Romano Guardini died 50 years ago this month, on October 1, 1968. Upon hearing of his death, Pope Paul VI recalled Guardini’s “praiseworthy work and successful efforts as a scholar and writer for a greater understanding of theological truths and for the formation of a true, liturgical devotion” (see the obituary from the October 10, 1968 issue of L’Osservatore Romano). While his most popular work may be The Lord (1937), his short liturgical books—Sacred Signs (1917), The Spirit of the Liturgy (1918), and Liturgical Formation (1923)—have had the most powerful influence upon the Church’s life. A key figure of the 20th century liturgical movement, the crowning achievement of which is the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, Guardini exerted through his work a great personal influence on Pope Benedict XVI and his own thought. To read today’s post-conciliar liturgical texts rightly is to read them through the “hermeneutic” (as Pope Benedict might say) of Romano Guardini.
But here we encounter a bit of a conundrum. In 1964—on the heels of Sacrosanctum Concilium, and while the Council was still in session—Guardini writes a letter to a German liturgical conference. In many ways this letter is his last word on liturgy and the work of liturgical renewal to which Guardini devoted his life. In this letter, Guardini anticipates—and hopes for—a “liturgical crisis.” He writes:
“The question will arise whether our present liturgy contains parts which cannot mean much to modern man. I remember a conversation with the late Abbot Ildefons Herwegen of Maria Laach, the great champion of liturgical renewal. We had been considering various aspects and I said a sign that the work for liturgy was really coming to life would be a liturgical crisis, and Abbot Herwegen thoughtfully agreed” (emphasis added).
How is one to understand correctly Guardini’s assertion that “a sign that the work for liturgy is really coming to life is a liturgical crisis”?
Guardini’s “liturgical crisis” comes to mind today as the Church undergoes a self-inflicted moral crisis. The two crises are related. An authentic liturgical celebration expresses and fosters our right relationship with God. Only when this most fundamental relationship is on the mend can fallen man relate rightly to his neighbor, his children, and himself.
Then again, Gallup polls, Pew surveys, and the anecdotal smell-test reveal a liturgical crisis of low attendance numbers. Whether from apathy, business, scandal, or fear of being bored to death, more and more Catholics choose other options besides the Sunday liturgy of the Mass.
Maybe this particular liturgical crisis is the result of poor celebrations, anemic symbolism, or the introduction of elements not in keeping with the liturgy’s essence. Or maybe the books themselves are to blame: they have either been reformed too much—or not enough!
Indeed, there appear no limits to what can be labeled a “liturgical crisis.” But are these above-named causes of catastrophe what Guardini and his thoughtful Benedictine friend had in mind? Hardly.
The crises Guardini and Herwegen had in mind are a form of heart trouble: the heart of the liturgy, and the heart of man.
Guardini explains: “As long as liturgical actions are merely ‘celebrated’ objectively and texts are merely ‘got through,’ everything will go smoothly because there is no question of an integrated religious act. But once serious prayer is joined to the action, the parts that have no living appeal become apparent.” In short, once the substance of the liturgy becomes clear, and once the essence of liturgical participation and life awaken man at his core—that is, his heart—then all that is out of place in the liturgical act will become obvious. In fact, these blemishes will become occasions for stumbling and bumbling through an otherwise life-giving liturgical encounter with God—but they will be welcomed as symptoms are welcomed to diagnose a disease.
Fifty years after Guardini’s death, we do indeed have a liturgical crisis. And what is that crisis? That we haven’t yet reached Guardini’s liturgical crisis! The life-giving crisis that Guardini envisioned should have resulted from hearts aflame and minds enlightened, engaging Jesus’s saving work manifest in a ritual celebration. But the patient is comatose and any imperfections are stifled by a lack of passion for the liturgy. Our death-spiraling crisis of apathy spins from sluggish hearts and poorly-formed minds slumbering through opaque rites.
As we remember Romano Guardini and his work to foster “true, liturgical devotion” (in the words of Pope Paul VI), let’s cause a “liturgical crisis” by celebrating well, revealing the true God and his saving work, with hearts and minds intent on sanctity. Such is the heart of the liturgical matter. Such is the core of the liturgy.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.