Mar 15, 2008

Sacred Signs and Religious Formation

Online Edition: March 2008, Vol. XIV, No. 1

Sacred Signs and Religious Formation:

An Application of the Teachings of Monsignor Romano Guardini

by Father Samuel Weber, OSB

Bringing the sacred signs to life

In the introduction to his little book Sacred Signs, Monsignor Romano Guardini is concerned that we — and here he means all Christians, but especially children who are making their first steps in the faith — should come to a full and fruitful understanding of

those visible signs which believers have received and made their own and use to express the “invisible grace.”1

For this to happen, liturgical education is necessary. How is this education to take place? While recognizing the importance of “liturgical scholarship”, at this point at least, Guardini opts for what he calls “liturgical education”. He states the goal of this education:

We need to be shown how, or by some means incited, to see and feel and make the sacred signs ourselves.2

He then proceeds to outline a method whereby this education might effectively take place. His plan has four important points:

1. Start with the basics. Begin with the “elements out of which the higher liturgical forms have been constructed”: the human person, and then the objects, movements, and awarenesses of time and space that pervade every day life.

2. Enable personal experience. Once the students begin responding to their experience, it is time for the sacred signs to be “fanned into life”. Teachers do this by helping students have a “fresh and vital experience of their own” in regard to the sacred signs. One way of doing this might be to have the students take responsibility for ringing the Angelus bell at the parish church for a week. Such responsibility would involve interrupting their daily routine, familiarizing themselves with the protocol for bell ringing, actually pulling the rope, etc.

3. Persevere. Keep at it. Experience the signs over a period of time. In fact, a lifetime! Awareness deepens through doing. Repetition is key — repetition connected with the natural rhythms of daily life.

4. Understand. In time, the students arrive at “a deeper understanding” of “the meaning and justification” of sacred signs.

Guardini’s approach stresses:

1. The goodness of creation. According to the divine plan, all creation is capable of bringing us to God. In Guardini’s words: Some aspect of God is written into all we are and see.

2. The priority of participation over indoctrination. He insists: The approach to the liturgy is not being told about it but taking part in it.

Guardini is consistent in his application of this second principle, for he prefers “a mother who herself had been trained in the liturgy” and “a competent teacher who shares the lives of his pupils” to his own attempts through writing to explain the sacred signs. Regarding the mother, he states:

She could teach her child the right way to make the sign of the cross, make him see what it is in himself the lighted candle stands for, show him in his little human person how to stand and carry himself in his Father’s house, and never at any point with the least touch of aestheticism, simply as something the child sees, something he does, and not as an idea to hang gestures on.3

He then comments on the teacher:

Another competent person would be a teacher who shares the lives of his pupils. He could make them capable of experiencing and celebrating Sunday as the day it is, and feast days and the seasons of the church year. He could make them realize the meaning of doors or bells, or the interior arrangement of the church, or outdoor processions.4

The goal of this interaction is that
These two, mother and teacher, could bring the sacred signs to life.5

Happily for Guardini, when this is the case, his little book will no longer be needed:

When teachers such as these, out of their own experience, give instruction in the sacred signs, this little book may vanish into oblivion.6

Guardini’s principles at work

From 1953 to 1961, I had the privilege of participating in the application of Guardini’s approach in a real-life situation. When I was six, my parents enrolled me in our parish school, St. Columba, where I was to spend the next eight years of my primary education.

Our parish was located in a blue-collar, ethnic neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, USA. The parish was old, but the school was new. The parishioners were deeply committed to their Catholic faith, and the sacrifices of time and money they made to build this school demonstrated how deep their faith was. For the most part, they were manual laborers, and many of them worked in the steel mills. The work was very hard and took its toll. Many of the men died young; there were many widows. The parish had a strong ethnic mix: mostly Polish and Irish, but Slovak, Slovene and others. They valued Catholic education and the Catholic culture that it was meant to produce and sustain. They wanted this for their children. It was their first priority.

The parish school had just been opened two years previous to my coming. The pastor, Monsignor Thomas J. Kelly, was strongly dedicated to what was then called the “liturgical movement”. He wanted the children in his school to experience an educational process that would do all the things a Catholic school should do in terms of elementary education. But there was to be an added touch. The process would be pervaded by the study and practice of all the richest elements of Catholic culture: sacred music, art, literature. The framework for all this was to be the systematic study of the scriptures and the sacred liturgy. The end product: prayerful men and women of faith. The atmosphere: prayer, work and lots of good fun.

Teachers such as these . . .

In order to bring this about, it was necessary to have teachers. Eight Benedictine sisters from Saint Mary’s Priory in Nauvoo, Illinois, came to live in our parish. They stayed with us from the end of August until the middle of June. They then returned to their priory. Their roots were in the great Benedictine tradition of the Abbey of Saint Walburga, Eichstett, Bavaria.

I remember so well the first day of school. Classes began at 9:00 a.m. As the bell rang, Sister Jane, our principal, entered our first grade classroom. She was carrying a box containing enough red paperback books for each of us students. Up and down the rows she went, personally placing into each of our little hands one of the red books. No explanations were given. Though we could not as yet read, we held our little books. She directed us to stand at our desks. We did. Then she asked us to repeat after her: “O God, come to my assistance”. She helped us with our sign of the Cross. And so, for the first time, I prayed the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours.

Each school day began with Terce in each classroom. (The “hours”, Terce, Sext and None are morning, noon and afternoon prayers.) We usually went home for lunch, but before leaving school we all gathered together in church for Sext. Many of the mothers who had come to pick up their children were there, too. If his pastoral duties allowed, Monsignor Kelly would attend and lead the Office in the sanctuary. At the end of the school day we prayed None in our classrooms before heading home.

No explanation was given. Hardly any direction or instruction. We just did what the older kids did, and we caught on. Soon the little red books fell apart. They were cheap. But it did not matter. For most of the week, the same Gradual Psalms occurred at the Day Hours in the Monastic Breviary. We soon had them memorized. The sisters took care of the proper parts for seasons and feasts, and they kept us on target on Mondays, when the cursus (or course of Divine Office prayers) was finishing up Psalm 118.

Doing is basic

I soon discovered that there was to be more to our prayer life than these little red books. Every Tuesday morning before school we all attended a Missa Recitata (“low” or spoken Mass) with English hymns. The entire congregation answered all the responses with vigor. Every Friday there was a sung High Mass. The ordinary was sung by the entire congregation: school children, parents who were present, parishioners. It was a privilege for the older children to sing the Propers.

We were carefully trained from first grade on to sing the chant. The training took place in this way. On Monday morning when we came to school, Sister Germain, our first grade teacher, had written at the top of the blackboard the chant to be learned that week. For a few minutes each morning she took us through the melody and words, carefully explaining the meaning of the sacred text. She gave us some background information about the words: where they fit into the Mass or the feast, and how they could lead us to prayer. On Friday afternoon, we cleaned out our desks, tidied up the classroom, and erased and cleaned the blackboards. The chant was erased from sight, but not from our hearts. We had memorized it. All during the week, without even being conscious of it, we were seeing it every time we lifted up our heads from our desks. Slowly, slowly, melody and words were making their way into our consciousness.

After we had learned to read well, we were given a new book to use at Mass, Chants of the Church. This beautifully bound slim volume contained the Kyriale, as well as processional, seasonal and occasional chants. Beneath the Gregorian notation and Latin text was an interlinear translation in English printed in small red letters. We always knew what we were singing. After the Council, when there was much talk about “understanding” and “full participation” in the liturgy, and how these had been prevented by the use of Latin, I was a bit stymied! “Understand-ing” and “full participation” were all I had ever known.

The many sacred signs about which Guardini so eloquently wrote were carefully and systematically handed on to us over the course of our grammar school education, first by the doing of them, and later by brief explanations, always from the heart, as Guardini would have wanted. Years later when I first read Guardini’s work for myself, I smiled. None of this was new to me. It had all been richly interwoven into my childhood education.

Through all of my eight years at St. Columba, we studied the Scriptures and the liturgy. By the time we were in eighth grade, we could sing many of the chants of the Ordinary and had begun to sing the Propers as well. The ceremonies, especially for Christmas and Holy Week, were carefully practiced by those of us who served at the altar. The meaning of the rites, the sacred symbols and the texts of the Missal and breviary were carefully explained and reflected upon in the classroom. The rhythms of the school day were always connected to the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year. Classroom decorations took their cue in the same way.

Slowly and carefully the meaning of the sacred signs and actions were opened for us. They became part of us. We could “see and feel and make them ourselves”.7

The Great Easter Vigil

In our eighth grade year it was time to put the finishing touches on our education. Sister Julianne, then principal and eighth grade teacher, announced the first week of school that this — our last year — would be devoted to the study of the Acts of the Apostles. We were soon to enter into the adult world as adult Christians. Acts was to be our blueprint for Christian living and witness.

Furthermore, all of our religion classes were to be centered on a careful study of the Easter Vigil. In fact, all the principles of Christian living that we were to study would find their beginning and end in this “night of all nights”.8

And so she began. She picked up the chalk and went over to the blackboard. She asked us to imagine ourselves living in the pre-historic, Mediterranean world, the world before time began, the world of our spiritual origins. High at the top of the board in large letters she wrote CHAOS, and then continued, constructing this chart:



Then she presented her explanation. The Great Easter Vigil will begin in chaos and darkness. We will all be scrambling around in the dark to get where we’re supposed to be. In ritual fashion, we will be making a journey from CHAOS to ORDER. This is what this night is like. This is what our lives are like.

In the beginning of the Book of Genesis, which will be the first of the twelve lessons we will read as the Easter Vigil continues, we will also start with the primeval chaos and darkness. We will hear the voice of God: Let there be LIGHT! As we hear these words, we remember: darkness is never the final word. The movement is from DARKNESS to LIGHT.

The story will continue. WATER will cover the entire earth. Beneath the surface of the water, volcanos will begin erupting and spewing forth FIRE and lava. This lava will sizzle above the waters and, wherever it flows, dry land will begin to emerge: rich, volcanic soil, and hard, stony FLINT.

The emergence of dry land, rich in volcanic soil, will make it possible for wheat, grapes and olives to begin to grow. These in turn will make possible the gifts of bread, wine and oil.

And what is all this leading to? The greatest gift of God’s creating: man. In marriage, man and woman will come together around BED, BOARD AND HEARTH. And this will make possible the gift of FAMILY.

Family is held together by PIETAS. And “pietas” is best translated as “family love.”

The final result is ORDER. Now, all is in accord with God’s plan.

In this same way we celebrate the Easter Vigil. We start in darkness. The priest strikes flint against flint to produce the spark that kindles the paschal fire. From this fire is lit the paschal candle, the light that scatters the darkness. As we follow the light of Christ into the dark space of the church, it begins to fill with the light of many candles. The candidates for baptism pass through the waters, are baptized, and then anointed with oil, the sacred chrism. Soon, they will move to the altar to receive the holy gifts: bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ. “The newest of the lambs” have been added to the family of God, the Church. Once again, God’s plan for order has been realized.

The challenge: living the sacred signs
Sister Julianne continued. There is a challenge in all of this, however. All these sacred signs are gifts from God. But they must be used according to God’s plan. Consider the grape that becomes wine. When we celebrate a family meal and enjoy drinking God’s gift of wine “that gladdens the heart”, we move from chaos to order. (She drew an arrow from top to bottom). Drinking too much wine, driving drunk, causing an automobile accident that results in the death of two teenagers — chaos. (She drew an arrow from bottom to top.) The sacred sign has been abused; it has not been used according to God’s plan. Order has degenerated into chaos.

She then pointed to “bed, board and hearth”, and continued her explanation. When husband and wife persevere in family love, even through hard and confusing times: chaos to order. Adultery: order to chaos. Great human suffering results from the abuse of God’s gifts, from abusing the sacred signs.

Great blessings come to those who persevere day by day in living the sacred signs. Daily perseverance requires “pietas”, family love. This in turn involves sacrifice on the part of all family members. Wheat, grapes and olives must be totally changed: ground, pressed, transformed. Only then can there be bread, wine and oil.

Consider how we address our Lord when we sing the hymn “Adoro te devote”. We sing the words “Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine”. We may translate this: “O Lord Jesus, O loving pelican”. The mother pelican is said to be “in her piety” when, unable to find food for her young, she returns to her nest and feeds her chicks with her own flesh and blood. When we accept the challenge of the sacred signs, we must be prepared to give of ourselves fully, to be used up, to be changed into something new. This is what “dying to self” and “taking up the Cross” to follow Jesus is all about. And so her explanation ended.

But this was not the end. For the remainder of the school year, our classes frequently made reference to this chart. Gradually each word was opened and explored in depth. OIL: heat, light, medicine; baptism, confirmation, holy orders. BED, BOARD AND HEARTH: the need for human intimacy, the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the blessing of children, the joy of meals shared, family nights when everybody is home together. There were many things to be said regarding right belief, right practice, the life of prayer. It was a full and busy year.

No matter what topic came under discussion, we returned to the words, signs and ritual actions of the Easter Vigil. In understanding these, we came to understand the fullness of Catholic truth. We were well prepared to enter the adult Catholic world.

The challenge before us today

These past decades have been difficult years for sacred signs.9 The family has become fragmented. The “McDonald’s culture”, and an inordinate dependence on television, the internet and myriad other technological distractions, has assailed “bed, board and hearth”. “Latch-key” children, having spent their early years in child-care situations, now come home from school in the afternoons to an empty house. Due to the requirements of the work place (not “family-friendly”, to say the least), families are on the move, separated from roots, and, most tragically, grandparents. Grandparents are so important for passing on the sacred signs, indeed the whole content of the faith.10 Their absence from the lives of so many of our children today is having a devastating effect on how our young people do and do not interiorize the truths of the faith. “Pietas” — family love — and sacrifice for the sake of another outside oneself are foreign concepts in a family system where teenagers are flooded with material objects so that their parents will feel less guilty for being absent, for neglecting their religious formation, for abandoning them to a culture devoid of religious feeling.11 The effects of divorce, abortion and contraception on every aspect of the family are well known. When the teaching of Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio are welcomed and applied, family life moves steadily from chaos to order. Regrettably, when these teachings are not welcomed, all falls back into chaos — a chaos of deep pain and bitter confusion.

But there is hope. The program of religious formation put forth by Monsignor Romano Guardini nearly a century ago is being discovered anew in our day. All over the United States, the home-school movement is aggressively putting into practice the principles described in this paper, living the liturgy in both the domestic and parish church.12

On the parish level, perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, sustained entirely by parishioners, is rapidly spreading from diocese to diocese. Along with this practice inevitably follows a devotion to the Liturgy — both Mass and the Hours — works of charity, social out-reach, and, not least of all, bearing public witness to the value of human life — of all “signs” the most sacred.

In the parish where I assist on weekends, the courageous young pastor is replacing the “spaceship” church he inherited from another era with a splendid Romanesque basilica. The sanctuary is so arranged that Mass can be offered ad orientem (toward the altar) as well as ad populum (toward the people), and the whole arrangement is suitable for the Tridentine Mass, which will be offered once a month, according to the wishes of the bishop.13 And, finally, he is planning to build a school and seeking to bring to the parish a community of sisters to give the children of the parish an education imbued with the Catholic culture, a school where the sacred signs will be taught by “taking part in them”. And so the story continues. Chaos to order! Oh, the blessedness of order!

Strawberry tea and words of wisdom

On the feasts of the great Irish saints — Patrick, Bridget, Brendan, Columba — my Irish grandmother used to serve strawberry tea in the afternoons for her grandchildren. This was the same grandma who would light the blessed candle whenever there was a storm, and sprinkle each room with holy water as lightning was flashing and thunder crashing. These occasional afternoon gatherings gave her the opportunity to teach us little ones the old Gaelic prayers, and tell us the stories of our Irish Catholic ancestors who, in “the terrible times”, hid the “Mass stone” so the “the Holy Sacrifice, the dear Mass” could be celebrated. She had a lot of things to say to us on those afternoons. Of all the things she told us, there was one thing in particular she really wanted us to remember. She repeated it often. It was this:

There are only two things worth doing in life: to know the truth and to be in love.

Sacred signs, filled with the fullness of our Catholic faith: to know the truth.

Sacred signs, lived with “pietas” and treasured in the heart: to be in love.

In April of 1964, Monsignor Guardini wrote an open letter that occasioned much comment. It was written to Johannes Wagner in connection with the Third German Liturgical Conference. This letter was entitled Der Kultakt und die Gegenwärtige Aufgabe der Liturgischen Bildung (The Cult Act and the Present Task of Liturgical Education).

Toward the end of the letter, Guardini posed this question: “Would it not be better to admit that man in this industrial and scientific age, with its new sociological structure, is no longer capable of a liturgical act?”14

Some interpreters reacted to this question by saying that “Guardini had, by 1964, grown a bit cranky and reactionary and had begun to turn away from the optimism of his youth”.15 I would propose, however, that, far from being a cranky old man, Guardini was being consistent. Ever the realist, he was reminding us, as he had done in all his writings, that we have to make choices about how we will respond to the times in which we live. Shall industry, science and sociological structures have the final word? Shall they shape us, or shall we shape them?

The historical report given in this paper provides an example of teaching the young to arrange their lives according to the patterns of religious living that Guardini spent his whole life furthering. At the heart of Sacred Signs is the belief that every “cult act” is centered on the Creator. All worship is, in the first place, an act of justice in which the creature renders to the Creator that which is due Him. Therefore the “cult act” is the obligation of creatures of all times and all places. The human task is to make this act worthily, in accord with the Divine Will, and as we make it, to remember always that it is not we who shape the liturgy — it is the liturgy that shapes us. This process of being shaped is the work of a lifetime. In the words of the poet Guardini loved:

In every new situation
we must start all over again
like children,
cultivate a passionate interest
in things and events,
and begin by taking delight in externals,
until we have the good fortune
to grasp the substance.

— Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
(1829 – Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre I, 3)


1 Monsignor Roman Guardini, Sacred Signs (St. Louis, MO: Pio Decimo Press, 1956). See also The Spirit of the Liturgy (New York: Crossroads, 1998). Heinz R. Kuehn has selected and edited The Essential Guardini: An Anthology of the Writings of Romano Guardini (Chicago: Liturgical Training Publications, 1997) and included a helpful selected bibliography of the writings of Guardini published in English translation. See pp. 178-181. Among the many works inspired by Guardini, consult Balthasar Fischer, Signs, Words and Gestures (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1973); Robert Le Gall, Symbols of Catholicism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996); Maurice Dilasser, The Symbols of the Church (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999).

2 Guardini, Sacred Signs, 10.

3 Ibid., 78.

4 Ibid., 12.

5 Ibid., 11.

6 Ibid., 12

7 Ibid., 10.

8 See “The Easter Vigil: Hallowing Memory”, in Liturgical Spirituality (Valley Forge, Pa,: Trinity Press International, 1997), 71-104 for a similar approach by a Lutheran writer.

9 Father George Rutler has referred to these decades as “the most tragic self-mutilation of Catholic culture since the Arian crisis of the fourth century.” This comment is given on the back cover of James Hitchcock, Recovery of the Sacred: Reforming the Reformed Liturgy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995). See also George Weigel, The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored (New York: Harper Collins, 2001) and Edward Farley, Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996.)

10 It is helpful to recall this passage from The Dignity of Older People and Their Mission in the Church and in the World, Pontifical Council for the Laity: “By word and prayer, and also by the renunciations and sufferings that advanced age brings with it, older people have always been eloquent witnesses and apostles of the faith in Christian communities and in families — sometimes in conditions of persecution, as was the case, for example, under the atheist totalitarian regimes of the Communist bloc in the 20th century. Who has not heard of the Russian ‘babushkas’, who kept alive the faith during the long decades when any expression of religious faith was equivalent to a criminal activity, and who transmitted it to their grandchildren? It was thanks to their courage and steadfastness that faith was not completely extinguished in the former Communist countries and that a basis now exists — albeit a precarious one — for the new evangelization to build on. (Vatican translation made available by the Daughters of St. Paul, Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1999, p. 40.)

11 Contrast these “life-style choices” with the teaching given in Familiaris Consortio, especially section 46, “The Charter of Family Life”, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1981), 71-73.

12 The Catholic “home-school” movement has begun spontaneously all over the United States. It is characterized by a firm commitment to recovering the Catholic culture in its fullness, loyalty to the Magisterium, and family prayer. It is my privilege to offer Mass in Latin once a week for a dozen of these families, and to teach a Latin class for the children, who are also taking a course in Gregorian chant this school year.

13 The Very Reverend Steve Brovey,VF, is the pastor of Prince of Peace Church, Taylors, SC. The parish is in the diocese of Charleston, SC, where the former diocesan Bishop Robert J. Baker supported a “wide and generous” application of the permission to celebrate Mass according to the Missal of 1962.

14 As reported in Robert Barron, “The Liturgical Act and the Church of the 21st Century: An Address Given to the Society of Catholic Liturgy”, Mundelein, IL, September 21, 2002, p. 1.

15 Barron, p. 2. Barron remarks further: “One can find a similar interpretive key used to explain the supposed anomalies in the later writings of Ratzinger, de Lubac, Balthasar, Congar and others.”


Father Samuel Weber, a Benedictine monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, is Associate Professor of Early Christianity and Spiritual Formation at Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a member of the summer faculty of The Liturgical Institute, located at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois.

Father Weber is a liturgical musician and composer, who has composed simple settings of the Propers and Ordinary of Mass for various religious communities and parishes. A work in progress is “A Musical Offering” – 1205MusicalOffering.html.



Father Samuel Weber, OSB