An homage to and book recommendation from a giant

I pick on and poke at Jesuits quite often in these electronic pages because when some weird, division prompting, discontinuous notion is proposed, there’s usually an “SJ” on it.   Along with German bishops in general and a token smattering of other of religious, scratch the surface of a faith eroding trend, and you’ll find Jesuits.

That said, I know some older – dare I add, much – Jesuits and a few younger guys who are simply outstanding.  They have my unreserved admiration for their faith and achievements.   The contrast with some of their bizarre brethren confirms the old adage: corruptio optimi pessima.

So, today I read with interest at CWR an homage of a young Jesuit for his older colleague, Fr. James Schall, SJ.   Fr. Schall probably needs no introduction for many of you.  However, even if you know him well, particularly if you do, you should read this whole thing.  Here, however, is a taste…


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.

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.


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. 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. [That’s a good summary of our devastated intellectual landscape.  I think it was purposely devastated in order all the more easily introduce modernism, etc., without resistance.]

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.

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.



Let me stop there.   One way to show appreciation for Schall and his work is to take his suggestions seriously.

The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Fr. Z KUDOS, Our Catholic Identity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. benedetta says:

    I wish that I had discovered Fr. Schall’s writings, and his book and reading lists, much earlier in life; it could have saved me a lot of frustration back in the 1980s attending a secular liberal arts college and attempting to reason with people on behalf of pro life, among other things. As late as it comes, I still appreciate those consolations I find in his work — that the good fight is worth the struggle and the rejections, and even still it can all be rather strange and funny at times as well, presenting many moments to savor and contemplate. At least I am in time in my lifetime to have steered my own progeny to a great books curriculum and to Father Schall’s reading lists and to already enjoy the fruits of that effort and the assurance of Father Schall through his writings that it’s worth taking the different paths than typically offered to high school students.

    To Father Schall, thank you for your priesthood. Ad multos annos!

  2. stephen c says:

    Father Schall wrote three of my favorite books – one a collection of his short essays on Chesterton, who was sort of an extraordinary-fond-of-beer-and-conversation version of a married man who could have been, with just a slight perturbation in the narrative of his life, a great Jesuit — one a book about “life long learning” with probably the best list of books worth reading I have ever, or will ever, read (the list mentioned Tolkien, of course, and Austen, and lots of Wodehouse, and so on – it is worth checking out that list) — and one that was a collection of, I think, random essays from a newsletter.

    If you read as little as 10 pages in any of those books you realize that he (Schall) is a friendly person who is able to explain why he is a Christian, and somebody who anybody who has ever lived would be fortunate to have as a friend. (He would make fun of my chaotic grammar in that sentence, but that is all right). When I was younger I did not know (something I know now) that people who write books that are worth reading (as Father Schall has done, again and again) never really care all that much about whether people think they are good writers or not: I have read that there are literally hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Georgetown grads who do not think of Father Schall as a good writer but as the professor (usually of political theory, a subject I would think would be seem sort of dry, but apparently he was able to make it seem otherwise) who was the best teacher they had ever had.

    Well I did not know he was 90! I will add him to my prayer list, and I hope he is enjoying the California sunshine – I am sure they miss him in foggy Georgetown!

Comments are closed.