Romano Guardini’s advice for Catholics at Mass in 1936 could have been written today

Faithful at Mass in the Extraordinary Form face the same challenge of distraction (Photo: CNS)

I have recently finished reading Romano Guardini’s Meditations Before Mass (Guardini was the priest and liturgist who was highly influential in the thinking of Benedict XVI). Produced by Ave Maria Press in their “Christian Classics” series, it is indeed a classic text; this is obvious to those like me who have no liturgical scholarship. Indeed, it was written in 1936 (and first published in English in 1956) to help ordinary lay Catholics to understand and thus “live” the Mass better. (Readers in the UK can order it here.)

What was interesting to me is that if you did not know the date of its publication, when all Catholics attended the Tridentine or Latin rite, you would not think there was any difference between worshippers then and now. If this sounds an odd remark, let me explain: today, almost all Catholics attend the Ordinary Form of the Mass (OF) and a much smaller section of the Catholic population attends the Extraordinary Form (EF). Inevitably, given human nature and our inherent capacity for thinking well of ourselves, a sense has sometimes developed that attending the latter is somehow more worthy, more serious, more “the right way to worship” than attending the former. This can lead to the thought that attendees of the EF are more pious, more recollected, more attentive to what is being celebrated than the attendees of the OF.

Reading Guardini you conclude that human nature, with its capacity for restlessness, distractedness and the dead hand of habit, hasn’t changed much between 1936 and 2010; the Mass is the Mass, whatever the form in which it is celebrated, and we all struggle to participate worthily. Guardini writes about the need to transform “a restless crowd into a ‘holy people’ in the sight of God.” He thinks that “possibly the true nature of the Mass is feebly established in the Christian consciousness in spite of catechism, sermon and much pious literature, because the believers rarely ‘do’ it properly”.

His book is divided into two parts: Sacred Bearing and The Essence of the Mass. For someone like me, addicted to the printed word, it was quite salutary to be reminded by Guardini in his chapter “Silence and Hearing” that we are meant to listen to the texts rather than to read them alongside the priest or lectors. He comments: “Faith can, of course, be kindled from the written text, but the Gospel, the ‘glad tidings’, gains its full power only when it is heard.” My training in this regard is ongoing.

Guardini further observes – remember: he is talking about the EF – that “constant unrest is one of [the Mass’s] earmarks: there is much gazing about, uncalled for kneeling down … reaching for this and that, fingering of apparel, coughing and throat-clearing.” He thinks that the way people sing, listen and respond shows that “they are not composed.” My mental image of a deeply devout, mantilla-wearing congregation at the EF starts to recede.

Some of the most interesting chapters are on “hindrances” to worship: habit, sentimentality and human nature. He has many sensible reflections to offer on these subjects. On habit he even suggests that daily Mass-goers should ask themselves whether their attendance has become merely mechanical observance; if so, he suggests “it is certainly advisable for him to attend less frequently” until he has changed his behaviour.

By sentimentality Guardini means the corruption of true devotion, such as to the Sacred Heart, into “an intolerable effeminacy and unnaturalness”, as well as those people who tend to an over-emotional religiosity in their worship; “In place of the missal’s powerful language, we find Mass ‘devotions’ abounding…” he comments. On the subject of human nature he notes that the congregation “can also passively watch the ceremony unwind, an accepted tradition, day after day, Sunday after Sunday”, treating the Mass as a spectacle at which they are spectators. He reminds us here that “everyone is responsible for the celebration of the Mass” and that an individual should not be “unduly upset” by the limitations of the Mass he attends; he must accept it as it happens to be (mind you, Guardini wrote this of the EF – when temptations to “experiment” with the OF were well in the future). My conclusion: this slim book – it is entitled “Meditations” after all – can be read profitably by all Mass-goers, whatever the form they choose to attend, who want to participate more fully in the central sacred act of Catholic worship.