Revisiting “The Spirit of the Liturgy”

Both Joseph Ratzinger and Romano Guardini, in their classic books on the liturgy, demonstrate that our continuing conflicts and difficulties with matters liturgical are not about taste but about doctrine.

(Photo: Marc Salvatore |

Last year was a year of many anniversaries. One that was perhaps less noticed was the fortieth anniversary of Ignatius Press. As part of that observance, its founder, Father Joseph Fessio, decided to reprint what has become a classic of the “new liturgical movement,” Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. The choice of both author and work was most appropriate: first, because Ignatius Press introduced the then-relatively unknown author to the Anglophone world (indeed, I suspect not a few of those early publications of Ratzinger sat in a warehouse until he came into his own as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and eventually as Pope!); second, because Father Fessio has always seen the Sacred Liturgy as the locus privilegiatus.

Reprinting the Ratzinger volume was not enough; included was the eponymous work by Romano Guardini, precisely during the centennial year of its original publication – a work consistently identified by Ratzinger as one of the most formative books for his personal spiritual life and for his academic orientation as well. The commemorative edition is graced by a preface of Pope Benedict and by a foreword by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, and one whom many of us consider to have assumed the liturgical mantle of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. Indeed, Pope Francis told him to continue the liturgical program of Pope Benedict.

For the most part, I intend this review to concentrate on the salient insights of Father Guardini since, unfortunately, his name has been frequently invoked by all too many of the would-be liturgists of the post-Vatican II era, all the while failing to make a holistic presentation of the material found in his work. It is interesting to note that Guardini doesn’t offer particular suggestions for liturgical renewal as much as provide an over-arching framework for a genuine understanding of the Sacred Liturgy. Permit me to highlight but a handful of his many jewels.

Guardini places a heavy stress on the corporate nature of liturgical worship, the “we” of it, its universality, thus eliminating “the ephemeral, adventitious, and locally characteristic elements.” He asserts that it is “sustained by thought,” “governed and interwoven with dogma.” And what about the place of the heart? “The heart must be guided, supported, and purified by the mind”; even more, the heart must be “directed by thought, and not by feeling.” He goes on to speak the unspeakable in our era of egalitarianism and, even more, an era which canonizes the cult of the slob: “A fairly high degree of genuine learning and culture is necessary in the long run in order to keep spiritual life healthy”; yet again, “spiritual life should be impregnated with the wholesome salt of genuine and lofty culture.”

A key virtue for one involved in liturgical education and action is that of “humility,” which demands the “acceptance of the spiritual principles that the liturgy offers and that far transcend the little world of individual spiritual existence,” calling for the “subordination of self.” He has the temerity to declare that “liturgy keeps all vulgarizing elements at a distance” and that one “must learn to subscribe to the noble, restrained forms that etiquette requires in the House and at the Court of the Divine Majesty.” Imagine: “the House and Court of the Divine Majesty”! And that “House and Court” require a unique liturgical style: “clear in language, measured in movement, severe in its ideas, languages, ceremonies, and imagery fashioned out of the simple elements of the spiritual life; rich, varied, and lucid; its force further intensified by the fact that the liturgy employs a classic language, remote from everyday life.” Yes, one of the “grand-daddies” of the liturgical movement thought the use of Latin was important because it is “remote from everyday life.”

Guardini takes on the relationship between liturgy and devotional exercises, holding that both are needed, but in proper proportion. He warns: “If private devotion were nonexistent, and if the liturgy were the final and exclusive form of spiritual exercise, that exercise might easily degenerate into a frigid formula. . . .” I have long maintained that one of the reasons why the liturgy itself has taken on such an emotional and pietistic hue in so many places is precisely due to the near-total banishment of devotions like novenas and Benediction, which gave a space to the affective dimension of worship.

He confronts the resurgent Gnostic heresy which would denigrate a rich liturgical experience as it would maintain that a purely “spiritual” dimension is sufficient for the spiritually mature. Decades before Guardini, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman gave a response to such arguments:

The Bible then may be said to give us the spirit of religion; but the Church must provide the body in which that spirit is to be lodged. Religion must be realized in particular acts, in order to its continuing alive. . . . There is no such thing as abstract religion. When persons attempt to worship in this (what they call) more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshiping at all. This frequently happens. Every one may know it from his own experience of himself. Youths, for instance (and perhaps those who should know better than they), sometimes argue with themselves, “What is the need of praying statedly morning and evening? why use a form of words? why kneel? why cannot I pray in bed, or walking, or dressing?” they end in not praying at all. Again, what will the devotion of the country people be, if we strip religion of its external symbols, and bid them seek out and gaze upon the Invisible? Scripture gives the spirit, and the Church the body, to our worship; and we may as well expect that the spirits of men might be seen by us without the intervention of their bodies, as suppose that the Object of faith can be realized in a world of sense and excitement, without the instrumentality of an outward form to arrest and fix attention, to stimulate the careless, and to encourage the desponding.1

Guardini sees through the problem of neo-Gnosticism because he has a profound appreciation of sign and symbol, a precursor of Mircea Eliade forty years later, with his magisterial The Sacred and the Profane. No slouch in this regard, either, was the late Father Andrew Greeley with his admonition that when we are talking about a “symbol,” it is never possible to modify it by the adverb “just.” Nothing is “just a symbol.” Guardini also devotes considerable space to a consideration of “the playfulness of the liturgy” – an expression which must not be mistaken for tomfoolery; rather, it means that the liturgy is not done for any personal gain or for any “payback.” Josef Pieper teased out some of this meaning in Leisure, The Basis of Culture (1947), while Hugo Rahner2 produced Man at Play (1963).

Closely aligned with this point comes Guardini’s assertion that liturgy is not didactic (pace, the Eastern Orthodox who would disagree) – although we can learn from it. He explains: “. . . the liturgy has no thought-out, deliberate, detailed plan of instruction. In order to sense the difference, it is sufficient to compare a week of the ecclesiastical year with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. In the latter, every element is determined by deliberate choice, everything is directed toward the production of a certain spiritual and didactic result. . . . . It is not so with the liturgy. The fact that the latter has no place in the Spiritual Exercises is a proof of this.” Perhaps this helps us appreciate the Jesuit Pope’s apparent lack of interest and even seeming boredom during the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries.

Are there guides for us in navigating a path? Yes: “The play of the child and the creation of the artist” Thus, the liturgy “has toiled to express in a thousand forms the sacred, God-given life of the soul to no other purpose than that the soul plays before God.” If the liturgy teaches anything, it is that “the soul [ought] not to see purposes everywhere, not to be too conscious of the end it wishes to attain, not to be desirous of being overly clever and grown-up, but to understand simplicity in life.” St. John Vianney’s parishioner comes to mind: “I look at Him, and He looks back at me.” Or, as I used to tell my high school students who said they “got nothing out of Mass,” “You’re not there to get anything out of it. You’re there to give – your adoration.”

While having a highly developed appreciation for signs and symbols, Guardini also warns against having a merely “aesthetic” appreciation of the liturgy. It was often said of certain Anglicans that they were “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Or, of some young priests who love Latin liturgy but can’t conjugate “amo.” Indeed, he levels a very harsh critique of “aesthetes” because he believes that “pride of place” belongs not to beauty, but to truth. To be sure, beauty inspires awe – the “Ah” of a child upon entering a Gothic cathedral. His point, however, is that beauty “eludes those who pursue it for its own sake”; otherwise, “the ‘house of prayer’ becomes once more, in a different way, a ‘den of thieves.’” He quotes with approval Abbot Ildefons Herwegen: “. . . the liturgy has developed into a work of art; it was not deliberately formed as such by the Church.” That said, I don’t think he would take issue with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s observation:

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.3

Do we “get anything” out of liturgical prayer? At times, we experience genuine tranquillity and awe: “But these moments are fleeting, and we must be content to accept them as they come or are sent.” Closely tied to this awareness is what Guardini calls the problem of “the will” and the desire for autonomy, “the will to power” of Nietzsche, whereby “Superman” fashions his own forms of worship, so as to achieve what he wants to experience. The way to avoid such a development is found in the primacy of the “contemplative”: “the wonderful power of relaxation proper to the liturgy and its deep reposefulness” – “contemplation, adoration, and glorification of divine truth” (Can we see Cardinal Sarah smiling here?). Some years ago, having had some truly distressing liturgical experiences during an extended visit to France, I was delighted to concelebrate Holy Mass for the Solemnity of the Mother of God with the rector of the Cathedral of Avignon. When I complimented his ars celebrandi, he replied: “In the Sacred Liturgy, dear Father, we should ‘repose, not compose.’”

Between Guardini’s opus and that of Ratzinger, stand two magisterial documents: Mediator Dei of Pope Pius XII and Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium. Those two documents mine the gold from the early liturgical movement, epitomized in Guardini. Also lying between the two German theologians was a massive cultural devolution (one which Guardini could only espy from afar). Ratzinger’s Part One develops much of Guardini’s theoretical foundations, taking into account the magisterial and cultural developments. The rest of the Ratzinger work is application, as if to say, “If you understand and accept these principles, then this is what you should be doing.” Thus, we are treated to the Cardinal’s “take” on neuralgic issues like: ad orientem celebrations of Mass; the place of Latin; the nature of sacred music; the placement of the tabernacle; what constitutes sacred art during a revival of iconoclasm; the importance of kneeling; the centrality of silence.

I have given somewhat short shrift to the Ratzinger work because it was a best-seller when it first hit the book stores and continues to be a point of reference. Pope Benedict would not be offended and would actually agree. Why? Because he has always seen the importance of laying a proper foundation. In the previous paragraph, I said, “If you understand and accept these principles, then this is what you should be doing.” That is the crux of the matter. In the liturgy wars, we often have argued about liturgical dance and Renaissance polyphony and modes of distributing and receiving Holy Communion. At the end of the day, those matters are symptomatic of a far deeper problem, namely, that all too many among us (especially in the liturgical elite circles) do not “understand and accept these principles.” Which is to say that our difficulties are not about taste but about doctrine. Christ bids us “worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24). These two texts can do much to lead us on that royal path.


1Parochial and Plain Sermons, 2.7.

2The brother of Karl Rahner, who quipped that he intended to spend his retirement translating his brother’s works into German!

3The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Volume I.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 282 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. A wonderful exposition of the liturgical thought of Romano Guardini. Clarifying and exemplary [thanks to Fr Stravinskas on Guardini, Pieper et al]. Whenever I offer NO Mass with the community [private Masses always NO in Latin] I’ll keep in mind [I hope] “The House and the Court of the Divine Majesty”. Stravinskas rightly highlights that truth from which all else liturgical flows.

  2. Half a century of Novus Ordoism has brought about a fundamental shift in how the majority of baptized Catholics view the Church. It is no exaggeration to say that it has produced something of a parody of Catholicism with an inordinate emphasis on “the community” rather than on the worship of God, “in community”. Even to many regular Sunday Mass attendees, Mass is regarded as a social gathering at which the priest is no longer an alter Christus offering the Holy Sacrifice on the Calvary that is the altar, on our behalf. Rather, to many he now has the function of an emcee at a social event, and sasdly many priests do little or nothing to disabuse us of this false notion. Liturgical music has been replaced by anodyne religious entertainment, and there are those who, having been thus “entertained” demonstrate their appreciation at the conclusion of the proceedings with a round of applause.

  3. “At the end of the day, those matters are symptomatic of a far deeper problem, . . . . [w]hich is to say that our difficulties are not about taste but about doctrine.”

    It should be noted that Guardini died a year before the Novus Ordo was imposed by Paul VI. The development of his entire spiritual and intellectual life and especially his “over-arching framework for a genuine understanding of the Sacred Liturgy” therefore cannot possibly be understood, let alone applied, without reverencing and sharing the traditional Latin liturgy and the “Mass of all times” that nourished and sustained him.

    Nothing in Guardini’s great works was based upon or referred to the Novus Ordo as it exists today. In point of fact, Ratzinger, in applying Guardini’s principles, has precisely described the Novus Ordo in terms that Guardini would not have hesitated to make his own:

    “The liturgical reform, in its concrete realization, has distanced itself even more from its origin. The result has not been a reanimation, but devastation. In place of the liturgy, fruit of a continual development, they have placed a fabricated liturgy. They have deserted a vital process of growth and becoming in order to substitute a fabrication. They did not want to continue the development, the organic maturing of something living through the centuries, and they replaced it, in the manner of technical production, by a fabrication, a banal product of the moment.” (Ratzinger in Revue Theologisches, Vol. 20, Feb. 1990, pgs. 103-104)

    And it is precisely too because the doctrine held by Guardini, Pius XII, and Pieper is not shared by the Novus Ordo that “ad orientem celebrations of Mass; the place of Latin; the nature of sacred music; the placement of the tabernacle; what constitutes sacred art during a revival of iconoclasm; the importance of kneeling; the centrality of silence” are today characterized as “neuralgic” and almost universally excluded and even forbidden, as Pope Francis did to Cardinal Sarah’s instruction on ad orientem celebration despite deceitfully encouraging him “to continue the liturgical program of Pope Benedict”.

    The emerging reality is that a counterfeit liturgy has produced a counterfeit Church with a counterfeit hierarchy that is in turn producing seismic schisms in doctrine and discipline. Guardini’s great value lies in bearing witness to the primacy of truth in the traditional Sacred Liturgy’s manifestation of immutable Catholic doctrine.

    • I attend a Novus Ordo Mass each Sunday at a parish that includes all of these done properly:

      Ad orientem, Latin, sacred music, tabernacle in the center, kneeling (including at the altar rail, and silence. There is also at least one traditional form of the Mass each day.

  4. I am blessed to be able to attend the Tridentine Rite Mass nearly every Sunday. I pray that this is a moment of insanity within our Church and that, paraphrasing Paul, above, our counterfeit liturgy and counterfeit hierarchy will be eclipsed. If so, it will be another act of a merciful God towards an undeserving people.

  5. I sometimes do wonder about what exactly replaced Latin back in the late 1960’s in seminary class study. Such a large gap had to be filled by something. It all seems like tragic irony considering that it all came coincidental to what we can imagine to be the moral (homosexual) decline in priestly formation.

    • Truth be told, Latin did not have a very big place in the old seminary system BECAUSE most seminarians came in with at least four years of high school Latin. Of course, the liturgy was in Latin and textbooks were in Latin — but Latin as a subject was generally only for “late vocations” who may not have had the academic background.

  6. Wow! Reading this three things jumped out immediately as to why the liturgy has been such a trial for so long. Instead of the heart being guided by reason the liturgists have tried to appeal to emotions. The liturgy has also been guided by the cult of the slob. And the liturgy has been directed by pride, egoism, and narcissism.

    Thank goodness things are getting better in many places.

  7. I would argue that the “reform” of the liturgy was not a reform but a purposeful transformation designed to indoctrinate Catholics into the synthesis of heresies, Modernism, and done exactly like Crammer with demonic success.

    Reams of works critical of the Novus Ordo are available for those who actually want to know the truth about who and why this abomination was foisted upon us. Catholics were robbed of their heritage, deceived beyond imagination and “by their fruits ye shall know them” find the idolatry, blasphemy, and sacrileges inherent in this false worship have served to destroy the faith of millions.

    I would not dishonor God by attending this abominable service. It isn’t the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is an invention of man, man-centered and as fake as our daily fake news.

  8. “In place of the liturgy, fruit of a continual development, they have placed a fabricated liturgy. They have deserted a vital process … to substitute a fabrication. They replaced it … by a fabrication, a banal product of the moment.” Who is this “they” Ratzinger was talking about? Oh, yes, Pope Paul VI, one of our instant saints, the supreme wreckovator of our age.

    • The reform was going badly enough, but got much, much worse due to the active intervention of Paul VI, and his gullibility to the machinations of Annibale Bugnini. But notwithstanding the latter’s influence, we have the Novus Ordo because Paul VI wanted it and imposed it by papal fiat. That couldn’t have happened by any other means.

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