.

  • accelerator

    ” 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. ”

    This is repeated incessantly in every discussion about Modern Catholicism. I wish it would be explained in very simple terms. You have Guardini on one hand, and Garrigou-Lagrange on the other. Are they in conflict? I find help from both, but man do people love to demonize Scholasticism. I simply do not get it. It’s as if all of Europe forever suffers from an inferiority complex against Modernism, and must apologize for and explain the Church. Sure there is good in the world, but The World is also bad along with the Flesh and the Devil . Original Sin is a downer no matter how you slice it; Judgement and Hell are disconcerting realities, period. To equivocate with lines like “Well, Judas may not be in Hell….” LOL. That is the weak underbelly of the Resourcement crowd. They are naive sentimentalists as well as patristic scholars. I guess the Scholastics are too harsh, but maybe we need both?

  • TheAbaum

    “leaving in its wake the anarchic individualism of liberal capitalism”

    That is quite frankly, silly, something that could only be written by an academic imposing the order of the academy (publish or perish, defending a thesis, tenure and the other curiosities of the academy) on the “real world.

    Whatever the deficiencies of capitalism, it is not anarchic or individualistic (other than the occasional deification of a Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett).

    There are a myriad of rules that govern the conduct of business, some are explicitly stated, some are imposed by the state, some by economics and others are wholly unwritten, but violate them seriously or frequently enough and you aren’t in business longer.

    As to the idea that it is individualistic, one only need to see how we’ve gone from the Rolodex to Linked-In to see how much people nurture relationships in business.

  • Tony

    Everybody: Romano Guardini is one of the most brilliant and perspicacious writers of the last century. Please read The End of the Modern World. READ his Spirit of the Liturgy. Read him. Read him, alongside Dietrich von Hildebrand …

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  • Disciple

    John Paul II completed two doctoral dissertations, a theological one and a philosophical one. The First (theology) was written under Garrigou-Lagrange at the Angelicum, “Fatih according to St. John of the Cross,” (1950) and the second was the phenomenological (philosophy) one based on Scheler (1953). The list of his pre-pontifical writings can be found at the EWTN website.

  • praedikant

    Lord Jesus Christ

    You have called Your servant
    Romano Guardini to be an inspirational teacher and educator of young people and
    thereby to win them for the Church.

    You have blessed him with
    clarity of thought and appropriateness of language so that he may reveal Your
    truth to many.

    You have kept him on the straight path in adversity, so that he would be an
    example to countless people, and also to Christian resistance in a totalitarian

    You have given him strength
    in his struggle with melancholy and diverse sorrows.

    You have distinguished him
    with the gift of loyal friendship.

    You have combined his work
    as a priest and preacher, not least to those to whom the Church is irrelevant,
    with considerable graces.

    We beseech You:

    Give him to us to venerate,

    so that people today may recognise the holiness of Your Church,

    that young people too may
    burn with zeal for You,

    that those who suffer in
    soul and body may find consolation through his example, and that the Holiness
    of God may be recognised anew.

    Glory be to the Father, and
    to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,

    now and always and for all