Fr. Jim Schall was one of the most irresistibly lovable people I have ever known, and my life was greatly enriched by knowing him, and having a little bit of his metaphysical good cheer rub off on me.
His gratitude to God for the very fact of his existence was not just a platitude, but a pervasive lived reality, a persistent radiance that even the dullest and most resistant observer could not help but notice. Even with all his medical struggles, especially with his vision, there was always an irrepressible cheerfulness about him, an atmosphere of joyous surrender to the fact that the miracle of it all is bigger than any of us.
Generations of Georgetown students fell under his spell of this charming man from Pocahontas, Iowa. So did I.
I got to know him through the good offices of another irresistibly lovable man, the late Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an evangelical whose good humor mirrored Jim's and whose improbable friendship with Jim was something he wanted to share. I'm so glad he did.
I remember hanging out with the two of them at a reception for Touchstone magazine, and then our being joined by Justice Scalia—who was, among other things, one of the great stand-up comedians of our time—and then the ensuing twenty minutes were filled with such nonstop hilarity that I thought my stomach muscles might never recover from all the laughter.
It is hard to be too solemn in remembering Jim, he just wouldn't want it that way.
I was never his student, at least not in any formal way, but I had been at many events and panels with him over the years, and was one of the many admirers who trekked to Washington and crowded into Healy Hall on the Georgetown campus to hear his last lecture in December of 2012.
It was an electric occasion, full of poignant moments, and the place was packed. Everyone present knew, without it having to be said, that this marked the end of something more than Jim's teaching career. It was the last moment in a certain era in the life of Georgetown University.
Fr. Jim had a first-rate intellect, but an even more excellent temperament, and his ability to connect profound ideas with the world of nitty-gritty experience was a part of what made him such a great teacher.
To ring a change on Holmes's famous description of FDR, Fr. Jim had a first-rate intellect, but an even more excellent temperament, and his ability to connect profound ideas with the world of nitty-gritty experience was a part of what made him such a great teacher.
In him, the insights of Plato and Aristotle were mirrored and magnified in the endless supply of personal anecdotes he could deploy, drawing on a surprisingly earthy understanding of everyday life in modern America.
And his love of Chesterton and of Wodehouse, far from playing the role of comic relief in his outlook, was part and parcel of his love of the world, in all its absurdity and topsy-turvy surprise.
In his insistence upon the "unseriousness" of human affairs, he pointed toward a seriousness far deeper than "the purpose-driven life" that preoccupies so many Americans. Instead, he pointed toward the purpose-less life, the life that Josef Pieper extolled, in which we set down the tools we compulsively employ to "improve" our lot, and instead yield ourselves happily and gratefully to the immensity of what God has in store for us.
His happiness was infectious, and even as I write this remembrance, I cannot sustain my feelings of sadness for very long, without feeling a smile creep onto my face as I remember him. I think he would approve. In fact, I know it.
Wilfred McClay. "Irresistibly Lovable." The Catholic Thing (April 23, 2019).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wilfred McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, A Student's Guide to U.S. History, and Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America.Copyright © 2019 The Catholic Thing
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