February 17, 1885 - October 1, 1968
February 17, 1885 - October 1, 1968
Romano Guardini was born on February 17, 1885, in Verona. His father was an importer of eggs and poultry. When Romano was one year old, the family moved to Mainz, Germany, a city whose origins go back to early Roman times. His childhood was an unhappy one. His mother kept the children virtually captive in their home.
His youth was a time of inner tumult, uncertainty about his vocation and painful attacks of depression. In 1903 Guardini graduated from the gymnasium in Mainz and began the study of chemistry at the University of Tubingen. Depressed, he left the university after two semesters and in 1904 enrolled at the University of Munich for the study of economics.
In 1905, he had a deep crisis of faith from which he emerged with the decision to study theology at Freiburg in Breisgau. But depression again took hold, to such a degree that he considered suicide. Still, he stuck to his decision, and from then on he knew that the priesthood was his only and true vocation.
He continued his theological studies in Tubingen and during that time he had his first exposure to true liturgy at the Abbey of Beuron, whose monks were early pioneers of liturgical renewal. Liturgy from then on became a lifelong interest.
In 1910, he was ordained. The next 13 years he served as associate pastor in Heppenheim, Darmstadt, Worms and Mainz. During this period he continued his studies at Freiburg and received his doctorate in theology with a dissertation on the teaching of St. Bonaventure on salvation.
From 1916 to 1918 Guardini served in the military as a hospital orderly, but also directed Juventus, a Catholic organization of students of higher education.
His work with Juventus was a precursor to his later involvement in the Quickborn movement, a youth movement.
The German youth movement in the beginning of the 20th century rebelled against the world of adults — against their untrustworthy conventions, their superficial amusements, against orders unjustified by any true authority, against a sexual morality that confused external civility with purity and who hid their helplessness behind a deliberate attitude of ignorance, and against the urbanization of an existence alienated from nature.
What was at stake for them was the acquisition or restitution of true relationships between person and person beyond the barriers of class and gender. These wandering singers of songs wanted to be poor so that they could join in living the beauty of their youth among the joys and burdens of the open sky.
Guardini let himself be seized by the mental and spiritual beauty of this youth and at the same time recognized the danger to which they were exposed: the threatened waste of their energy in an anarchic effort and, consequently, their vulnerability to intellectual seduction and incapacity to find their way back into the life of active adulthood. Out of love and sorrow the thought arose in him to subject this fermenting youth to the holy discipline of the church, not in order to gag their freedom, but to save them — to show these young people who so resolutely rebelled against "the old" (yet which was a rather modern "old") the never-aging youth of the oldest truths.
When Guardini was associate pastor at Mainz, he acquired a friendship with Ildefons Herwegen, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach, which was the center for liturgical renewal in Germany.
When Guardini showed the abbot a manuscript containing lectures he had given in Mainz, the abbot was so impressed that it became the first in a series under the title "The Spirit of the Liturgy." It appeared as a book in 1918 and immediately became the best-seller in Germany and beyond.
In 1922, the University of Berlin was searching for someone qualified to assume a newly founded chair of Philosophy of Religion and Catholic Weltanschauung (worldview), a position established at the insistence of the politically influential Catholic Center Party. Guardini accepted the chair. In Berlin he found himself shunned by the faculty and holding a chair unadvertised to the students. But his reputation as a teacher spread rapidly, and it was not long before his lecture hall was filled to capacity. He had come into his own.
The city would become Guardini's home for 20 years.
Germany at this time was reeling under the crushing burden of the Treaty of Versailles, which had imposed on it hundreds of billions of dollars in war reparations, had split off one-eight of its territory with a population of seven million and had given to France for 15 years its most productive industrial region, the Saarland. Equally disastrous, the governing coalition was under relentless attack from the radical left — the Communists and the radical Socialists — and from the radical right — the ultrnationalists and the National Socialists, the Nazis. More important for our theme, the war had dealt a devastating blow to a western world that still rested on an essentially Christian framework of values and ushered in the era of nihilism, existentialism and relativism.
The difficulty for Guardini was to develop themes for his lectures that would be meaningful for an audience living under these conditions. His advantage was that the Catholic church, because of the powerful influence of the Center Party, flourished. Moreover, Berlin under the Weimar Republic had become the cultural center of Europe in art, music, theater, the cinema and literature, giving him points of contact for his lectures that corresponded to his own interest in the arts. After some experimentation he focused his themes on the main issues of Christian ethics and the New Testament, and gradually turned to the Christian interpretation of literary masterpiece by writers such as St. Augustine, Dante, Kiekegaard, Pascal and Holderlin. He amplified his lectures at the university with lectures and workshops before different audiences at such places as the Jesuit church of St. Canisius. Whatever time he could spare he spent directing the Catholic youth movement Quickborn ("Fountain of Youth"), whose headquarters was the medieval castle of Rothenfels on the river Main; he also served the movement's journal Schildgenossen ("Comrades of the Shield"), a national Catholic periodical devoted to theological, liturgical and cultural subjects.
As a result, at Quickborn's local and national gatherings young people discussed theater, art and literature, played musical instruments and joined in retreats and pilgrimages to holy shrines. At Burg Rothenfels young men and women form all corners of Germany learned fold dances and folk songs, acted in the plays of Shakespeare and even performed puppet shows. The also participated in informal Masses at which they sang hymns in German instead of Latin, discussed the scriptural readings for the day and stood around the altar at which the priest faced the people. Further, they were introduced to Guardini's vision of a "new Europe" that would transcend national and ethnic boundaries and be founded on the West's tradition of humanism.
My first personal personal encounter with Guardini [of Heinz Kuehn] occurred at the Student's Chapel, St. Benedict, in Berlin Charlottenburg. The chapel was a small, unadorned room located in the semi-basement of an apartment building. It had few rows of chairs, a small, table-like, free-standing altar, and the only natural light came from a couple of oblong windows under its ceiling on the level of the street . . . What drew me and the students to Guardini's Mass was simply this: He was a person who by his words and actions drew us into a world where the sacred became convincingly and literally tangible. His mere appearance radiated something for which I have no better word than luminous; in his presence one fell silent and became all attention. With him on the altar, the sacred table became the center of the universe. But was it a universe of fantasy? Of escape? Of religious sentiment that did not survive for 24 hours? Or was it the center of our universe, our daily reality? . . . And courage to face, to endure and to resist a world in which the forces of evil, Satan and his demons, were running rampart, in that small chapel in the presence of a man whose words and actions made truth appear to us as a physical presence. The impact of the sacred action was all the more profound because Guardini celebrated the Mass facing the people. It was a missa recitata, a Mass at which people responded aloud to the presider's prayers, something still new in those days, and we, the congregation, were the altar boys and girls answering his invitation to prayer.
In his Berichte uber mein Leben, Guardini refers to St. Benedict Chapel: What I wanted to do (in the chapel) from the very beginning, was this: "to make the truth glow. Truth is power, provided you don't demand an immediate effect, but rather have patience and expect that it will take time (before the results) . . . If anywhere, then here, lack of purpose is the greatest power. I have often had that experience. Sometimes, especially in the last years, I had a sense that the truth was standing in space like a living body."
I learned only much later that Guardini's homilies in the chapel were to serve as the first draft of his most popular book, The Lord. . . . During those 30 to 40 minutes he gave us the sustenance that nourished us for another week of uncertainty, danger and fear, the strength to face Satan and his demons for another week, and that a mere evocation of his presence at the altar and of his words brought light even into our darkest moments of hopelessness or despair.
In 1939 the Nazis dismissed Guardini from the university, dissolved the Quickborn movement and closed its headquarters, Burg Rothenfels. He stayed in Berlin for another four years, writing and giving workshops before various Catholic audiences. Some of his most important, popular and enduring books were published during his Berlin years: The Church and the Catholic, Letters from Lake Como, Sacred Signs, The Lord, The World and the Person, and Meditations Before Mass.
My last personal encounter with Romano Guardini occurred at the University of Tubingen, where he had assumed the chair of Philosophy of Religion and Christian Weltanschauung after the war had ended in 1945.
Although his innate shyness kept him from being a good speaker, and although he tended to overreact to the slightest disturbance in the lecture hall, he attracted an overflowing audience of students and faculty of virtually all disciplines. The secret to his popularity was simple: Here was a man who, after Europe's bloodiest and most turbulent era, penetrated in his lectures to the essence of a truly Christian vision of the world. He did not lecture in terms of abstract theological and philosophical principles, but in terms of the stark and often violent realities of our world, connecting them with the traditions of the western world in religion, art, literature and architecture, and persuasively demonstrating the life-giving validity of the old, yet ever-young, verities of Christianity for a generation trying to come to terms with the Second World War and its consequences.
In 1948, Guardini accepted the specially created chair of Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Christian Weltanschauung at the University of Munich and remained in this position until 1963m when he was succeeded by Karl Rahner. He remained as active, influential and popular in his lectures and as prolific in his writings as he had been during his years in Berlin and Tubingen.
It was during his Munich years that he wrote, among other books, The End of the Modern World, Power and Responsibility and The Church of the Lord.
By the time Guardini died in 1968 at the age of 83, he had written at least 60 books and 100 articles, an output the Catholic Academy in Bavaria is now assembling and publishing as Guardini's collected works.
Tribute from the book: The Essential Guardini by Heinz R. Kuehn, © 1997 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications. 1-800-933-1800. www.ltp.org All rights reserved. Used with permission.