Ratzinger and Guardini, a Decisive Encounter
In this essay, we would like to call attention to the relationship between Romano Guardini and Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The pope has called Guardini "a great figure, a Christian interpreter of the world and of his own time," and he often turns to Guardini, in almost all of his writings.
In reality, Ratzinger considers Guardini's voice still relevant, one that, if anything, should be made audible again. The Italian-German thinker, in fact, did not only write many books that have been translated into a variety of languages, but in his time he succeeded in shaping an entire generation, a generation of which the pontiff himself considers himself a member.
But before we delve into Guardini's vision, proposed again by the current pontiff, let's explore the surprising biographical connections between the two personalities.
A unique "encounter" between the two appeared during Benedict XVI's visit to Verona on October 19, 2006. It should be remembered that Verona is the city where Guardini was born, on February 17, 1885. And the pope was deeply moved to receive, in Verona, the gift of a copy of the certificate of Guardini's baptism, which had taken place in the church of San Nicolò all'Arena. There is, in this sense, a singular convergence of destinies between Romano Guardini and Joseph Ratzinger. Guardini would be taken from Italy in his early infancy, becoming "German" in terms of his intellectual and spiritual formation. After his years teaching in Berlin, from 1923 to 1939, in the period following the second world war, after three years teaching in Tubingen, from 1945 to 1948, he would for the rest of his professional life teach "christliche Weltanschauung," the Christian worldview, in Munich. Guardini's chosen home city was therefore Munich, where he would die in 1968.
Ratzinger would make the same journey, but in reverse. After teaching dogmatic and fundamental theology at the high school in Freising, he would continue his teaching activity in Bonn (1959-1969), the city where Guardini was educated and began his career, in Munster (1963-1966), and, finally, in Tubingen (1966-1969), where Guardini had also taught for three years. Beginning in 1969, Ratzinger would instead teach dogmatic theology and the history of dogma at the University of Regensburg, but on March 25, Pope Paul VI would make him archbishop of Munich and Freising. Just as for Guardini before him, Munich seemed to be the definitive stage for Ratzinger as well.
But their paths diverged. If the Veronese philosopher would be called to remain in the north for good, in the city of Munich that he loved so much because he felt that it was a sort of city-synthesis in which even his Italian soul could feel at home, the German bishop's destiny would instead take him to the south. And he would not return home again, not even when the desire to go back to his Bavaria was compelling, and seemed near at hand. Rome and Italy would become his definitive spiritual "homeland."
Apart from these two paths, interwoven but in opposite directions, these two extraordinary figures would also have the opportunity to meet personally. Ratzinger would be not only one of Guardini's readers, but also his occasional listener, as the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had also been, in Berlin. In the period from 1946 to 1951 the very same years in which Ratzinger was studying at the philosophy and theology high school in Freising, just on the outskirts of the Bavarian capital, and then at the University of Munich Guardini assumed in that same city, at the university and in the Church of Munich, the role of intellectual and spiritual leadership that all acknowledged was his. For Ratzinger, who was just over twenty years old at the time, the fascination of a figure like Guardini was unquestionable, and would strongly impact his own intellectual perspective. When, beginning in 1952, he began teaching at the same school in Freising where he had been a student, the echo of Guardini's lectures sounded loudly in that little town, which took in all of the cultural and intellectual activity of the nearby Bavarian capital. And the relationship between the future pope and the "master" Guardini became extraordinarily intense.
There are, in fact, many elements common to these two thinkers, who would later become decisive figures for the twentieth-century Church. If the one would become a cardinal, and then pope, Guardini would also be offered to be made a cardinal, although he would refuse. Both were preoccupied with rediscovering the essential in Christianity by seeking to respond to Feuerbach's provocation. Guardini would write a splendid book about this in 1938, entitled "The Essence of Christianity," while Ratzinger would dedicate to this topic his "Introduction to Christianity," written in 1968, undoubtedly his most famous work and, in all likelihood, his most important.
The two also shared a concern for the Church, for its meaning and destiny. If Guardini would prophesy in 1921 that "a process of great consequence has begun: the conscience of the Church is awakening," Ratzinger would, in more dramatic fashion, pose the ecclesiological problem just as radically, beginning with what he believed to be the overturning of Guardini's thesis: "The process of great consequence is that the Church is being extinguished in souls, and scattered in communities."
It should be enough to remember, in this sense, the vast resonance of the somber statement made by Ratzinger on June 4, 1970, at the Bavarian Catholic Academy in Munich, in front of thousands of people, on the topic, "Why am I still in the Church?" At that time, he said, "I am in the Church for the same reasons why I am a Christian: because one cannot believe on one's own. One can be Christian only in the Church, not alongside it."
The two also shared a similar preoccupation about the future of a Europe that tends to repudiate its past. It should be enough to think about the lecture on Europe by Guardini, and the statements of Ratzinger, who even as pope has recalled the meaning of Europe and of its roots, maintaining that Europe is "a binding heritage for Christians."
The Liturgical Question
One crucial point of encounter between the current pope and Guardini is undoubtedly the liturgy. Both are united by a shared passion for this. In order to make his debt to Guardini clear, Ratzinger entitled his book on the topic of the liturgy, published on the feast of St. Augustine in 1999 and extraordinarily successful (four editions in one year), "Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy," referring to the famous "The Spirit of the Liturgy" by Guardini, published in 1918.
Ratzinger himself writes in the foreword to his book: "One of the first works that I read after beginning my theological studies, at the beginning of 1946, was Romano Guardini's first book, 'The Spirit of the Liturgy', a small book published at Easter of 1918 as the inaugural volume of the series 'Ecclesia orans', edited by Abbot Herwegen, reprinted a number of times up until 1957. This work can rightly be considered the beginning of the liturgical movement in Germany. It contributed in a decisive manner to the rediscovery of the liturgy, with its beauty, hidden richness, and greatness that transcends time, as the vital center of the Church and of Christian life. It made its contribution to having the liturgy celebrated in an 'essential' manner (a term rather precious to Guardini); the desire was to understand it on the basis of its interior nature and form, as a prayer inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit himself, in which Christ continues to become present for us, to enter into our lives."
The comparison continues. Ratzinger compares his own intention to that of Guardini, maintaining that they are one and the same in spirit, even if their historical contexts are radically different: "I would like to hazard a comparison, which like all comparisons is to a great extent inadequate, but aids understanding. One could say that the liturgy at the time in 1918 was in some ways similar to a fresco that had been preserved intact, but almost entirely plastered over; in the missal that the priest used to celebrate it, its form was fully present, as it had been developed from its origins, but for believers it was mostly hidden by instructions and forms of prayer of a private character. Thanks to the liturgical movement, and, in a definitive manner thanks to Vatican Council II, the fresco was brought back into the light, and for a moment we all stood fascinated by the beauty of its colors and its forms."
But after the cleaning of the fresco, for Ratzinger the problem of the "spirit of the liturgy" is returning today. To continue with the metaphor: for the current pope, various mistaken attempts of restoration or reconstruction and disturbances caused by the great volume of visitors have brought the fresco into serious risk and threat of ruin, if the necessary measures are not taken to put an end to these harmful influences. For Ratzinger, this is not a matter of returning to the past, and in fact he says: "Naturally, one must not plaster over it again, but a new understanding of the liturgical message and its reality is indispensable, so that bringing it back to the light should not represent the first step in its definitive ruin. This book is intended to be a contribution to this renewed understanding. Its intentions therefore substantially coincide with what Guardini proposed in his time; for this reason, I intentionally chose a title that expressly recalls that classic of liturgical theology." And in the text that follows, especially in the first chapter, he addresses Guardini's ideas, and his famous definition of the liturgy as a "game."
In his commemorative address in 1985, Ratzinger instead dwelt on the historical-philosophical foundation of the liturgical renewal proposed by Guardini. In the 1923 work "Liturgical Formation," the philosopher hailed the end of the modern era in the spirit of liberation, because it had represented the ruin of the human being, and, more generally, of the world, a schizophrenic separation between a disembodied and deceitful spirituality and a brutish materialism that is simply a tool in the hands of man and his objectives. "Pure spirit" was sought, and abstraction was the result: the world of ideas, of formulas, of apparatus, of mechanisms, of organizations. Ratzinger emphasized that Guardini's avoidance of the modern coincided with his enthusiasm for the medieval paradigm, well illustrated in a book by a martyr under Nazism, Paul Ludwig Lansberg, "The Medieval and Us," published in 1923. For Guardini, this did not mean abandoning himself to a romantic view of the Middle Ages, but learning its permanent lesson. The celebration of the liturgy is the true self-fulfillment of the Christian, and therefore in the struggle over symbolism and the liturgy, what is at stake Ratzinger notes, following Guardini's teaching is the development of the essential dimension of man.
The future pope would also dwell upon Guardini's statements in the letter that he sent in 1964 to participants at the third liturgical congress in Magonza, which contained this famous question: "Is liturgical action, and above all what is referred to as 'liturgy', so historically connected to the ancient and medieval world that, for the sake of honesty, it should now be entirely abandoned?" In reality, this contained another dramatic question: Will the man of the future still be able to carry out that liturgical action which requires a symbolic-religious sense that is now dying out, in addition to the mere obedience of faith?
Without his earlier optimism, Guardini glimpsed the face of postmodernism with features that were very different from the ones he had hoped for before. This was a genuine spiritual shock, due to the technological civilization that had invaded everything, as previously expressed in his "Letter from Lake Como" in 1923. For this reason, Ratzinger emphasizes, "something of the difficulty of recent times is found, despite his joy over the liturgical reform of the council developed on the basis of his own work, in his letter of 1964. Guardini exhorted the liturgists gathered in Magonza to take seriously how far away are those who consider the liturgy as something that can no longer be celebrated, and to reflect on how it is possible if the liturgy is essential to come closer to it."
The Fundamental Theological Option
Guardini, Ratzinger recalls, found himself in the thick of the drama over the modernist crisis. How did he emerge from it? Faithful to the lesson of his first master, Tubingen theologian Wilhelm Koch, but also attentive to the limits and risks of this perspective, he went in search of a new foundation, and found it beginning with his own conversion. "The brief episode," the future pope emphasizes, "of how Guardini returned to the faith after losing it has something great and moving about it precisely in the modesty and simplicity with which he describes this process. Guardini's experience in the attic and on the balcony of his parents' home bears a truly striking resemblance to the scene of the garden in which Augustine and Alypius saw their lives unfold before them. Both cases are the revelation of the innermost part of a man, but in looking inside what is most personal and most hidden, in listening to the heartbeat of a man, one suddenly perceives a trace of history writ large, because it is the moment of truth, because a man has encountered the truth."
This is no longer an encounter with God in the universal sense, but with "God in the concrete." At that moment, Guardini, Ratzinger stresses, understood that he held everything in his hand, his entire life, and had to decide how to spend it. His decision was to give his life to the Church, and from this arose his fundamental theological option: "Guardini was convinced that only thinking in harmony with the Church leads to freedom, and, above all, makes theology possible. This approach is of new relevance, and should be taken into consideration in the deepest way possible, as a requirement of modern theology."
For Guardini, there can be no constructive theological understanding as long as the Church and dogma appear only "as limitation and restriction." This led to his provocative motto, from the theological point of view: "we were definitely not liberals," a motto that alludes to the fact that for him, divine Revelation presented itself as the ultimate criterion, the "originating element" of theological understanding, and the Church was "its bearer."
Dogma thus became the fruitful ordering of theological thought. The effective foundation of his theology was, therefore, the experience of conversion, which for Guardini constituted the transcendence of the modern spirit, and especially of its subjectivist post-Kantian tendency. For our thinker, therefore, "reflection is not at the beginning, but experience is. All of this presented itself later as content, and was developed on the basis of this original experience."
In describing the fundamental structure of Guardini's thought, the future pope dwells upon what, in his view, constitute the principal categories within the unity of liturgy, Christology, and philosophy.
First of all, there is "the relationship between thought and being." This relationship implies attention to the truth itself, the search for the being behind doing. It should be enough to consider Guardini's words in his trial lecture in Bonn: "Thought seems inclined to turn reverently again to being." Following in the footsteps of Nicolai Hartmann, Edmund Husserl, and above all Max Scheler, Guardini's proposal, for Ratzinger, expressed "optimism over the fact that philosophy was starting out again as a questioning of reality itself, a beginning that guided it in the direction of the great syntheses of the Middle Ages, and of the Catholic thought formed by these." For Guardini the future pope emphasizes the truth of man is essentiality, conformity to being, or even better, the "obedience to being" that is above all the obedience of our being before the being of God. Only in this way does one attain the power of the truth, the decisive and directional primacy of logos over ethos on which Guardini always insisted. What he wanted, Ratzinger explains, was always "a new advancement toward being itself, the search for the essential that is found in the truth."
The obedience of thought to being to that which reveals itself and is therefore gave rise to many other categories in Guardini's though, which the future pope sums up as follows: "Essentiality, to which Guardini opposes a merely subjective truthfulness; the obedience that follows from the relationship with the truth of man, and expresses the way in which he becomes free and becomes one with his own essence; in the end, the priority of logos over ethos, of being over doing."
To these must be added two other categories that emerge from Guardini's methodological writings: the "concrete-living" and "polar opposition."
The "concrete-living," in addition to being a general category of Guardini's thought, also assumes, according to Ratzinger, a Christological value: "Man is open to the truth, but the truth is not in some place, but rather in the concrete-living, in the figure of Jesus Christ. This concrete-living demonstrates itself as truth precisely through the fact that it is the unity of apparent opposites, because the logos and the a-logon are united in it. The truth is found only in the whole." The "apparent opposites" are alluded to in the other fundamental methodological category, that of the "polar opposition" of the opposites that, in their tension, make reference to each other: silence-word, individual-community. Only those who know how to keep these together can abandon any form of dangerous exclusivism and all harmful dogmatism.
A Warning for the Future
On March 14, 1978, the Bavarian Catholic Academy awarded the "Romano Guardini Prize" to the prime minister of Bavaria, Alfons Goppel, and according to custom, the head of the Bavarian bishops' conference Joseph Raztinger was asked to deliver the "Laudatio." It was a text of extraordinary density, in which he reviewed the various dimensions of the "political": politics as art, the grounding of politics in territory, responsibility toward the state, the relationship between truth and conscience in the political realm.
In this last passage, Ratzinger once again took up Guardini's teaching: "In Germany, we have experienced that kind of tyranny which sentences to death, prohibits, confiscates. The unscrupulous exploitation of words is a particular kind of tyranny which in its own way sentences to death, prohibits, confiscates. Today there are certainly sufficient reasons to express similar warnings and to remember the forces that are capable of preventing this kind of tyranny, which is visibly increasing. Romano Guardini's experience of Hitler's bloody tyranny and his vigilance before new threats led him, during his last years and almost against his own temperament, to issue dramatic warnings about the destruction of politics through the annihilation of conscience, and drove him to call for a proper interpretation, not a merely theoretical one, but a real and effective interpretation of the world according to the man who acts politically on the basis of faith."
Guardini proposed important themes like these to the German academic world from Berlin to Tubingen to Munich. According to the future pope, the thinker had a controversial relationship with the German universities, which beginning with his professorship in Berlin made him suffer "because of the impression that he was outside of the methodological canon of the university, and that quite clearly he was not recognized by it. He consoled himself with the fact that, with his own struggle to understand, interpret, and give form, he might be the forerunner of a university that did not yet exist." Ratzinger here makes a note that brings to mind the recent controversy over his canceled visit to the University of Rome "La Sapienza": "It is to the credit of the German university that Guardini was able to find room there, with all of his experience, and was able to feel it increasingly as the place of his specific vocation." Only Nazism temporarily took his teaching post away from him, and, in the memory of that tragic event, following the war the future pope highlights in an intense academic address on the Jewish question, Guardini passionately defended the university as the place for investigation into the truth, where human affairs and events are measured according to the full scope of the past, without the onslaught of the present, where responsibility for the community should be vigilant.
The Third Reich would not have come to power, Ratzinger reminds us in the words of Guardini, if the German university had not met its "downfall" due to the removal of the question of the truth on the part of the dominant academic models: "At that time, Guardini stated his position with a heartfelt appeal that ordinarily seemed entirely foreign to him, opposing the politicization of the university and its infiltration by party leadership, political chatter, the noise of the streets, and he cried out to his listeners: Ladies and gentlemen, do not permit this! This concerns that which is common to all of us, our future."
This item 8547 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org