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Does Modern Man Have a Capacity for Liturgy? (1966)

Above: St. Engelbert in Cologne, 1928−1932 designed by Dominikus Böhm (1880 – 1955).

Translator’s Introduction

Jennifer S. Bryson


In a letter in 1964, Fr. Romano Guardini offered his guidance for the participants of a conference on the liturgy in Mainz, Germany. He asked,

Is the liturgical act, and with it the meaning of liturgy in general, so historically bound—ancient, medieval, or baroque—that if one is going to be honest, one should abandon it entirely? Shouldn’t one bring oneself to realize that a human being in the industrial age, the era of technology, and in the sociological structures resulting from them, is simply no longer capable of the liturgical act? And shouldn’t one, instead of talking about renewal, consider in what way the sacred mysteries are to be celebrated so that a person today could relate to them with his truth?[1]

In his letter, Guardini offers an example to explain why he wonders about the capacity of people in the mid-twentieth century to carry out what he calls “the liturgical act.” He writes:

If I perceive this correctly, the typical person in the nineteenth century was no longer capable of this act, in fact, he no longer understood anything about it. For him, religious behavior was simply that which was internal to the individual—which then assumed the character of an official, public solemnity as a “liturgy.” With that, the meaning of the liturgical act was lost. What the believer performed was not actually a liturgical act, but a private, inner act encased in ceremonies—not infrequently accompanied by the feeling that the ceremony was a disruption to this act.[2]

Based on the thrust of Guardini’s 1964 letter, Theodor Bogler, OSB, from the monastery of Maria Laach in Germany, a hub of liturgical reform at the time, asked thirty-two authors from various backgrounds, mostly Catholics plus a few Protestants, “Does modern man still have a capacity for liturgy?” (“Ist der Mensch von heute noch liturgiefähig?”). One of these authors was Ida Friederike Görres (1901-1971).[3] This essay is her response. Her essay does not have a title. I have taken the title of this publication in Logos for both the English translation (“When Does a Person Have a Capacity for Liturgy?”) and the German text (“Wann ist der Mensch liturgiefähig?”), from the heading of section II in her essay. I selected this as the title because Görres objects to the way Bogler has framed the question and she instead reframes the topic by posing this as her own question. [For this publication in One Peter Five, I titled the essay “Does Modern Man Have a Capacity for Liturgy?” because this better reflects what was viewed as a pressing question of the era when Görres wrote this, even while Görres considers this the wrong way to approach this topic.]

The translation of this essay into English posed a particular challenge because there is no English word for the very topic of the essay. It is expressed in German by the compound adjective liturgiefähig and the related compound noun Liturgiefähigkeit. I chose to translate liturgiefähig as “having a capacity for liturgy.” I translate the second half of this compound word, “-fähig,” as “having a capacity” since I understand Görres to mean by “-fähig” both “the amount that can be held” and “the ability to do something in particular.”[4]

The endnotes in this publication in both this English translation and the German text have been added by me. The original German text from 1966 has no annotation.

Regarding the liturgical reforms of this era, Ida Görres made additional observations—including some sharp criticisms—in her 1969 essay, “Remarks on Celibacy,” [her 1969 essay “Demolition Troops in the Church,”] and her 1970 lecture, “Trusting the Church.”[5]

Does Modern Man Have a Capacity for Liturgy?

By Ida Friederike Görres

Translated by Jennifer S. Bryson

Ida Friederike Görres, née Countess Coudenhove, born in Ronsperg (Bohemia), a resident of Freiburg im Breisgau, author of, among other works, The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1946); Nocturne: Diary and Sketches (1949); The Church in the Flesh: Six Letters on the Catholic Faith (1951); Is Celibacy Outdated? (1962); The Checkered Christian and other Commentaries and Essays (1964); Broken Lights: Diaries and Letters, 1951–1959 (1966).[6]


The very important question—Does modern man still have a capacity for liturgy?—seems to me to have been phrased not quite right. In this form, it is not yet a suggestive question, but it moves in the direction of saying that any incapacity for liturgy appears from the outset to be due to the industrial-technical age.

Is this really the case? I would rather formulate the question as: When does modern man have a capacity for liturgy?

Proof that people today have this capacity is sufficiently demonstrated, it seems to me, by the Church in the Eastern Bloc.[7] Bishop[s], priests, laymen from there report unanimously how the liturgy there is literally “what people live on,” what binds, sustains, shapes, and nourishes the community. “From it, one can now live for another year,” said an industrial worker to Bishop Otto Spülbeck after the celebration of the Easter Vigil.[8] The newsletters from Fr. Theo Gunkel in Leipzig,[9] for example, inadvertently and convincingly give poignant testimony about everyday life in the Church.

From the little that is known about the “Church of Silence,”[10] it seems that even the completely unreformed, fully Latin liturgy, still burdened with everything that has been painstakingly tossed out here, represents a true force—in the midst of the autocratic rule of a technocratic and a religiously hostile, coercive civilization.

In our country, people seem to show an undiminished capacity for communal experiences and activities, including at social, sporting, and political events, which would be at least a minimal psychological and sociological requirement to experience the liturgy fully.

II. When does a person have a capacity for liturgy?

  1. When he considers the worship of God to be an essential, necessary, irreplaceable, and central component of his faith and his religious existence: at least as important as serving others.
  2. When he regards the worship of God not strictly as a private need but rather as a duty of the fellowship of believers; so, not out of mere conviction and interiority, rather translatable into words, gestures, and symbols.
  3. When he is willing to exercise this fellowship of worship in the ritual of the Church.
  4. When he understands and agrees that this worship, personally and collectively, requires an expressive language that is appropriate to the subject in word and gesture, understandable and psychologically feasible; when he understands and agrees that precisely for this reason it cannot depend on spontaneous ideas and personal moods, but must be ordered, obligatory, and at the same time suitable to a variable element, that is, changeable and adaptable, yet barred from arbitrariness and gimmicks.
  5. When he accepts and recognizes a competent and responsible officiant and leader of the ritual and is ready to submit to him.
  6. When he understands the praying and sacrificing congregation not only geographically as the one gathered locally, as temporary—“for only one era” (Rosenstock-Huessy)[11]— and possibly also restricted to one age group or to the mindset of one group whose taste must dominate, but as the whole Church of the world and as the historical Church from Christ to this day, that is, “for multiple eras” and yet identical with the Church herself.
  7. When he is ready and willing to acknowledge and recognize his connection to this Church also in the liturgy and to feel that he is in solidarity with her: that is, to carry on what has been handed down from the binding past as a legacy and as something that builds a bridge to the future of this Church, to pass this on to trustworthy hands, with organic change where it is meaningful and necessary.
  8. When he has a religious relationship to Holy Scripture as a relationship to the Word of God and to the accumulated interpretations and explanations of Scripture over the course of the life of the Church, as a spiritual treasure that he measures in relation to the whole and wants to nourish from the whole.

III. A person does not have a capacity for liturgy:

  1. When he regards the worship of God as a relic of religious history that has been overcome, at best as a peripheral ornament of the true life of faith, which consists solely and essentially in serving others.
  2. When he himself practices the worship of God only occasionally, at his own discretion, according to his subjective mood and motive at the time, and he advocates this freedom for all other people as well.
  3. When it seems impossible and basically unacceptable for him to join with others except with small groups of people who are completely like-minded and have a similar temperament.
  4. When he furthermore takes the view that ritual, if at all, should be shaped as much as possible according to spontaneous ideas and individual suggestions from the celebrant or individual fellow worshipers, and that liturgy, if at all, should be perpetual experimentation.
  5. When he cannot imagine a legitimate officiant and obligatory rubrics and he despises the existing ones as not valid for himself.
  6. When he can only think of “church” as something “for only one era,” that is, as concerning only his generation, and he does not want to know or rejects the historical connections, or treats them eclectically in a purely private manner, for example, determining some point in history as the only binding model.
  7. When he regards ritual in general as a relic of religious history and thus rejects holy days (Sundays, feast days, the liturgical year!), sacred spaces (sanctuary, altar, tabernacle), as well as customs and practices as enchanted fossils.
  8. When the Holy Scriptures are no longer “sacred” to him in a theological sense, but rather a piece of literature to be treated purely in terms of philology, culture, and history. After all, why should normal people come together specifically to listen to or read aloud texts that basically concern them just as little as Babylonian psalms or Egyptian sun hymns?


None of these factors are innate, rather they are taught; they are a “com-munication,” not an aptitude. (Compare this with Goethe in Wilhelm Meister, on the “Pedagogic Province”: “There is one thing that no one brings with him into the world, and yet it is the key factor .. . reverence!”; it can only be acquired through education and yet it is the most important thing in life.)[12]

A capacity for liturgy must be communicated, awakened, promoted, and guided—in particular its premises—otherwise this capacity is by its nature missing or it becomes stunted.

In the period when “liturgy” was on average sloppy, calcified, corrupted by irrelevant encrustations, it could often, in fact, hardly be awakened, not at all cultivated, at most distorted—which is illustrated by the decay of that time, despite the pre-technical, traditional spirit of the era. The fourth point, usually also the eighth, was missing or stunted or suppressed.

However, where those people encountered the reality of authentic liturgy, they very quickly felt that it spoke to them and they “had a capacity to respond.” I think this would often be the case today too. The climate of our time is certainly unfavorable to such developments, but it would not be insurmountable if one were to push back inside the Church. But that is where there is a lack. Because the actual stumbling block of our era is the opposition to tradition; this is often not an unconscious aura or a mere epiphenomenon, rather a passionate and deliberate core intention.

The second group, as a result, is almost entirely conditioned by the conclusions of rather complicated theses and theories that never rise up spontaneously and that can only be acquired through reading and listening, even when they are approved out of spontaneous sympathy. This sympathy, like the analogously oriented approach to education, depends, to start with, on the zeitgeist, which by no means involves only the economic-technical situation.

It seems to me that the factors of the second group apply today far more to theologians and clergy than to the “people in the pews”; or, where we find these criteria among lay people, they seem mostly to have been inculcated by theologians. This attitude, however, never seems to me to be born spontaneously from the technical-industrial zeitgeist, but rather to consist clearly of intra-Church “oppositional positions,” a mix of all-too-understandable protests, point by point, against the pushing of certain traditional positions too far, unbearably too far. But the poor layman has now become the battlefield and the experimental retort which theologians use to give vent to their struggles with their own unresolved past. That is why one cannot simply speak of the layman’s incapacity for liturgy, if along the way he runs out of steam, if he feels repulsed, or if the whole saga becomes boring for him and he becomes indifferent to it.

To emphasize just one point: When some priests endeavor to instill in the layman a fundamental, comprehensive contempt for most of the details of our ecclesiastical past, a fundamental mistrust, a fundamental readiness to mock, to find as much of what has been handed down as possible to be stupid, ridiculous, and worth denying—indeed, to judge reverence, gratitude, and loyalty, this very demeanor itself, as evidence of uptightness, narrow-mindedness, intellectual stagnation, simply as symptoms of “the backward state of Catholic education”—then what should someone who is instructed and led in this way do with liturgy, in whatever form? He cannot get to the point of encountering the “material” with openness, trust, and a willingness to learn.

In that case, it seems to me, the capacity for liturgy is just simply destroyed. But this does not happen from the outside through the technical age, rather from the inside, through the priest himself, who fails because of interior uncertainty and division when faced with the task of passing along tradition.

Likewise, when priests push a well-intentioned, understandable, and justifiable aspiration for redress against earlier unsustainable clerical pretensions based on status, to such an extent that they destroy the doctrinally traditional understanding of the priesthood into something “enchanted” and unchristian, they do not replace it with an objectively deepened and purified one, but rather with a mere functionary figure.


For the layperson’s relationship to the liturgy depends to the greatest and most far-reaching extent on the bearing of the celebrant. One cannot but be thoroughly surprised that the well-known slovenliness, numbness, and coldness of the celebration of the Mass, the lack of awe and the lack of charity, often to the point of the nearly complete concealment of the ceremony, did not drive far more believers out of the Church over the course of many decades: so too today, the best-intentioned and potentially most fruitful liturgical reforms are only effective if, above all, the priests carry them out from within. The new forms can also be celebrated in a perfunctory, mindless, cold, mechanical, irreverent, pompous, and theatrical manner—and then the believer’s situation is even worse than before: for while he was able at least to collect and help himself during the silent Mass, the unstructured, undisciplined chatter of the community, the race between celebrant and people to have their say, the din of the loud speaker, make this impossible for him. Even a person who absolutely has a capacity and a desire for the liturgy can be painfully put off from any participation, just as before the reform by other nonsense.[13]

Conversely, there are priests whose celebration of the liturgy simply gathers, elevates, animates, purifies, and merges the prayer power of the faithful into one, and without it being any distinctly pedagogical and didactic event. Such celebrants literally act like a lens that serves as a focal point. The congregation experiences noticeably how all the rays are fused together at their “pinnacle” and “elevated at that point.”

We had the good fortune to spend twenty years in such a parish.[14] If the priest, for example, baptized a child, adults from outside the parish who happened to be present, converts as well as “cradle Catholics,” pious people as well as the unchurched, told me that they had, from just watching—the pastor catechized without explaining!—for the first time understood baptism, what baptism is: just through the drama of the celebration.

How much this depends on the celebrant himself, however, was also shown by the fact that this parish that was so “drawn in” for decades crumbled back into an amorphous heap during the priest’s vacations, hardly muttering et cum spiritu tuo to the priest—everyone knows how it is with particles of iron when the unifying magnet is pulled away.

Is that just a rare charism, or can the priest consciously practice and cultivate being the focus and unifying bearer of the parish ceremony?


This translation was first published as Görres, Ida Friederike. “When Does a Person Have a Capacity for Liturgy?” Translated by Jennifer S. Bryson. Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 25, no. 3 (Summer 2022): 126–39. It was published in the “Re-considerations” section of Logos for “historical (and often neglected) texts in the Catholic intellectual tradition with contemporary comment and reflection.” This essay is a translation of an untitled response essay in Ist der heutige Mensch noch liturgiefähig? Ergebnisse einer Umfrage. Liturgie und Mönchtum, vol. 38, ed. Theodor Bogler, OSB. Maria Laach, Germany: Verlag Ars Liturgica, 1966, 57–63. This German edition of this essay was reprinted as Ida Friederike Görres, “Ist der heutige Mensch noch liturgiefähig?” in Ida Friederike Görres, Wolfgang Lehmann, Josef Ratzinger, Der gewandelte Thron: Bemerkungen zur Synode und anderes. Freiburg, Germany: Jung-Verlag, 1971, 77–86. [And it was republished as Görres, Ida Friederike. “Wann Ist Der Mensch Liturgiefähig?” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 25, no. 3 (2022): 140–48.]

[1] Romano Guardini, “Der Kultakt und die gegenwärtige Aufgabe der liturgischen Bildung, Ein Brief,” Liturgisches Jahrbuch 14 (1964): 106. [Translation of Guardini quotes by Bryson.] The phrase I have translated here as “his truth” is, literally, “seine Wahrheit.” An alternative translation for this phrase could be, “his experience in life.”

[2] Ibid., 101–102.

[3] See Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, “Only the Lover Discerns: A Brief Introduction to Ida Friederike Görres,” trans. Jennifer S. Bryson, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 23, no. 4 (2020): 117–122. [See also Ida Friederike Görres and]

[4] “Capacity” in Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press & Assessment,

[5] My English translation of the essay “Remarks on Celibacy,” [the essay “Demolition Troops in the Church”], and the lecture “Trusting the Church” will appear in the book: Ida Friederike Görres, Bread Grows in Winter, trans. Jennifer S. Bryson (forthcoming). “Trusting the Church” is also available as: Ida Friederike Görres, “Trusting the Church: A Lecture (1970),” trans. Jennifer S. Bryson in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 23, no. 4 (Fall 2020): 123–147. [In addition, an audio edition of “Trusting the Church: A Lecture,” read by Karina Majewski, is available at Catholic Culture Audiobooks, June 15, 2021.] In German, see Ida Friederike Görres, “Bemerkungen zum Zölibat,” [“Abbruchkommandos in der Kirche”], and “Vertrauen zur Kirche,” in Im Winter wächst das Brot: Sechs Versuche über die Kirche (Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Johannes Verlag, 1970), 77–102[, 31–41], and 103–131, respectively.

[6] Ida Friederike Görres, The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1903). Görres, Nocturne: Diary and Sketches, i.e., Nocturne, Tagebuch und Aufzeichnungen (Frankfurt am Main: Josef Knecht, 1949); this has not been translated into English. Görres, The Church in the Flesh, trans. Jennifer Sue Bryson (Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, forthcoming [2023]). Görres, Is Celibacy Outdated?, trans. Barbara Waldstein-Wartenberg (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1965). Görres, Der karierte Christ und andere Glossen und Beiträge (Frankfurt am Main: Josef Knecht, 1966); this has not been translated into English [I would like to translate this book into English if funding can be found to support this work, Bryson]. Görres, Broken Lights: Diaries and Letters, 1951–1959, trans. Barbara Waldstein-Wartenberg (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1964). For a nearly comprehensive bibliography of the works of Görres in German, see Michael Kleinert, Es wächst viel Brot in der Winter nacht: Theologische Grundlinien im Werk von Ida Friederike Görres (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2002), 389-411. For a partial, work-in-progress bibliography of the translations of works by Ida Friederike Görres into many languages, visit: https://www.idagoerres. org/translations. [For a full bibliography, see: Jennifer Sue Bryson. “Ida Friederike Görres in Translation 1932–2022: A Bibliography in Fourteen Languages.” In Sigmund Bonk, ed. „Glut und Schmerz des Glaubens“. Ein neuer Blick auf Ida Friederike Görres (1901-1971). Regensburg, Germany: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 2023. (Forthcoming.)]

[7] Görres emphasizes the faith of Catholics in the Eastern bloc in other writings too. For example, she writes movingly of the witness of Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty (1892–1975) in Die leibhaftige Kirche (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1994), 59 and 214 (see chapters 2 and 5 in the English translation, Görres, The Church in the Flesh, forthcoming [2023]). Also, in the essay on “On Our Image of Christ,” she writes, “I heard, from a very reliable source, about a highly talented young man in the Eastern Bloc, who was offered a fast-track and attractive career by a Party official if he would join them. At last, the official said angrily, since the other man was still silent: ‘What else do you want that we can’t give you?’ ‘Christ,’ said the young man. ‘And I can’t live without Him.’” Ida Friederike Görres, Im Winter wächst das Brot (Einsiedeln: Switzerland, 1970), 27; English translation [Bread Grows in Winter], forthcoming.

[8] Otto Spülbeck (1904–1970), bishop of the Diocese of Meissen in the German Democratic Republic from 1958 to 1970.

[9] Fr. Theo Gunkel (1898–1972).

[10] Regarding the label “Silent Church”: “. . . the isolation from the West worked, so that hardly any news about the real situation in the individual states leaked out and therefore the term ‘Church of Silence’ became established in 1949.” Hubert Wolf, “Kirche des Schweigens, Katholische Nachkriegsgeschichte von Albanien bis Ungarn / Polens besonderer Weg,” Rezension: Sachbuch in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 5, 2000. -kirche-des-schweigens-110763.html.

[11] Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973).

[12] The German text has this entire sentence in quotation marks, but I was only able to find the first half of it in Wilhelm Meister. The second half of this sentence may be a paraphrase by Görres. In the same passage, Goethe expresses the sentiment of the second half of the sentence in other words. Goethe writes, “There is one thing that no one brings with him into the world, and yet it is the key factor in enabling a human being to become a complete human being . . . reverence! There is a lack of it all round, perhaps you lack it yourself. . . . Fear is appropriate, but not reverence, with regard to nature. . . . It is easy, but burdensome to be afraid; to cherish reverence is difficult, but desirable. Man is reluctant to resolve on reverence, or rather he never resolves on it; it is a higher sense that has to be given to his nature. . . .” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Travel, or, The Renunciants (New York: Riverrun Press, 1980), 12–13.

[13] [In 1946, Görres wrote:] “Did you never stray into one of the countless churches or chapels, in village or town, where the Holy Sacrifice was rattled away—certainly not ‘celebrated’—with heartless and indecent hurry and negligence … and you could not have told who was most bored by the performance, the priest or the congregation? … Are you really convinced that our Catholic preachers make most of the stupendous and unique chance of talking every week to the most willing, trustful and patient audience, to people starving for a simple, clear and practical guidance on their way to God, ready to accept anything from that quarter? What do they ask for but a chunk of real wholesome substantial bread, not fancy stuff, a real message to feed upon, to digest, to carry home and live upon? Would they, do you think, shut their ears and spurn it, if duly offered? Why, then, are they presented, more often than not, with empty, flabby chatter, the Eternal Word watered down to flimsiest small-talk, worn-out stereotypes from outmoded homiletic manuals, weakly spiced with stories supposed to be funny or edifying, sermons neither serviceable nor intelligible (mark, I did not say brilliant nor learned!), just futile displays of the speaker’s superficial ‘culture,’ rather cheap facetiousness or repetitions of infantile catechism lessons without any relation to real adult life with its joys and fears and sorrows and worries. … Of course, there are exceptions, blessed and unforgettable—but …Why must they be lucky exceptions? …Why is a decent sermon, after all, a rarity? …I wonder whether you could assess the number of Catholics who have lost not only their own faith, but almost every relation to religion because of the stolid, narrow, complacent and intolerably rigid Catholicism in which they grew up?” Ida Friederike Görres, “A Letter on the Church,” trans. Ida Friederike Görres, Dublin Review 223 (Winter 1949): 76–78.

This 1949 translation of her 1946 “A Letter on the Church” is missing some passages and in some other sections entire paragraphs. Also, the translation approach of Görres in this English version is quite free and flexible. This edition of the Dublin Review states, “The present essay was adapted and translated by” Görres (“Contributors,” iv). This English version, while it very much captures the spirit of her essay, is in fact in some passages more of an adaption than a translation. To offer English readers a complete translation and another perspective on “A Letter on the Church” by Ida Görres, I plan to publish a new translation [in 2024 or 2025 in a collection of essays by Görres on the Church; this collection will be published in both German and English].

[14] This was at Our Lady of the Assumption (Mariä Himmelfahrt) in Stuttgart Degerloch, Germany, where Fr. Hermann Breucha (1902–1972) was the parish priest from 1938–1970. Ida Görres and her husband Carl-Josef Görres became part of his parish when they moved there in 1939. Ida Friederike Görres, Der Geopferte: ein anderer Blick auf John Henry Newman, ed. Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz (Vallendar Schönstatt: Patris Verlag, 2019, 5th ed.), 14, 16n35. I have translated Der Geopferte into English and the publication is forthcoming; [the working title is John Henry Newman: A Life Sacrificed].

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