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The "Liturgical Act" Today

Romano Guardini

In April of 1964 Romano Guardini wrote an open letter to Johannes Wagner in conjunction with the Third German Liturgical Conference held in Mainz. The fundamental questions raised by the renowned Italian-German theologian a few months after the promulgation of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy remain vitally relevant nearly forty years later. This translation, reprinted here with acknowledgment, originally appeared in the July 1964 issue of Herder Correspondence. The style of that text is maintained here.


Dear Friend:

I had very much wanted to take part in the Liturgical Congress at Mainz; I should have been glad of the opportunity to raise a point that seems important to me. This is, unfortunately, impossible; I must be content to tell you my thoughts in a letter and hope that you will find a way to pass them on.


Liturgical work, as we all know, has reached an important juncture. The Council has laid the foundations for the future-and the way this came to pass and truth became manifest will remain a classical example of the way the Holy Spirit guides the Church. But now the question arises how we are to set about our task, so that truth may become reality.

A mass of ritual and textual problems will, of course, present themselves-and long experience has shown how much scope there is for a right and a wrong approach. But the central problem seems to me to be something else: the problem of the cult act or, to be more precise, the liturgical act.

As I see it, typical nineteenth-century man was no longer able to perform this act; in fact he was unaware of its existence. Religious conduct was to him an individual inward matter which in the 'liturgy' took on the character of an official, public ceremonial. But the sense of the liturgical action was thereby lost. The faithful did not perform a proper liturgical act at all, it was simply a private and inward act, surrounded by ceremonial and not infrequently accompanied by a feeling that the ceremonial was really a disturbing factor. From that point of view the efforts of those who concerned themselves with the liturgy must have appeared as peculiarities of aesthetes who lacked Christian sincerity.

The intensity of the Council discussions could not fail to bring home to anyone actively interested in the Church that here was a matter of fundamental importance. Anyone who did not become too engrossed in secondary problems-such as the advisability of using the mother tongue-must have found himself wondering what is was about the liturgy that caused such fierce arguments. The conclusion was inescapable that the religious act underlying the liturgy was something singular and important.

Further consideration of the nature of this singularity would lead to the conclusion that the liturgical act was performed by individuals who did, however, in so far as they were a sociological entity, form a corpus: the congregation, or rather the Church present therein.

The act embraced not only a spiritual inwardness, but the whole man, body as well as spirit. Therefore, the external action was in itself a 'prayer', a religious act; the times, places, and things included in the action were not merely external decorations, but elements of the whole act and would have to be practiced as such, and so forth.

The usual discussion generally brings out only the sociological, ethnological aspect: participation by the congregation and the use of the vernacular. There is, of course, far more to it than that: the act as a whole needs to be considered, in fact a whole world of acts which have become atrophied and are now to take on new life. But they must first be noticed and recognized as essential-and the danger is great that everything that is said will be dismissed as artificial and officious, especially by those whose inclinations are individualistic, rationalistic, and above all, attached to traditions.

The question is whether the wonderful opportunities now open to the liturgy will achieve their full realization; whether we shall be satisfied with just removing anomalies, taking new situations into account, giving better instruction on the meaning of ceremonies and liturgical vessels or whether we shall re-learn a forgotten way of doing things and recapture lost attitudes.


The question will, of course, arise whether our present liturgy contains parts which cannot mean much to modern man. I remember a conversation with the late Abbot Ildefons Herwegen of Maria Laach, the great champion of liturgical renewal. We had been considering various aspects and I said a sign that the work for the liturgy was really coming to life would be a liturgical crisis, and Abbot Herwegen thoughtfully agreed. As long as liturgical actions are merely 'celebrated' objectively and texts are merely 'got through', everything will go smoothly because there is no question of an integrated religious act. But once serious prayer is joined to the action, the parts that have no living appeal become apparent.

But those whose task it is to teach and educate will have to ask themselves-and this is all-decisive-whether they themselves desire that liturgical act or, to put it plainly, whether they know of its existence and what exactly it consists of and that it is neither a luxury nor an oddity, but a matter of fundamental importance. Or does it, basically, mean the same to them as to the parish priest of the late nineteenth century who said: 'We must organize the procession better; we must see to it that the praying and singing is done better'. He did not realize that he should have asked himself quite a different question: how can the act of walking become a religious act, a retinue for the Lord progressing through his land, so that an 'epiphany' may take place.


The basic question then is this: of what does the integrated liturgical act consist?

This becomes clearest when it is a matter of 'doing', for instance, the offertory procession, where this is customary. It makes all the difference whether the faithful look on this procession as a mere means to an end which could have been achieved equally well with someone coming round with the collection-plate, or whether they know that the act of bringing their gifts is a 'prayer' in itself, a readiness towards God.

The act of 'doing' can also incorporate a thing, in this case a coin; or holy water for the sign of the cross; and the celebrant has the bread and the chalice with the wine. There is no need for words to give the 'meaning', for it is realized in the act itself. The same is true of localities and special places, times, days and hours.

The liturgical act can be realized by looking. This does not merely mean that the sense of vision takes note of what is going on in front, but it is in itself a living participation in the act. I once experienced this in Palermo Cathedral when I could sense the attention with which the people were following the blessings on Holy Saturday for hours on end without books or any words of 'explanation'. Much of this was, of course, an external 'gazing', but basically it was far more. The looking by the people was an act in itself; by looking they participated in the various actions. However, cinema, radio and television-not to forget the flood of tourists-will have destroyed this remainder of old contemplative forces.

Only if regarded in this way can the liturgical-symbolical action be properly understood: for instance, the washing of hands by the celebrant, but also liturgical gestures like the stretching out of hands over the chalice. It should not be necessary to have to add in words of thought, 'this means such and such', but the symbol should be 'done' by the celebrant as a religious act and the faithful should 'read' it by an analogous act; they should see the inner sense in the outward sign. Without this everything would be a waste of time and energy and it would be better simply to 'say' what was meant. But the 'symbol' is in itself something corporal-spiritual, an expression of the inward through the outward, and must as such be co-performed through the act of looking.


Of particular importance for the liturgical act is the active and full participation of the congregation as a body. The act is done by every individual, not as an isolated individual, but as a member of a body in which the Church is present. It is this body which is the 'we' of the prayers. Its structure is different from that of any other collection of people meeting for a common purpose. It is that of a corpus, an objective whole. In the liturgical act the celebrating individual becomes part of this body and he incorporates the circumstantes in his self-expression. This is not so simple if it is to be genuine and honest. Much that divides men must be overcome: dislikes, indifference towards the many who are 'no concern of mine', but who are really members of the same body; lethargy, etc. In the act the individual becomes conscious of the meaning of the words 'congregation' and 'Church'


If the intentions of the Council are to be realized, proper instruction will be needed, but real education will be needed too; practice will be necessary in order to learn the act. The active presence of the people of Palermo was based on the fact that they did not merely look up in the book what the various actions 'meant', but they actually 'read' them by simply looking-an after-effect of antique influences, probably paid for by a lack of primary education. Our problem is to rise above reading and writing and learn really to look with understanding.

This is the present task of liturgical education. If it is not taken in hand, reforms of rites and texts will not help much. It may even happen that people with a genuine concern for real piety come to feel that a misfortune is happening-like the venerable old parish priest who said: 'Before they started all this business with the liturgy my people were able to pray. Now there is a lot of talking and running around'.

A great deal of thought and experiment will, of course, be needed to get modern man to 'perform' the act without being theatrical and fussy. Nor must we forget that many who should be teachers and leaders are quite inexperienced in this field themselves; some even resist because they are inclined towards an individualistic way of devotion, regard these new demands as unreasonable and think in their hearts that it is just a question of waiting for the 'fashion' to pass-'no doubt in the end everything will remain as it has always been'.


The liturgical movement has passed through various phases. It would be useful and interesting to trace them not only in their chronological order, but also in their progressively changing inner sense. If I may make a very summary sketch, I would describe the first phase, which started at Solesmes, as restorative and in some ways politically restorative. (It was connected with efforts to overcome Gallicanism and sought closer ties with Rome.) The second originated in Belgian Benedictine monasteries and was of a strongly academic nature. The third, which was centred on the Austrian monastery of Klosterneuberg and various centres of the German Catholic youth movements, had a practical, realistic character: it tried to reach and interest the congregation as it was and thus came up primarily against the problem of the vernacular.

Now, as a result of the impulse given by the Council, a fourth phase must begin, one infusing new life into the liturgy. It will be raising a number of questions: What is the nature of the genuine liturgical action, as opposed to other religious actions, such as individual devotions or the loose communal act of popular devotions? How is the basic liturgical act constituted? What forms can it take? What might go wrong with it? How are its demands related to the make-up of modern man? What must be done so that he can really and truly learn it?

There are plenty of problems and tasks ahead. But perhaps one should, for the sake of clarification, put a preliminary question: Is not the liturgical act and, with it, all that goes under the name of 'liturgy' so bound up with the historical background-antique or medieval or baroque-that it would be more honest to give it up altogether? Would it not be better to admit that man in this industrial and scientific age, with its new sociological structure, is no longer capable of a liturgical act? And instead of talking of renewal ought we not to consider how best to celebrate the sacred mysteries so that modern man can grasp their meaning through his own approach to truth?

This seems a hard saying. But there are quite a number of people who think this way. We cannot simply dismiss them as people standing aloof, but we must ask how-if liturgy is indeed fundamental-we can best approach them.

There are indeed some promising and related developments. It is, for instance, no accident that the latest phase of the liturgical movement coincides with an awakening of a greater interest in the Church. At the same time the educational trend has been to present a far truer picture of man as a being whose body and spirit, outward and inner personality, form an integrated whole. The work for liturgical renewal has a lot to learn from these related developments. Some wise educationists have pointed out that modern man needs more than mere talk, intellectual explanations and formal organizing. The faculties of looking, doing and shaping must be fostered and included in the formative act; the musical element is more than merely decorative; the communal body of the congregation is more than a mere sitting together, but rather a solidarity of existence, and so forth.

There is a great deal to be said on this subject, but perhaps I had better close, or else my letter will turn into an epistle. Anyway, with my letter I send my very best wishes for the work of the Congress.