Today we note the passing of a great man and dear friend to Cana Academy: Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., died yesterday, April 17, at the age of 91. Father Schall’s teaching career began in the 1960s. He taught at Georgetown University for thirty-five years. His writing on all things earthly and heavenly amounted to one of the most significant collections of books and essays of any author of our time. The pace he kept in his so-called retirement was heroic. From the Jesuit house in Los Gatos, California, he studied, contemplated, and wrote constantly. His articles appeared regularly in a handful of online journals. Perhaps the habit that best matched his prolific writing was his infectious love of books, a passion he shared not only in his written reflections but also in the many lists he constructed for students, friends, and readers of all kinds.
I first met Father Schall in 1982 when I worked as a correspondent in New York City. It so happened one day, we were sitting near each other at a legal conference in Chicago. From the start, this great scholar treated me, a twenty-two-year-old, fresh out of college and working a first job, with such interest and kindness. Of course, I waited on his every word and was thrilled to have some time at his feet. I have read several of his books and have lately been studying Docilitas, his collection of essays on teaching. I have also read dozens of his essays and articles, almost all of which he has made available online. His insights are always illuminating; at the same time, he is always understandable—his writing lovingly crafted for a broad audience, even as he penetrates the loftiest works of philosophy and theology.
The highest honor of my journalistic career was his endorsement of a book I wrote, published in 1986. Decades later, my eldest daughter, Cana Academy’s Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman, was among the fortunate few to take Father Schall’s very last undergraduate course at Georgetown. Our family was among the crowd who attended his final lecture, a performance received with raucous enthusiasm and deep affection by a packed Gaston Hall audience. It is hard to imagine an academic or ecclesiastical figure anywhere in the country who would warrant such enthusiasm and love, who could hold a large crowd, spanning several generations, with such rapt attention while musing on everything from Aristotle to life after death. That is an event everyone should visit or revisit online.
There was one last connection to Cana Academy. A little more than a year ago, Father Schall and I conducted an email interview. In this week of his passing, this week when we mark the most important of all ancient events directly shaping our eternal future, we offer this selection from the interview:
AZ: You spoke earlier about thinking of the liberal arts away from matters of utility. What about thinking of them in relation to the longest perspective—eternity? Does a liberal education prepare us for eternal life? The resurrection from the dead is a central doctrine of the faith, the reality in Christ’s life that confirms his mission among us. Christian art and literature seem to concern themselves with these issues more than regular educational courses are willing to investigate. Does education prepare us for more human activity than contemplation and worship?
JVS: This is a very perceptive question. No existing human person is created for this mortal life alone. Rather, each of us is created to choose, freely, the eternal life offered to us. Whether we choose to accept or reject this invitation is the main drama of cosmic existence. In a real way, the world exists in order that such a choice might be possible.
The relation between the Greek idea of an immortal soul and the Christian teaching of the resurrection of the body has always fascinated me. The two teachings are related to each other. Plato seemed to make us mostly soul. But if we read Aristotle, it was quite clear that the human person is not complete without the two related to each other in one being. What seemed perplexing to both Plato and Aristotle was the evident impossibility of any permanent relation of body and soul.
Christian revelation entered our contemplative considerations at this point. The resurrection of the body, a revealed truth through Christ, is in fact the answer to the incompleteness of philosophy as experienced by the Greeks. It is the sign that the world is not incoherent, a concern of Plato, who was afraid that, without the immortality of the soul, all crimes would not be punished and all good acts not rewarded. In this sense, the resurrection of the body is an offshoot of political philosophy.
We can do many things to approach the issue of what our final destiny is to be like. Josef Pieper’s book, The End of Time, is probably the best way to see what is at issue. But C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy and his Narnia stories, along with Tolkien, will give us the best way to wonder about these things. And I should also mention the fundamental place of Aquinas in any liberal education. One perhaps should begin with Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas. What Aquinas does best is put things together. This concern of what-belongs-to-what-and-why? is the trademark of anyone who knows Aquinas. He has the advantage of having at his disposal both the reaches of reason and the truths of revelation to work with. Most modern liberal education thinks that it can explain the essential things by philosophy or theology alone. It cannot happen.
AZ: Thank you, Father Schall.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy. His interview with Father Schall may be found in its entirety here.
Header image of one of Notre Dame’s rose windows by Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman. Image of Father Schall courtesy of Georgetown University.