success stories

Who Was Romano Guardini?

Part II: His Early Years

from the book: The Essential Guardini
by Heinz R. Kuehn

When Guardini was associate pastor at Mainz, he acquired a friendship with Ildefons Herwegen, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach, which was the center for liturgical renewal in Germany.

When Guardini showed the abbot a manuscript containing lectures he had given in Mainz, the abbot was so impressed that it became the first in a series under the title "The Spirit of the Liturgy." It appeared as a book in 1918 and immediately became the best-seller in Germany and beyond.

In 1922, the University of Berlin was searching for someone qualified to assume a newly founded chair of Philosophy of Religion and Catholic Weltanschauung (worldview), a position established at the insistence of the politically influential Catholic Center Party. Guardini accepted the chair. In Berlin he found himself shunned by the faculty and holding a chair unadvertised to the students. But his reputation as a teacher spread rapidly, and it was not long before his lecture hall was filled to capacity. He had come into his own.

The city would become Guardini's home for 20 years.

Germany at this time was reeling under the crushing burden of the Treaty of Versailles, which had imposed on it hundreds of billions of dollars in war reparations, had split off one-eight of its territory with a population of seven million and had given to France for 15 years its most productive industrial region, the Saarland. Equally disastrous, the governing coalition was under relentless attack from the radical left the Communists and the radical Socialists and from the radical right the ultrnationalists and the National Socialists, the Nazis. More important for our theme, the war had dealt a devastating blow to a western world that still rested on an essentially Christian framework of values and ushered in the era of nihilism, existentialism and relativism.

The difficulty for Guardini was to develop themes for his lectures that would be meaningful for an audience living under these conditions. His advantage was that the Catholic church, because of the powerful influence of the Center Party, flourished. Moreover, Berlin under the Weimar Republic had become the cultural center of Europe in art, music, theater, the cinema and literature, giving him points of contact for his lectures that corresponded to his own interest in the arts. After some experimentation he focused his themes on the main issues of Christian ethics and the New Testament, and gradually turned to the Christian interpretation of literary masterpiece by writers such as St. Augustine, Dante, Kiekegaard, Pascal and Holderlin. He amplified his lectures at the university with lectures and workshops before different audiences at such places as the Jesuit church of St. Canisius. Whatever time he could spare he spent directing the Catholic youth movement Quickborn ("Fountain of Youth"), whose headquarters was the medieval castle of Rothenfels on the river Main; he also served the movement's journal Schildgenossen ("Comrades of the Shield"), a national Catholic periodical devoted to theological, liturgical and cultural subjects.

As a result, at Quickborn's local and national gatherings young people discussed theater, art and literature, played musical instruments and joined in retreats and pilgrimages to holy shrines. At Burg Rothenfels young men and women form all corners of Germany learned fold dances and folk songs, acted in the plays of Shakespeare and even performed puppet shows. The also participated in informal Masses at which they sang hymns in German instead of Latin, discussed the scriptural readings for the day and stood around the altar at which the priest faced the people. Further, they were introduced to Guardini's vision of a "new Europe" that would transcend national and ethnic boundaries and be founded on the West's tradition of humanism.

To Be Continued . . . .