Pope Francis and Romano Guardini: The Next Stage of Liturgical Renewal

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s new apostolic letter on liturgical formation is highly dependent on Guardini’s insights.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass April 3 outside the St. Publius parish church at Piazzale dei Granai in Floriana, Valletta, Malta.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass April 3 outside the St. Publius parish church at Piazzale dei Granai in Floriana, Valletta, Malta. (photo: Matthew Mirabelli / AFP via Getty Images)

In the days since Pope Francis’ promulgation of Desiderio Desideravi — his apostolic letter on liturgical formation — detractors have bemoaned yet another exhortation to undertake liturgical formation. For years, people have been saying that we need liturgical education: If people only understood the rites, the logic went, then the liturgical renewal promised by the Second Vatican Council would unfold.  

Of course, adherents to the pre-conciliar liturgy have discerned that it is not education that is the problem but the Novus Ordo itself. Only a return to the pre-conciliar liturgical rites, a reform more attuned to Sacrosanctum Concilium and less to the Roman Missals that followed it, will be formative of the Church in late modernity. This is the position that Pope Francis rejects.   

I should underline that this is also not my position. While I believe scholarship around the liturgical reforms should continue — the kind of scholarship that may one day lead to changes within the Novus Ordo — I agree with Pope Francis that endless liturgical reform is not the way forward. Such reform fails to undertake the holistic formation of the human person that the Council desired, a liturgical way of beholding and acting. 

Pope Francis’ argument in Desiderio Desideravi is highly dependent on the thought of Romano Guardini. He cites the Catholic philosopher, theologian and cultural theorist four times in the rather short letter.  

Romano Guardini
Romano Guardini, ca. 1920

But Pope Francis’ dependence on Guardini goes deeper than the citations. It was Guardini, after all, who wrote to the German bishops in 1964, cautioning them against the naïve assumption that endless liturgical change and reform were sufficient for the renewal of the Church. Only a thorough-going liturgical formation, one attentive to the formation of the whole person, would lead to restoring all things in Christ.  

Guardini’s interest in the liturgy cannot be separated from his commentary on modernity, technology and power. In medieval Catholicism, as he describes in his The End of the Modern World, human existence was lived integrally. The feasts and seasons of the liturgical year formed the human being to understand the world as an invitation to worship.  

The idolatrous adoration of technological development that marked the advent of modernity proposed a different understanding of human nature. We are not creatures made for contemplative beholding. Rather, we are actors who must use creation for the achievement of our own ends. In such a world, Guardini wonders in his letters on technology, will it be possible to recognize the presence of the Beloved?  

Concurrent with his writings on technology and modernity, Guardini wrote his classic The Spirit of the Liturgy. Throughout the work, he described the dispositions necessary for fruitful participation in the liturgical life of the Roman Catholic Church. In particular, he attends to our capacity to understand the symbolic dimensions of the liturgy.  

As we are those who are users of creation, manipulating it to our own ends, what would it take to behold the salvific quality of signs like light and darkness, bread and wine, and even the human body? As I tell my students, Guardini presents a rather serious approach to liturgical play, avoiding both an account of the liturgy as mere communication of information or the idolatry of the liturgical aesthete who is more interested in beauty than salvation.  

Guardini contemplated the seriousness of the liturgical act in his still untranslated work (at least into English), Liturgische Bildung. The German Bildung is loosely translated as “education” or “formation.” It involves a cultivation of the self that enables one to participate in a culture. Liturgische Bildung therefore has resonances of fostering a liturgical culture, formation or education.  

When Pope Francis refers to liturgical formation throughout Desiderio Desideravi, he is drawing from Guardini on this point. Liturgical formation does not consist of endless explanations of what is really happening in the liturgy. It is not a priest, once more, telling us that the candle is Christ, giving us a history of the development of the sacrament of confirmation, or even quoting the documents of Vatican II. 

Rather, formation into a liturgical culture necessitates a certain way of beholding the gratuity of existence. Creation is meaningful. And its innermost meaning is discerned in the act of worship, if only we have the eyes to behold. Guardini’s Sacred Signs — available in English — does exactly this. Every posture of the human body, every aspect of the created order, is redeemed in Christ through the liturgy.  

Therefore, Pope Francis is inviting us back to Guardini’s fundamental insight. Maybe, more liturgical reforms are necessary. But the essential task is the formation of a liturgical or Eucharistic person, someone who enters the life of the Church, letting an “I” become a “We,” and discovering in the process that every facet of creation has been redeemed in Christ.   

This means that something really is at stake in the liturgy, and although his rhetoric is less sharp, Pope Francis is not advocating a return to endless liturgical abuse. He is asking the Church to really commit herself to the post-conciliar reforms with the concurrent formation that Guardini desired. 

Timothy P. OMalley, Ph.D., is academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy in the McGrath Institute for Church Life. He teaches in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame.