Saturdays with Father Schall: A young Jesuit on the older Jesuit’s 90th birthday

Father James V. Schall, SJ has been a source of encouragement to a younger generation of priests and scholars who are seeking to preserve a rich and much-needed intellectual patrimony.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. giving his final lecture at Georgetown University in December 2012 (YouTube)

A few years ago I met a Catholic publisher at a conference at the University of Notre Dame. I asked him why his company had invested so much in publishing Father Schall’s books. His answer was that Father Schall is a C.S. Lewis for our time. While I am not sure that Father Schall would consider himself another C.S. Lewis, there is, without a doubt, only one James V. Schall, SJ: a Jesuit priest, political theorist, philosopher, beloved teacher, and prolific writer.

Father Schall (born on January 20, 1928) just celebrated his 90th birthday at the Jesuit retirement center in Los Gatos, California. In 2013, Father Schall retired after many years of teaching at Georgetown and moved to Los Gatos on the first day of spring. At the end of spring of that same year, I left Chicago and flew to Santa Clara via San Jose. While Father Schall began his new mission of prayingF for the Church and the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit version of retirement), I was about to begin my regency assignment, a period in the Jesuit formation, at Santa Clara University. Before I arrived at Santa Clara, I had heard of the legendary professor of government from Georgetown University, but I had not met him in person.

On the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the summer of 2013 I met Father Schall in person when he and other retired Jesuits came to Santa Clara University for the celebration of our founder’s feast. We had a pleasant conversation; Father Schall shared his thoughts on Leo Strauss and what Athens has to do with Jerusalem. Perhaps his most intriguing statement that evening was his insistence that the notion of human rights is one of the most subversive ideas in the modern world. Father Schall argues, in short, that the notion of human rights is an ideological project.1 At the end of the dinner he invited me to visit him in Los Gatos if I would like to have a longer discussion. Since the commute from Santa Clara and Los Gatos is only about 20 minutes over the weekend, I soon visited him, and ended up visiting nearly every Saturday during my time there.

A few years ago, George Weigel praised Father Schall as part of the generation of giants that emerged from the Catholic intellectual renaissance of the mid-20th century.2 Weigel posits that the most urgent question facing Catholic higher education today is how Catholicism “[got] great priests and teachers like Father Schall,” as the luminaries of that generation pass from the scene. Having spent many Saturdays with Father Schall, I often ponder whether or not my generation will be able to carry that much-needed torch. I once shared my thoughts about this with a newly ordained Jesuit priest and he rather cynically replied that my generation should not have any illusions about being able to fill the shoes of those giants. He believed that we don’t have the conditions which formed the intellectual greats of the past, such as a common intellectual patrimony rooted in the tradition of the West and well-established schools of philosophy and theology.

Perhaps he is correct to think we will never see the emergence of such a generation again. But I have hope that my generation can carry the torch. One of the books that Father Schall recommended to me was A.D. Sertillanges’ classic book The Intellectual Life. Father Schall wrote:

I would put The Intellectual Life on the desk of every serious students and most of the unserious ones… Its very possession on our desk or shelves is a constant prod, a visible reminder to us that the intellectual life is not something alien, not something that we have no chance, in our way, to learn about.3

In a nutshell, Sertillanges believes we can lead a rich intellectual life if we manage to keep one or two hours a day for the serious pursuit of higher things. Sertillanges does not ask us to give up our daily lives and devote ourselves full-time to the intellectual apostolate, like St. Thomas Aquinas did, but he teaches us to organize our lives so we can acquire a good intellectual foundation and spend the rest of our days building on this solid foundation. And so he teaches us about habits, about discipline, productivity, and truth. The bottom line is that Father Schall believes the book will have an abiding, concrete effect on those who read it; if we follow Sertillanges’ simple prescription, it will enable us to build an intellectual life.

On May 24, 2014, the then-General Superior of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicholas, published a letter On the Intellectual Apostolate. Father Nicholas stated that “the long tradition of the involvement of the Society of Jesus in the intellectual apostolate forms part of our religious identity.” Father Nicholas issued an invitation to the Society for a renewal of the intellectual apostolate, particularly in the field of research. Father Schall was quite enthusiastic to read the letter. In his tribute to the late Jesuit Father John Navone, another one of the intellectual giants of his generation, Father Schall cited Father Nicholas’ letter and stated that the intellectual apostolate means “writing, thinking, lecturing, and teaching, something to which John Navone has devoted his life. It is in a way a paradoxical life since so much that is true is rejected as insanity, as Chesterton implied. But this life has its own rewards and pleasures, as I like to put it.”4 By this statement, I think, Father Schall encourages our generation to pursue the intellectual apostolate, and while the journey of research and reflection requires a readiness to live in a certain solitude, it is indeed a rewarding life.

As the number of Jesuit priests in the United States has been falling for decades, there has been a trend to burden many Jesuits with administrative chores which, despite their necessity and importance, have distracted them from their intellectual work. Father Schall, however, believes that it would be prudent not to burden the young Jesuits with administrative chores. On one particular Saturday, I invited a young Jesuit from the Midwest Province to join me in my visit with Father Schall. He shared with Father Schall his aspiration to pursue a Ph.D. in education. Father Schall asked him gently if he was interested in becoming a school administrator. This fellow denied that his ambition was to be a school administrator; rather, he expressed his conviction that the science of education and the art of teaching are important. This fellow justified his aspiration by relying on Pope John Paul II’s exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, which says that pedagogy is one of the most important sciences.5 Father Schall then replied that Pope John Paul II himself did not study how or why to study, but he studied what was worth knowing. Father Schall stated further that the author of The Idea of a University—John Henry Cardinal Newman—did not study education. Neither did St. Thomas Aquinas.

Recently, I was working on a memorial volume in honor of a great Jesuit priest, the late Father Robert Araujo, a former attaché of the Holy See to the United Nations. I invited Father Schall to write the foreword for the book; in it, he stated that

in recalling Araujo’s thought and work, we recognize that we need to do something about the issues of our times, but not everything is possible. This is not pessimism but a reminder that we are not gods and that is all right. The things we cannot do or cannot get around to are not in our hands. It is all right. When we depart this life, certainly much will be left to be carried out. If God had wanted us to stay around to solve all sorts of obscure issues, He would have let us stay on to finish His work.6

Father Schall realizes that our time on earth is limited and so we often must let go many things. On one Saturday, Father Schall was lamenting what he called a tragedy in the former California (now Western) Province of the Society of Jesus: since the Jesuits wanted to expand the retirement home, due to the influx of retired Jesuits, the Province decided to close down their library in Los Gatos and convert it into new infirmary rooms. The books were either thrown away or shipped to Africa. Father Schall’s lament was understandable; when he had first moved to Los Gatos in 2013, he could easily check out great works in the library, but after the library was closed he had nowhere to go. Surprisingly, on the following Saturday, he asked me to take some books from his room. I was bit puzzled as to why he decided to let go of some of his personal books. He said to me, “When I am gone, they will throw these books away, so why don’t you take them with you now?”

After my two years of regency at Santa Clara University, I left Silicon Valley in August 2015, and so I had to end my regular Saturday visits with Father Schall. Nonetheless, I try to visit him whenever I am back in the Bay Area. My last visit with Father Schall was this past December; we discussed many different topics and issues. One of them was the closing of St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Earlier in 2017, Father Schall was slated to be a keynote speaker at an academic conference at St. Gregory’s on the theme “Leisure and Labor: The Liberal Arts and the Professions.” But he could not make it due to his poor health, as his doctor recommended that he not travel. While Father Schall admits that the closing of St. Gregory’s is a depressing development in the story of Catholic education in the US, he is also aware that everything has its end just as it has its beginning. At the end of our time together, Father Schall walked with me to my car and we said goodbye. As I drove away, looking in the rear-view mirror, I could see Father Schall walking slowly toward the Grotto. He always ends his e-mails with the line “pray for me”—and so for his 90th birthday, I would like to pray that Holy Mary, Mother of God, Mother of Hope, will smile upon Father Schall. Our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, and to love like Father Schall.

Endnotes:

1 James V. Schall, “Human Rights as an Ideological Project,” American Journal of Jurisprudence: Vol. 32 : Iss. 1 , Article 3 (1987).

2 George Weigel, George. “In praise of Father Schall.” First Things.

3 James V. Schall, SJ, “Foreword: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking,” in A.G. Sertillanges, OP. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1987), xiii

4 James V. Schall, “On Remembering What We Know: An Illuminating Life.” Catholic World Report. May 4, 2014. The initial address was given on April 24th by Father Schall at Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), at the invitation of the school’s Faith and Reason Institute, in honor of Father John Navone, SJ.

5 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae, October 16, 1979, § 58.

6 James V. Schall, SJ, “Foreword: On Doing What We Can,” in S. Hendrianto, SJ (ed), Priests, Lawyers, And Scholars: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Araujo, SJ (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 2017), xiv.

About S. Hendrianto, S.J. 1 Article
S. Hendrianto, S.J. is a Jesuit Scholastic of the USA West Province (Jesuits West). He is the author of an edited volume Priests, Lawyers, and Scholars. He is presently an M.Div. student at Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry, and was a guest scholar at the Kellogg Institute of International Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a visiting professor at Santa Clara University.

4 Comments

  1. As I read Fr. Hendriato’s reflections on this great Gift of God to the Church, Fr. Schall, and the situation of the Jesuits today, I am reminded of the gospel where the seed fell among the thorns. For the young clergy of today, it would require real heroism to reach the heights of earlier generations. Today,their time is so much taken up by the media — even a thing as simple as being bombarded by telephone calls. When can one easily find time to study — and most importantly — pray, when there are so many other distractions luring one away from the activities that earlier generations could invest their time in with relative ease! The heroic detachment from this turbid whirlpool of input requires a real conversion. The best starting point is serious prayer; then, and only then, with the rest follow.

  2. Anyone who has had the fortune and favor to know Fr. Schall can scarcely recount all the blessings that follow his classes, books and communications.

    Happy Birthday, Fr. Schall! May heaven grant us your company yet awhile longer.

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