The Impact of Romano Guardini  on Vatican II: “The Church is awakening in souls”[1] a la Ratzinger

quote-we-are-the-archenemy-of-our-own-salvation-and-the-shepherd-must-fight-first-of-all-with-romano-guardini-133-39-72“Just after the First World War, Romano Guardini coined an expression that quickly became a slogan for German Catholics: “An event of enormous importance is taking place: the Church is awakening within souls“. The result of this awakening was ultimately the Second Vatican Council. Through its various documents it expressed and made part of the patrimony of the whole Church something that, during four decades full of ferment and hope (1920 to 1960), had been maturing in knowledge gained through faith. To understand Vatican II one must look back on this period and seek to discern, at least in outline, the currents and tendencies that came together in the Council….

“The Church is awakening within souls”. Guardini’s expression had been wisely formulated, since it finally recognized and experienced the Church as something within us—not as an institution outside us but something that lives within us.

If until that time we had thought of the Church primarily as a structure or organization, now at last we began to realize that we ourselves were the Church. The Church is much more than an organization: it is the organism of the Holy Spirit, something that is alive, that takes hold of our inmost being. This consciousness found verbal expression with the concept of the “Mystical Body of Christ”, a phrase describing a new and liberating experience of the Church. At the very end of his life, in the same year the Constitution on the Church was published by the Council, Guardini wrote: the Church “is not an institution devised and built by men … but a living reality…. It lives still throughout the course of time. Like all living realities it develops, it changes … and yet in the very depths of its being it remains the same; its inmost nucleus is Christ…. To the extent that we look upon the Church as organization … like an association … we have not yet arrived at a proper understanding of it. Instead, it is a living reality and our relationship with it ought to be—life.”[2] [emphasis in text mine]

On the occasion of the 100th birthday of Romano Guardini (February 1   7. 1885 – October 1, 1968), Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger gave an incisive evaluation of Romano Cuardini’s theology and doing so went far beyond the parameters of a merely pious, retrospective commemorative address. Ratzinger explains: “It so happened that, just as I began to read Guardni intensively again, I had to complete a rather long essays for the recently published Nuovo dizionario de liturgia (Rome, 1984), in which I found precisely the opposite assessments: The liturgy, the writer claimed, is certainly threatened chiefly by the existing form of Christian experience in the Church, which became set in the Middle Ages. Despite the efforts of Vatican II, it is difficult for her to detach herself from it and to be open to change…” One has to remember that Guardini was entering into his fundamental theology at the time of the condemnation of Modernism which was aimed at putting the breaks on any new developments in theology. Lamentabili and Pascendi dominici gregis “had the effect of a declaration of war against everything that seemed modern and progressive in theology. No one who had anything to do with teaching or learning theology in Germany at that hour could remain unmoved by this challenge.”[3]

Ratzinger explains that Guardini was looking for a new foundation for what he described as “the endangerment of the religious act in the secondary world of self-made objects…” Guardini was concerned about a return to what is authentic, what is ‘essential.’” Ratzinger writes: “More precisely: he had already found it in the experience of his conversion. In the short scene showing how he, along with his friend Karl Neundorfer – had yet each one individually – broke through to the faith again after having lost it, there is something thrilling and inherently great precisely because of the timidity and simplicity with which Guardini describes the process.” I quote:

“This experience in the attic and on the balcony of Guardini’s parents’ house has an almost amazing resemblance to the scene in the garden in which Augustine and Alypius found the breakthrough of their lives. Both times the innermost part of a man opens up, but in looking into this utterly personal and intimate par, in listening to a man’s heartbeat, one hears all at once a major historical hour stricking, because it is an hour of truth, because a man has abeen hit by the truth. Guardini had been moved by the verse: ‘He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life will find it’ (Mt. 10, 19). His soul had been penetrated by the intuition that this salvific giving could refer only to God himself. But it had likewise become clear to him that his could not mean God in general, intangibly and, so, ultimately only a reflection of our own will, but rather God concretely, as he stands before us in history. ‘There God concretely, as he stands before us in history. There must be, therefore, an objective authority that can draw my response out of that hiding place of self-assertion. But there is only one: the Catholic Church in her authority and precision. The question of keeping or giving way one’s soul is ultimately decided, not in the presence of God, But in the presence of the Church.’ At that moment Guardini knew that he held everything – his whole life – in his hands that he now had it at his disposal and had to dispose of it, and he gave his soul to the Church.[4]

[1] Conference of Cardinal Ratzinger at the opening of the Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Aversa (Italy)

On the afternoon of 15 September 2001, at the invitation of Archbishop Mario Milano, His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opened the Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Aversa (Italy) dedicated to a re-reading of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.


[2] La Chiesa del Signore, [English translation: “The Church of the Lord”]; Morcelliana, Brescia 1967, p. 160

[3] J. Ratzinger, “Fundamental Speeches From Five Decades” Ignatius (2012) 240

[4] “Then is seemed to me as though I were carrying everything – really, ‘everything,’ my existence – in my hands, as though on a scale that was evenly balanced: ‘I can make it tip to the right or t o the left. I can give my soul away, or keep it…’ And then I tipped the scale to the right.”


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