The World and the Person: And Other Writings
By Romano Guardini. Introduction by Robert Royal.
Regnery Gateway Editions, 2023.
Paperback, 688 pages, $24.99.

Reviewed by Rev. Joseph Scolaro.

Countless books have been and will be written on the transformation of society, especially in Europe, as a result of the World Wars of the twentieth century. Such a tumultuous period with such catastrophic consequences is rightfully examined for the lessons which it can impart to future generations. Yet today, when no one remains who can truly be said to have known both the before and after, it is much more difficult to grasp what it must have been like to live through such changes. We are inevitably influenced by the subconscious prejudices and presumptions of our own time. What must it have been like to live in Belle-Époque France, the Imperial Austria-Hungary of the Habsburgs, or Queen Victoria’s Britain where the sun never set? How much more tragic must the wars have been for those who lived in an age of such security, such confidence, and such hope in humanity?

A more effective course, rather than trying to imagine or project ourselves into that past, would be to put ourselves at the feet of those who have left behind their testimony of these lost ages, as children listen to stories of their grandparents’ youth. Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, for example, allows us to learn not just the historical facts, but to sense the way in which an Austrian thought and felt as events unfolded in both wars. T. S. Eliot’s poetry powerfully captures the disillusionment of the Lost Generation. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence reflects a certain nostalgia for a disappearing world.

For Catholics, Romano Guardini has left such a testimony. Having lived from 1885-1968, he is one of the emblematic figures who can speak of that old world now lost beyond our reach. Born in Verona in a newly unified Italy, raised in Mainz in an even more recently unified Germany, Guardini bridges not just eras, but cultural divides as well. In his insightful introduction to this recently published volume of Guardini’s works entitled The World and the Person: And Other Writings, Robert Royal describes him as a profoundly influential figure, notable as he “combines the academic rigor of the heyday of German intellectual life with the gentler human qualities of Italian culture.” His influence has seeped into the twenty-first century through no less than Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, both of whom studied Guardini’s thought as doctoral students.

In his more prominent works, Guardini offers penetrating insights into what he would describe as the end of the modern world, a time in which he saw an old age fading into a new, now called “postmodern,” one. Aware of the need for spiritual renewal in a world inebriated with technological power (The End of the Modern World), vocal about the need for renewal in the Church both spiritually (The Lord) and liturgically (The Spirit of the Liturgy), Guardini spoke as a man deeply embedded in that old world and yet dynamically engaged with the question of what such a new world could bring and what lessons from the old should not be forgotten. Difficult to pin into any particular school of thought or into simplistic progressive/conservative categories, he is a refreshing writer who engages contentious issues with a clarity and openness that remains rooted in human experience.

What is perhaps most striking for us today, however, is that in reading him we encounter someone so deeply enmeshed in the western tradition that he could describe “the modern world” as if it were some coherent whole, while what we experience as “the postmodern world” is exactly the opposite—a fragmented world without any coherence. He would have been classically educated, taught his catechism, and able to engage a long line of thinkers tracing back millennia (something evident in his references) and to bring their contributions to bear on contemporary problems. How different from today when there are no shared authorities and no sense of a community with shared commitments, even in the Catholic Church, where suddenly speaking of dogma is seen as restrictive rather than the foundation for any meaningful communion. Indeed, addressing a world not only after the World Wars, but also after the upheavals of the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, Guardini provides insight into a lost world that has much to teach.

This volume, by featuring some of his lesser-known works, furnishes a new pathway into the mind of such a man, so that we might grasp not only his ideas, but more importantly the way in which he thought and prayed as someone emblematic of a tradition far greater than himself. He himself writes in the preface to the first work, The Virtues: On Forms of Moral Life, that he offers “reflections,” explaining, “They are purposely called by this name to distinguish them from scholarly treatises.” This is complemented by The Word of God: On Faith, Hope, and Charity; The World and the Person; The Church of the Lord: On the Nature and Mission of the Church; and The Wisdom of the Psalms. Guardini in humility speaks as one contributing to the open and ongoing dialogue of a culture trying to grapple with contemporary challenges, writing in The World and the Person, “These essays are not dissertations, setting forth completely envisioned and elaborated matters, but experiments in which certain ideas are brought to bear upon very complicated conditions in order to find out their usefulness.”

In an age rife with polarization, Guardini therefore offers a promising remedy. He is appreciated by many on both sides of contentious issues, such as the liturgy, because it is clear he is not an ideologue but a man of ideas. He did not settle for pat answers, but critically engaged issues from a perspective of intellectual and spiritual depth so as to advance the gift of the tradition that he had received. In reading him, it is clear that he understood himself as bearing a responsibility for ensuring that the great good of western culture and the Catholic faith live on and continue to illuminate the world. 

If we seek to overcome the challenges of our time, we would do well to learn from and follow the example of such a man of wisdom from the past as Romano Guardini, who presciently saw the coming dangers: “This is also a modern way of thinking, modern subjectivism and individualism, which is already disintegrating and by a reaction becoming its direct opposite, the totalitarianism of politic and economic powers.” And so we harken to his wisdom, “[The writer] has lived a long life and from the study of history and of human nature has learned something of the tendencies in accord with which given impulses work out in actual human affairs. He wishes therefore that the events of the present age may not lead to a weakening of the Church or her stagnation but that men may always remain clearly conscious of the fact that the Church is a ‘mystery’ and a ‘rock.’” 

Rev. Joseph Scolaro is a doctoral student in theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

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