Romano Guardini, Beloved Theologian of Two Popes — and Potential Saint

ANALYSIS: The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising will open the cause of the famous theologian Dec. 16.

Father Romano Guardini from 1920
Father Romano Guardini from 1920 (photo: Public domain/Wikipedia)

One of the most significant theologians of the 20th century, whose work profoundly affected the thought of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, will soon be on the road to sainthood. At a Mass Dec. 16, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, Germany, will officially open the cause of canonization for the Italian-born German priest Father Romano Guardini, along with that of his contemporary Fritz Gerlich, a journalist murdered by Nazis in 1934.

The official opening comes more than a year after the archdiocese appointed a postulator for the causes.

Father Guardini (1885-1968) exercised a profound influence on Benedict XVI and Francis, the liturgical renewal movement prior to Vatican II and countless Catholic readers around the world. Now, his cause provides an opportunity for the Church to renew its understanding of his work and his life.

According to Christopher Shannon, a professor of history at Christendom College, Father Guardini’s work could be helpful in addressing some of “the division in the Church today.” While liturgy in particular has been a “battleground” since the ’60s between “innovators unmoored from Tradition” and “traditionalists who want nothing to change,” he said, Father Guardini in his work called for a deeper personal encounter with Christ on the part of the faithful, but also respect for the liturgical forms of the Church.

“There’s a respect for form and Tradition, but also insistence that external forms are not what the liturgy is about,” Shannon said.

The debate over the importance of rule and order in the Church, he added, was also an area where Father Guardini could make his influence felt. Division over the importance of the Church’s rules disguises that the rules of the Church exist to “guide us into a deeper relationship with Christ.”

“A lot of [Guardini’s] work,” Shannon said, “is fighting to reclaim an authentic aspect of freedom.” For Guardini, he said, freedom is impossible as an individual; true freedom is found in surrender to Christ, who can only be found “in the Church and in the community.” Shannon said Guardini’s work could challenge both sides of the Church today to reject the language of “radical individualism” employed to justify dissent from the Church’s teachings on sexual or social matters.


Pioneer of Authentic Renewal

Father Guardini has been highly praised by both Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Benedict recalled that Father Guardini’s teaching made a deep impression upon him as a young man because of the theologian’s dedication to finding the truth. Father Guardini’s Spirit of the Liturgy was one of the first books Benedict (then Joseph Ratzinger) read as a theology student.

Ratzinger’s own book Spirit of the Liturgy, published more than 80 years later, was titled as an homage to Father Guardini. Pope Benedict often quoted him during his pontificate and praised him once as a “great figure, a Christian interpreter of the world and of his time.

Pope Francis has also praised Father Guardini as “a thinker who has much to say to the people of our time.” While in Jesuit seminary, he owned The Lord, Father Guardini’s work on the Son of God. In the 1980s, then-Jesuit Father Jorge Bergoglio began his doctoral studies with a focus on Father Guardini, although he was unable to finish them.

David Foote, associate professor of history at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, told the Register that both popes are united in their admiration for Father Guardini’s commitment to thinking solidly within the Church and “expressing the Gospel in a way modern society can hear.”

According to Robert Krieg, professor emeritus of theology at the University of Notre Dame, Father Guardini was a “pioneer” who prepared the ground for the renewal of the Church and its theology at the Second Vatican Council. His work helped to “retrieve aspects of the Catholic faith that had slipped into the background,” Krieg said, such as the importance of developing the conscience or the renewal of the liturgy.

Bu the continuing theological debate on the Council and its aftermath has led to his reputation “falling through the cracks” in contemporary Catholic circles, according to Shannon. Many theological liberals dislike his orthodoxy, explained Shannon, while many theological conservatives dislike his criticism of “some of what passed for orthodoxy at the time.”

But Shannon contended Father Guardini was resolute in his orthodoxy and devotion to the Church. He added that while Guardini’s writings have served the Church, “the strength of his cause will rest on his holiness.”

“People become saints for who they are, not for what they write,” he said.


Early Years

Romano Guardini was born in 1885, in the northern Italian city of Verona. His family moved a year later to Germany, where he spent the rest of his life. After university studies in economics and chemistry, Guardini decided to become a priest and was ordained in 1910.

His discernment was not without its doubts: Father Guardini wrote that as a young man he was “always anxious and very scrupulous.” As a university student, he wavered in his faith, and his religious crisis culminated in what Pope Benedict called a St. Augustine-like moment, in which a single Bible verse illuminated his life. Father Guardini later wrote that after a long conversation with a friend, he realized: “Everything will come down to the statement: ‘Whoever holds on to his soul will lose it, but whoever gives it away will gain it.’”

Father Guardini decided that to fully surrender his life, he needed to find some “objective authority” that would safeguard his gift from his own individual desires. The only institution that existed was “the Catholic Church in her authority and concreteness.”

After his decision to enter seminary, he continued to be afflicted by the depression he had felt since childhood. Father Guardini wrote that he even considered taking his own life at one point, and only through praying the Rosary one afternoon did he find peace in his vocation. While Father Guardini wrote that “the dark flow of depression has always continued in my life, and more than once it has climbed very high,” he also found it necessary to accept it from God and “try to transform it into a good for other people.”  

Krieg said that evidence of Father Guardini’s holiness can be found in the “genuine longing for God” that appeared in everything he did, from his preaching at Mass to his daily recitation of the breviary and Rosary and his work with Catholic youth.

After his ordination, Father Guardini served as an assistant pastor in several cities, before eventually becoming a professor in the philosophy of religion and Catholic worldview in Berlin and later Munich.

By the time he died, Father Guardini published more than 60 books, including Spirit of the Liturgy and The Lord, which Pope Benedict praised as a work leading “to that which is truly real, Jesus Christ himself.”


Guardini’s Work

One of the ministries close to Father Guardini’s heart was formation of Christians, especially the formation of young Catholics. Krieg said that Father Guardini helped readers “move into a sense of being with God.”

According to a former student of Guardini, Heinz Kuhn, many at his Masses particularly felt the presence of Christ in the liturgy. Kuhn, the editor of The Essential Guardini, wrote that in Masses celebrated by Father Guardini, worshippers were drawn into “a world where the sacred became convincingly and literally tangible.”

“With him on the altar, the sacred table became the center of the universe,” he wrote, and in Mass they found “courage to face, to endure and to resist a world in which the forces of evil, Satan and his demons, were running rampant.”

Father Guardini early in his priesthood was concerned about the individualism and subjectivism prevalent in European society and how to overcome those attitudes as they appeared in the Church. In The Church and the Catholic, he wrote, “How little was the individual parishioner conscious of the parish, and in how individualistic a spirit was the very Sacrament of community — Communion — conceived!”

Foote told the Register that Father Guardini believed that, for the Christian, body and soul, nature and grace, are gathered together in every aspect of experience, and the highest act of the person is to worship God in the liturgy.

To encourage a deeper sense of the liturgy, Father Guardini sometimes said Mass versus populum, or with the people vocally responding to the celebrant, and would hand out the day’s readings in German so people could follow along.

This does not mean that Father Guardini approved of what followed the Council’s liturgical reform. Shannon said that Father Guardini was in fact “dissatisfied with the implementation of Vatican II.”

As Father Guardini’s cause advances, Shannon said, “I hope that we can not only come to appreciate his personal sanctity, but also his ideas,” Shannon said, “and see that he provides us with clear thinking on issues in the Church today.”


Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.