Last week, we saw the passing of a great Jesuit priest, and one of the giants of Catholic intellectual and Catholic education: Father James V. Schall, SJ. Father Schall died on Spy Wednesday, the day on which Judas betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Death teaches us a lot about life and how to live our lives. The death of Fr. Schall is an invitation for us to reflect on what happened on Spy Wednesday and how it relates to our lives.
One of Fr. Schall’s favorite writings was Pope Benedict XVI’s great encyclical letter Spe Salvi. If we interpret the Spy Wednesday from the lens of Spe Salvi, we might see that the pressing issue on that day is the battle to recover the lost paradise. The recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: redemption. But there is a group of people who believe that the restoration of the lost paradise is no longer expected from faith, but rather from the link between science and praxis. As Fr. Schall explained, “the modern world is little more than a gigantic effort to accomplish the transcendental ends of Catholicism, not by grace and faith, but by our own efforts in this world.”
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that Karl Marx simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the New Paradise would be realized and all contradictions would be resolved (par 21). But long before the birth of Marxism, Judas Iscariot had set the example for Marx and others, as he wanted to see a new paradise on earth. He wished to see the end of misery and suffering on the planet Earth; he wanted to see Jesus as the temporal King who can bring peace, prosperity, and justice. But he did not see the quality of the earthly King in Jesus. Judas grew impatient with Jesus, whose ultimate dream is to bring us in the union with His Father in eternal life as the New Paradise.
The death of Fr. Schall on Spy Wednesday is an invitation for us to reflect that in some way or another we might also grow impatient with Jesus. Why does the Jesus allow so much suffering and injustice on earth? Can we trust Jesus’ game plan? Can we have faith in Jesus that His Kingdom is not on this earth? Can we have real hope that we will see Jesus’ New Paradise in eternal life?
Two days before Fr. Schall met his Maker, a major fire erupted at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. As fire devastated the Notre Dame Cathedral, people wept over the destruction of the building. But, I wonder, how many people cried because of the destruction of the Western civilization that Notre Dame Cathedral represents? Fr. Schall was a vigorous supporter of Western civilization and, presumably, he would see that the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral is somehow symbolic of the destruction of that civilization.
Fr. Schall was a firm believer in Hilaire Belloc’s famous remark that “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.” Fr. Schall believed that this quote is correct because “Europe is where Old Testament, New Testament, and Greek and Roman traditions melded with the so-called barbarians coming largely off of the Eurasian continent.” Of course this fusion did not happen overnight; Europe as the bastion of Western civilization was built in the long span from the Fathers of the Church to the time of Aquinas. The construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris began in the 12th century during the time when Europe’s identity was solidified in the thought of many great Catholic thinkers. But around 300 years later, the Reformation began to hammer at the foundations of Europe, especially the fusion between the Old and New Testament, as well as the Greek and Roman traditions. The rise of modernity then brought further assault to the foundation of Europe and Western civilization.
Why would a man such as Fr. Schall care so much about Western civilization? In Fr. Schall’s view, a deep insight into the heart of this civilization can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s “Regensburg Lecture”. In that address, Pope Benedict mentioned how St. Paul who did not go to the East after his conversion, but rather went to Macedonia. The bottom line is that the early Christians did not address themselves to pagan religions, but rather to the Greek philosophers because they wanted to see whether what was being revealed to them was reasonable. In this sense, Christianity is a revelation—a reception of something that you try to understand and follow. Revelation is not something that is figured out directly by natural reason—but it is also not contradictory to reason. For Fr. Schall, then, the entire Western civilization was built upon the premise that divine revelation is compatible to reason and reason that is open to the understanding of revelation.
It is easy to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral as a building, but it is much more challenging to restore the foundations of Europe. The French government, billionaires, and charitable groups can easily donate money for the restoration of the building of Notre Dame Cathedral. But those groups have far less interest in restoring the original vision of Europe. We all can mourn for the destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral and the death of Fr. Schall, but they both remind us that there is a more significant and challenging task ahead of us: to defend and to rebuild Western civilization.
In one of his last essays, Fr. Schall urged those of us who are Christians to take the Incarnation and the Redemption seriously. The Son became one of us because of our sin; redemption through Jesus Christ was proposed to us as a way of dealing with our own sins. In one of his last essays, Fr. Schall wrote:
Christ came into the world precisely in order to redeem us from sin, a redemption that is made visible only through the Cross, a redemption that respects our freedom. This redemption, once achieved, restores us to the Trinitarian life for which we have been created and in which we hope to achieve eternal life.
As we are celebrating Easter, we Christians should accept Fr. Schall’s call to take redemption seriously. Jesus did not need to die if he did not want to; as God, nothing could happen to Jesus without His own will. He decided to die on the Cross, not because he is suicidal, but because he has found no better means to demonstrate his love and offer salvation to us. Much of the project of modernity is an attempt to find alternative ways to save humanity. But they fail to do so because they don’t have someone with the power over death, or someone capable of atoning for their sins. In Christianity, however, the Incarnate Word—fully man, fully God—has died, risen from the dead, atoned for our sins, and made us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges the person doing the exercises to choose a state in life—including what one’s choices will look like “as if I were at the point of death.” St. Ignatius used this method because he knew how the Cross of Christ transforms the meaning of death. As a son of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Fr. Schall also knew that through Christ, through his, Cross, has changed the definition of a good death, and therefore the meaning of a good life. Moreover, Fr. Schall was ready to face death because he agreed with what his hero St. Thomas Aquinas said:
Christus autem satisfecit, non quidem pecuniam dando aut aliquid huiusmodi, sed dando id quod fuit maximum, seipsum, pro nobis. Et ideo passio Christi dicitur esse nostra redemptio (now Christ made satisfaction, not by giving money or anything of the sort, but by bestowing what was of greatest price – Himself – for us. And therefore, Christ’s Passion is called our redemption – ST. IIIa, Q. 48, c.).
In paradisum deducant te Angeli, Fr. Schall.
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