Religion

The Last Days of Father Schall

Father James Schall in 2012
The priest and philosopher died where he had lived, in the City of God.

Yesterday afternoon, on a bright blue, cloudless day, Father James V. Schall (1928–2019) was laid to rest in the warm soil of California, alongside his Jesuit brethren at the old Mission Cemetery, a short distance from both Santa Clara University and the Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos. It might be said that these two institutions represent the twin pillars of Schall’s life and philosophy: fides et ratio. He studied philosophy and theology as a young man at Santa Clara almost 75 years ago. At Sacred Heart, he pledged his life to the Society of Jesus, and departed this earth as well.

In the days since his death, many have written movingly about the life and character of Father Schall. Among the recurring themes are his deep learning, his unwavering commitment to the tradition of the Church, and his sheer exuberance for life and friends. He lived out his principles to the very end, writing columns, publishing books, and maintaining a steady diet of reading along with a staggering volume of e-mail correspondence. According to the archivist for the Western Province of the Society of Jesus, Schall published continuously since 1954. The Special Collections at Georgetown University, where he taught for over 35 years, maintains Schall’s papers, some twenty-odd archival boxes stretching 33 linear feet. Christendom College houses a huge collection of books donated from his personal library. His own published books number over three dozen, and his bibliography spans 168 single-spaced pages. At his feet, thousands of students have read Plato and Cicero and Augustine. I was one of many undergraduates at Georgetown who had received the same advice: “Major in Schall.”

I still recall the day Father Schall told me he was retiring from teaching. I had stopped by his office one autumn morning and asked how he had been. He mentioned some fatigue — not unsurprising for a man then in his mid 80s and still teaching six classes a week. Then, ever so casually, he added that he would be retiring at year’s end, a decision he had made earlier that day. I was stunned. It had not occurred to me that he would ever retire, as though such a thing would violate a fixed law of the universe: Objects in motion stay in motion. He told me he planned to return to Los Gatos, to the same house where he had been a Jesuit novice, and where he was prepared to live out his retirement. Parties were planned, though he resisted drawing attention to his departure. He demurred, initially, about delivering a “Last Lecture” at Georgetown, thinking it too much a fuss. Eventually, he relented. He would give a farewell address. But he added, “I cannot imagine that you will need a very big place. A classroom strikes me as plenty big enough.”

A few weeks later, 800 people flooded Gaston Hall, Georgetown’s largest auditorium. Schall spoke in a marvelous, old-fashioned moral vocabulary: on the ethical implications of political life, the nature and limits of philosophy, the ordering of souls. He titled his lecture “The Final Gladness” and touched on many of his enduring themes: friendship, justice, and the triune God. The subjects were related. Justice — that which man merited — was a necessary benchmark against which God could dispense His grace through the offering of eternal life. God, Schall maintained, is not lonely, and friendship with the divine, as Aristotle and Aquinas hinted, is the fulfillment of human life. And such fulfillment is not only logical, it is the truest and deepest expression of man’s nature. Schall believed to his core that revelation, which offered the path to communion with the divine if only man would accept it, was not merely compatible with reason but was indeed the very completion of it. The modern project was doomed to failure precisely because it sought to cleave the one from the other, if not eliminate the transcendent altogether. That rupture impoverished both reason and revelation, forcing the intellect to shoulder more than it could bear, while sapping the spiritual dimension of man’s ethical life.

Schall sought instead to maintain the unity of intellect and faith as expressed in the Roman Catholic tradition of Thomas Aquinas. Schall’s business was to talk to the potential philosophers, the young men and women who had a whole world and a whole life ahead of them, and to suggest that they be mindful of its ultimate purpose. He thus lived out his vocation as a priest in a sort of radical evangelization — quintessentially Ignatian, engaged in what the Greeks called metanoia, the “conversion,” or the “turning.” He would be the first to admit that not every student would, or could, get down to the intricacies of Augustine or Ratzinger or Gilson. But if he could but open that young man’s eyes to the drama of human existence, a life might yet be redeemed. Schall was a turner of souls.

He left Washington for California on the first day of spring in 2013. The date, he noted, was “deliberately chosen.” There was poetry in an old man’s returning home on the day that signified new life. For those who have never been, the Jesuit House in Los Gatos is a remarkable place. Formerly the novitiate for the California Province of the Society of Jesus, it is sited on a steep hill, bounded by a winery, and enveloped by what used to be sprawling vineyards. The House sits at the highest point, accessible only from a road that winds past black gates adorned with white crosses. There Schall would spend six good years, writing and reading and looking out over the San Francisco Bay and the Santa Clara Valley. His strength even seemed to improve — some function, perhaps, of the California sunshine? Only toward Christmas of 2018 did his health begin to decline noticeably. The end was thought to be near, but, after refusing antibiotics and further treatment, a man who had survived cancers of the eye and the jaw, whose hearing flagged and vision dimmed, bounced back. We went out to lunch and he ordered hot soup and glazed prawns, eating with the appetite of a man half his age. I thought it a miracle. I still do.

The period between then and April, when Father Schall finally left us, turned out to be a grace note, a blessing for those of us able to spend a little more time with him. Word eventually issued forth one day that another, more serious hospitalization had taken place and that he was returned to Los Gatos with instructions to keep comfortable. That evening, when I walked in to visit, his eyes opened. He had been hooked up to an oxygen machine but returned to his old room in the Jesuit House. His first words were “What in the world are you doing here this time of night?” Even then, his instinct was not to focus on himself but to ask after others. We made some small talk, and he cracked some jokes. It’s been noted how a man of such prodigious intellect, who taught the Western canon from the Greeks through the moderns, could put anyone at ease with his easy banter and effortless relatability. A few weeks prior, he had celebrated his 91st birthday. Rather than ruminate on old age or his legacy, he wanted to watch the Rams take on the Saints. Such was the genius of Father Schall, for whom “play” got to something deeply meaningful. So even as his body failed, he smiled and laughed. I promised to come back to see him again. He nodded, replied, and we said good night.

The next day I returned to the Jesuit House. Father was alert and conscious, but his breathing was shallow and labored. I sat with him into the night. Late in the evening, two nurses came in to wash his face. They brought music — Mozart. I read him two things. The first was from Leon Kass’s recent collection of essays, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times. The passage was on hope, what Kass calls the “indispensable virtue.” It reminded me of that great encyclical of modern times, Spe Salvi. There Benedict XVI writes, “Ultimately we want only one thing — ‘the blessed life,’ the life which is simply life, simply ‘happiness.’ In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer. Our journey has no other goal — it is about this alone.”

The other item I read was the conclusion of Plato’s Phaedo. At the end of his life, Socrates takes the hemlock. Rejecting the entreaties of his friends, he does not delay. Socrates is prepared to die. Life, he knew, is good, but so too may be leaving it when called. Philosophy itself, as Cicero reminded us, is preparation to die. And so Socrates drinks the cup and lays on his back. His legs and arms become stiff, and his body cold. Father lay in bed, his own body firm, his own legs heavy. The final words of Socrates are “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget.” Asclepius tended to the sick. I pressed Father’s hand into mine, whispered down, and left him to sleep. He died the next day.

Schall once said that he thought the best essay he ever wrote was “The Death of Plato,” first published in The American Scholar in 1996. There Schall recounts the parallel stories of the deaths of Plato and of his teacher Socrates. Plato died quietly, in his own home. Before he died, he called for a Thracian maiden to come and play the flute. But, quoting from Eric Voegelin’s Plato, Schall noted, “The girl could not find the beat of the nomos. With a movement of his finger, Plato indicated to her the Measure.” The death of Socrates was different: Condemned to death by Athens, Socrates took poison, drank it, and expired at the hands of the city. But he died at peace, knowing that the soul would live even as the body faded.

Like Socrates, Father Schall would not have us grieve. Man was made not merely for life but for eternal life. Our journey has no other goal. It is, as this priest would tell us, about a final gladness, “about a final home.” It is the hope that sustains us and the joy to which we look forward. Like Plato, Father Schall knew the Measure. Surrounded by his family and on the eve of the Paschal Triduum, he died in his own bed, in the House on the hill. Schall knew this truth: “All true philosophers, when they die, die the same death. All true philosophers, when they die, die in the same city.” Jim Schall died, and lives, in the City of God.

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