success stories

Who Was Romano Guardini?

Part III: The Final Years

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

My first personal personal encounter with Guardini [of Heinz Kuehn] occurred at the Student's Chapel, St. Benedict, in Berlin Charlottenburg. The chapel was a small, unadorned room located in the semi-basement of an apartment building. It had few rows of chairs, a small, table-like, free-standing altar, and the only natural light came from a couple of oblong windows under its ceiling on the level of the street . . . What drew me and the students to Guardini's Mass was simply this: He was a person who by his words and actions drew us into a world where the sacred became convincingly and literally tangible. His mere appearance radiated something for which I have no better word than luminous; in his presence one fell silent and became all attention. With him on the altar, the sacred table became the center of the universe. But was it a universe of fantasy? Of escape? Of religious sentiment that did not survive for 24 hours? Or was it the center of our universe, our daily reality? . . . And courage to face, to endure and to resist a world in which the forces of evil, Satan and his demons, were running rampart, in that small chapel in the presence of a man whose words and actions made truth appear to us as a physical presence. The impact of the sacred action was all the more profound because Guardini celebrated the Mass facing the people. It was a missa recitata, a Mass at which people responded aloud to the presider's prayers, something still new in those days, and we, the congregation, were the altar boys and girls answering his invitation to prayer.

In his Berichte uber mein Leben, Guardini refers to St. Benedict Chapel: What I wanted to do (in the chapel) from the very beginning, was this: "to make the truth glow. Truth is power, provided you don't demand an immediate effect, but rather have patience and expect that it will take time (before the results) . . . If anywhere, then here, lack of purpose is the greatest power. I have often had that experience. Sometimes, especially in the last years, I had a sense that the truth was standing in space like a living body."

I learned only much later that Guardini's homilies in the chapel were to serve as the first draft of his most popular book, The Lord. . . . During those 30 to 40 minutes he gave us the sustenance that nourished us for another week of uncertainty, danger and fear, the strength to face Satan and his demons for another week, and that a mere evocation of his presence at the altar and of his words brought light even into our darkest moments of hopelessness or despair.

In 1939 the Nazis dismissed Guardini from the university, dissolved the Quickborn movement and closed its headquarters, Burg Rothenfels. He stayed in Berlin for another four years, writing and giving workshops before various Catholic audiences. Some of his most important, popular and enduring books were published during his Berlin years: The Church and the Catholic, Letters from Lake Como, Sacred Signs, The Lord, The World and the Person, and Meditations Before Mass.

My last personal encounter with Romano Guardini occurred at the University of Tubingen, where he had assumed the chair of Philosophy of Religion and Christian Weltanschauung after the war had ended in 1945.

Although his innate shyness kept him from being a good speaker, and although he tended to overreact to the slightest disturbance in the lecture hall, he attracted an overflowing audience of students and faculty of virtually all disciplines. The secret to his popularity was simple: Here was a man who, after Europe's bloodiest and most turbulent era, penetrated in his lectures to the essence of a truly Christian vision of the world. He did not lecture in terms of abstract theological and philosophical principles, but in terms of the stark and often violent realities of our world, connecting them with the traditions of the western world in religion, art, literature and architecture, and persuasively demonstrating the life-giving validity of the old, yet ever-young, verities of Christianity for a generation trying to come to terms with the Second World War and its consequences.

In 1948, Guardini accepted the specially created chair of Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Christian Weltanschauung at the University of Munich and remained in this position until 1963m when he was succeeded by Karl Rahner. He remained as active, influential and popular in his lectures and as prolific in his writings as he had been during his years in Berlin and Tubingen.

It was during his Munich years that he wrote, among other books, The End of the Modern World, Power and Responsibility and The Church of the Lord.

By the time Guardini died in 1968 at the age of 83, he had written at least 60 books and 100 articles, an output the Catholic Academy in Bavaria is now assembling and publishing as Guardini's collected works.