Romano Guardini: To Make the Truth Glow

Another scrap of information about the new Pope Francis, the  man who has suddenly placed Argentina in the forefront of  locations. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio travelled to Germany to study theology, he wanted at one point to do a dissertation on Romano Guardini. When I read this I went around my cluttered bookshelves  taking out copies of Guardini’s writings to refresh my memory. Time to do some rereading.

Romano Guardini was born on February 17, 1885, in Verona, Italy.  When Romano was a year old, the family moved to Mainz, Germany and he spent an unhappy childhood with a troubled mother.

As a young man he worried about his vocation and suffered severe depression. In 1903 Guardini graduated from the gymnasium in Mainz and began to study 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. 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 he was destined to be a priest.

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 passion.

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. Young people were the future.

He befriended Ildefons Herwegen, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach, which was the center for liturgical renewal in Germany. Guardini’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy.” appeared in 1918 and immediately became a best-seller in Germany and beyond. For Guardini, the liturgy would be  pre-eminently the place of encounter with Christ.

Guardini: 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.

In 1922, the University of Berlin was searching for someone qualified to assume a newly founded chair of Philosophy of Religion. Guardini accepted the chair and stayed in Berlin for 20 years. There he developed his thinking on Christian ethics and the New Testament, and gradually turned to the Christian interpretation of literary classics by St. Augustine, Dante, Kiekegaard, Pascal and Holderlin.  In his spare time he helped direct the Catholic youth movement Quickborn (“Fountain of Youth”), whose headquarters was the medieval castle of Rothenfels on the River Main. His pastoral work was  key to his understanding of faith.

At Burg Rothenfels young men and women learned folk dances and singing, acted in the plays of Shakespeare and even performed puppet shows. They 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. It was heady stuff. 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.

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 and ome of his most important, popular and enduring books were published during this  difficult time: The Church and the Catholic, Letters from Lake Como, Sacred Signs, The Lord, The World and the Person, and Meditations Before Mass. More and more for  Guardini, the essence of Christianity was not an idea, nor a system of thought, nor a plan of action. The essence of Christianity was and  is a person: Jesus Christ Himself.


And through the dark years of war, persecution, defeat and the rebuilding of Germany, Guardini worked to express the meaning and implications of forgiveness as a Christian:

If it is you he has injured, you must not simply ignore him in a mood of irritated moral superiority, but must go to him and do everything possible to make him understand and be willing to clear things up.  If you come to him condescendingly, or pedantically, or in the role of the ethically superior, he will only consider you presumptuous.  His opposition to your claims will entrench itself against the real injustice of your Pharasaic attitude, and the end will be worse than the beginning.  Therefore, if you wish to obey Christ, you must free yourself of all ‘righteous’ indignation. Only if you forgive entirely, can you contact the true self of the other, whom his own rebelliousness is holding back.  If you can reach this better self, you have a good chance of being heard, and of winning your brother.  This then is the great doctrine of forgiveness which Christ insists as one of the fundamentals of his message.

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 1963. Here he wrote, among other books, The End of the Modern World, Power and Responsibility and The Church of the Lord. Guardini died in 1968 at the age of 83

The influence of Guardini was felt most strongly by Pope Benedict XVI  who would use  Guardini’s  reasoning on ecclesiology to declare in 1970: “I am in the Church for the same reasons why I am a Christian: because one cannot believe on one’s own. One can be Christian only in the Church, not alongside it.”


The mystery of that personal encounter. As a convert I was given  a copy of Guardini’s The Lord and read it over and over again. Guardini too was a convert and  gave a moving and mysterious account of his own experience of coming to God:


Then came a turning point.  What had drawn me away from faith had not been real reasons against it, but the fact that the reasons for it no longer spoke to me.  Faith as a conscious act had grown ever weaker and had finally died out.  Still, I think that one’s unconscious relation to the reality of Christ is never entirely sundered.  It was also important that I held no grudge against the Church or against any ecclesial personality, and that the hardship of a scrupulous conscience, which was then closely bound up with the Church’s education, had never turned into a rebellion.  The religious [dimension] was becoming stronger–now from within.  And that led me immediately, as it happened, to draw close to the Christian faith.


I can no longer say which particular deliberations had contributed to this; however, an awareness came over me, which shaped and aligned the whole inner event, and which has remained for me ever since the authentic key to faith.  I remember like yesterday the hour when this awareness became decision.  It was in my little attic room on Gonsenheimer Strasse.  Karl Neundörfer and I had just spoken about the questions that exercised us both, and my last word went: “Everything will come down to the statement: ‘Whoever holds on to his soul will lose it, but whoever gives it away will gain it’.”  My interpretation, based in this translation of Mt. 10:39, says what it all came down to for me.  It had gradually become clear to me that a law existed, according to which a person—when he “holds on to his soul,” that is, when he remains in himself and accepts as valid only what immediately illumines him—loses his authenticity.  If he wants to arrive at the Truth and in the Truth arrive at his true self, then he must let go of himself.  This insight had surely had its precursors, though they escape me now.  Upon hearing these words Karl Neundörfer retired to the adjacent room, from which a door opened onto a balcony.  I sat in front of my table, and the reflection progressed: “To give my soul away—but to whom?  Who is in the position to require it from me?  So to require it that, in the requiring, it would not again be I who lay hold of it?  Not simply ‘God.’  For whenever a person wants to deal only with God, then he says ‘God’ but means himself.  There must also be an objective authority [Instanz], which can draw out my answer from self-assertion’s every refuge and hide-out.  But there is only one such entity: the Catholic Church in her authority and concreteness [Präzision].  The question of holding on or letting go is decided ultimately not before God, but before the Church.”  It struck me as if I carried everything—literally “everything”, my whole existence—in my hands, in a scale at perfect balance: “I can let it fall to the right or to the left.  I can hold on to me soul our give it away…”  And then I let the scale sink to the right.  The moment was completely calm.  There was neither agitation, nor radiance, nor experience of any kind.  It was just a completely clear insight: “So it is”—and the imperceptibly gentle movement—“so it should be!”  Then I went out to my friend and told him.





romano guardini



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