May 15, 2013

The Spirit of the Liturgy: What Will Pope Francis Do?

Online Edition:
May 2013
Vol. XIX, No. 3

The Spirit of the Liturgy: What Will Pope Francis Do?

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Among the historic “firsts” we’ve witnessed since February 11, when Pope Benedict gave notice of his resignation to the cardinals, is the phenomenal effect of instant communication via the internet.  Millions — Catholics and non-Catholics — watched (and commented on) Pope Benedict’s every move during his final days as pope and also the cardinals gathering for the conclave to elect his successor. Journalists (especially bloggers) speculated at length about who would become the next pope. About 5,000 media folk rushed to Rome for the unprecedented events.

From the moment the white smoke appeared over the Sistine Chapel, and the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was announced as Pope Francis, no detail escaped intense attention — from the color of the new pope’s shoes to his intentions for the future of the Church. The new information technology — with its instant and universal access to input from anyone with a computer — contributed much to the media cacophony.

This is another historic first. There was nothing like this phenomenon at the election of Pope John Paul II, of course. In 1978 the technology didn’t exist. And even in 2005, though the television coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II and subsequent election of Pope Benedict XVI was thorough, there was nothing like the explosive internet reaction to the events surrounding the election of Pope Francis. Predictably, in this new situation, much — far too much — of the instant punditry was speculative at best, and not helpful to the Church.

Attention was primarily focused on the liturgy. Why? Liturgy is visible and symbolic. It is immediately perceptible to our senses and thus affects our emotions. Vestments. Actions. Liturgical vessels. Altar arrangements. Candles. Gestures. Every detail of the liturgy “speaks” — and every detail of the liturgies Pope Francis celebrated was scrutinized for the message it conveyed. And, as is often the case, the interpretation varied widely according to the opinion of the “translator” of the message.

Some interpreted every gesture, every posture of Pope Francis, in light of what had been the most recent practice of his predecessor; and every variation from this was seen as repudiating or negating that practice — for good or for ill, depending on the point of view of the interpreter. So if the new pope did not appear at the window loggia wearing the red mozzetta (ceremonial cape), or his vestments were less elaborate than those worn by Pope Benedict in the past few years, it was because the new pope rejected tradition — a sign of “rupture.” But is this true? Is it fair to assign such motives to the new pope? 

When Pope Francis formally assumed the chair of the Bishop of Rome at the Lateran Basilica on April 7, he used the “new” papal staff made for Pope Paul VI, its design closely based on a drawing of the crucifixion by Saint John of the Cross from about 1550 (see p. 12), and used by all successive popes, including Benedict until 2008. Just before the Mass, Pope Francis had re-named the small square in front of the Lateran Basilica in honor of Pope John Paul II.

In his homily that day he quoted Father Romano Guardini (1885-1968), one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, a mentor of Cardinal Ratzinger, and much admired by Pope Francis, who had studied Guardini’s works in Germany in the 1980s. The quote: “A great German theologian, Romano Guardini, said that God responds to our weakness by his patience, and this is the reason for our confidence, our hope (cf. Glaubenserkenntnis [The Faith and Modern Man], Würzburg, 1949, p. 28).”

The Guardini Connection

Father Romano Guardini was among the leaders of the early 20th-century Liturgical Movement. He was born in Italy in 1885, but his family moved to Germany the following year. He was educated in German universities, was ordained in 1910, and became a German citizen in 1911. The first of his many published works was The Spirit of the Liturgy, in 1918. The book was translated into English in 1930, and became a keystone of the Liturgical Movement in the English-speaking world, as well as in Europe through the decades preceding the Second Vatican Council.

The brief seven-chapter book is a profound theological reflection on the essential nature of liturgy, of the communal effect of liturgical worship, and of the transcendent faith that unites every believer to each other and to Christ.

Father Guardini’s theological and liturgical works greatly influenced the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI. Father Guardini was still a professor at the University of Tübingen when Father Joseph Ratzinger taught there before he went to the University of Regensburg in 1969.

In a 1996 review of Guardini’s book The Lord, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

Guardini recognized that the liturgy is the true, living environment for the Bible and that the Bible can be properly understood only in this living context within which it first emerged. The texts of the Bible, this great book of Christ, are not to be seen as the literary products of some scribes at their desks, but rather as the words of Christ himself delivered in the celebration of holy Mass. The scriptural texts are thoroughly imbued with the awe of divine worship resulting from the believer’s interior attentiveness to the living voice of the present Lord. In the preface to his book, Guardini himself tells us of the way in which these texts have arisen: “We can only reverently pause before this or that word or act, ready to learn, adore, obey.”

Guardini did not view his book as theology in the strict sense of the word, but more as a kind of proclamation or preaching.  Nonetheless, he did not fail to take into account the theological significance of what he had to say. Throughout The Lord Guardini struggled to come to the correct understanding of Jesus: All attempts to “cleanse” the figure of Jesus of the supernatural result in contradictions and meaningless constructions. One simply cannot strip “the Wholly Other,” the mysterious, the divine from this Individual. Without this element, the very Person of Jesus himself dissolves.…

Our time is in many respects far different from that in which Romano Guardini lived and worked. But it is as true now as in his day that the peril of the Church, indeed of humanity, consists in bleaching out the image of Jesus Christ in an attempt to shape a Jesus according to our own standards, so that we do not follow him in obedient discipleship but rather recreate him in our own image!  Yet still in our own day, salvation consists only in our becoming “truly real.” … Guardini’s book The Lord has not grown old, precisely because it still leads us to that which is essential, to that which is truly real, Jesus Christ himself. That is why this book still has a great mission today.

“Guardini on Christ in Our Century,” Crisis, June 1996, pp. 14-15



The Spirit of the Liturgy

The continued value of Guardini’s liturgical insights is evident in Cardinal Ratzinger’s seminal work — also titled The Spirit of the Liturgy — published in 2000 (Ignatius Press). In fact, in the author’s preface he describes the influence of Guardini’s book on his own work.

One of the first books I read after starting my theological studies at the beginning of 1946 was Romano Guardini’s first little book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. It was published at Easter 1918… This slim volume may rightly be said to have inaugurated the Liturgical Movement in Germany. Its contribution was decisive. It helped us to rediscover the liturgy in all its beauty, hidden wealth, and time-transcending grandeur, to see it as the animating center of the Church, the very center of Christian life. It led to a striving for a celebration of the liturgy that would be “more substantial” (wesentlicher, one of Guardini’s favorite words). We were now willing to see the liturgy — in its inner demands and form — as the prayer of the Church, a prayer moved and guided by the Holy Spirit himself, a prayer in which Christ unceasingly becomes contemporary with us, enters into our lives.

Of his own book, Cardinal Ratzinger says:

My purpose in writing this little book … is to assist this renewal of understanding [the Liturgy]. Its basic intentions coincide with what Guardini wanted to achieve in his own time with The Spirit of the Liturgy. That is why I deliberately chose a title that would be immediately reminiscent of that classic of liturgical theology. The only difference is that I have had to translate what Guardini did at the end of the First World War, in a totally different historical situation, into the context of our present-day questions, hopes and dangers. I am not attempting to involve myself, any more than Guardini was, with scholarly discussion and research. I am simply offering an aid to the understanding of the faith and to the right way to give the faith its central form of expression in the Liturgy. If this book were to encourage in a new way, something like a “liturgical movement,” a movement toward the liturgy and toward the right way of celebrating the liturgy, inwardly and outwardly, then the intention that inspired its writing would be richly fulfilled. (Preface, p. 7 ff)*

And in a lecture to the Guardini Foundation in 2010, Pope Benedict commented on Guardini’s liturgical insights, which are still timely after nearly a century:

In guiding the young, Guardini also discovered a new approach to the Liturgy. For him the rediscovery of the Liturgy was a rediscovery of the oneness of spirit and flesh in the totality of the single human being, since liturgical action is always at the same time both bodily and spiritual. Prayer is extended through physical and community action, hence the oneness of reality as a whole is revealed. The Liturgy is symbolic action. The symbol as the quintessence of the oneness of the spiritual and the material is lost when these separate, when the world is split in half, into spirit and flesh, into subject and object. Guardini was profoundly convinced that man is spirit in flesh and flesh in spirit and that the Liturgy and the symbol therefore lead him to the essence of himself and ultimately, through worship, to the truth.

Among Guardini’s great themes of life the relationship between faith and the world is constantly in the forefront.


It is hardly insignificant that Guardini’s thought also strongly influences the new pope, who studied the works of this great German theologian in the mid-1980s. Guardini’s book The Lord was reported in a news story (La Nación, March 31) to be Pope Francis’s favorite book; and as mentioned above, Pope Francis quoted from another Guardini book in his homily on April 7. 

For all these reasons, we now publish the first chapter of Father Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy in our pages — a mere 95 years after this phenomenal work by the young Italo-German theologian first appeared in print.


*Adoremus Bulletin has published several excerpts from Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy in past issues: May 2000, November 2001, February 2002, March 2002, and November 2002.



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.