Father James V. Schall, a prolific Jesuit priest, distinguished professor and scholar, died April 17 — a few days before Easter Sunday. He was 91.
A Knoxville native, Schall was considered one of the most important Catholic theologians of recent years and is known for his love of learning, his passion for teaching, his search for truth and devotion to the Catholic faith. He penned more than 30 books and wrote a plethora of essays, lectures, articles and pamphlets throughout a 58-year teaching career. His most notable work, “Another Sort of Learning,” received prodigious reviews.
“He was a beacon for Catholicism and the search for truth,” said former student and close friend Diane Garza. “He was a jewel from Iowa and was always proud of where he came from. He would always talk about that, his Iowa upbringing. It was very special to him and helped form his character.”
Schall was born on Jan. 28, 1928, in Pocahontas, Iowa. He was a multi-sport standout during his time at Knoxville High School, lettering in football, basketball and track. He was also an honorable mention All-State performer in football.
Among other sporting accomplishments, he won a gold medal in the 1944 Drake Relays for the pole vault, being the first student-athlete in Knoxville’s history to do so. He graduated from the high school in 1945 and was inducted into the Knoxville School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2014.
Post-graduation, Schall spent time in the United States Army after World War II. After being discharged, he joined the California Province of the Jesuits in 1948. He earned his master’s in Philosophy from Gonzaga University in 1958 and his doctorate in Political Theory from Georgetown University in 1960. Shortly after, he became an ordained Roman Catholic priest in 1963.
“The Order in my time has provided me with education and opportunity that I could not otherwise imagine for a young man from a small town in Iowa,” wrote Schall in an email correspondence with Kathryn Jean Lopez, a contributing writer to “The Crux”, earlier this year. “I have lived for a time in some great cities-San Francisco, Rome, Washington. But the great gift to me was the chance to live a life relatively free to read and write and wonder how it all fit together … I think that leisure to wonder about what it is all about has been a great gift to me.”
Schall began teaching political philosophy at Georgetown University in 1977, having greatly impacted many students and colleagues throughout his 35 year career there. Prior to that, he taught in the government department at the University of San Francisco for seven years and was on the faculty of social sciences at Gregorian University in Rome from 1964 to 1977.
“Students understood that he really cared about them as people,” said former student and close friend Cindy Searcy, stating Schall would memorize the names and personal affairs of about 150 students each semester.
Searcy stated she was not Catholic when she took her first class with Schall in the spring of 2002.
“After a couple of classes with him, I decided to become Catholic,” said Searcy. “He completely changed the direction of my life, professionally and personally.”
Throughout his career, Schall was a member of the government department at the University of San Francisco between 1968 and 1977, the Pontification Commission on Justice and Peace at the Vatican from 1977 to 1982 and the National Council on the Humanities, of the National Endowment for the Humanities between 1984 through 1990.
While teaching at Georgetown, Schall received the Edward B. Bunn Award for Faculty Excellence in 1993, 2004 and 2010. He was also a recipient of the university-wide Dorothy Brown Award in 2008.
“Above and beyond, what he really showcased to so many students — because he taught a lot of students at Georgetown — was the way that the intellectual could be married with the spiritual,” said Michael Fischer, a former student. “He was a big proponent of understanding what he would describe as the conversation between Jerusalem and Athens, which is to say, how did the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of ancient Greece meet with the spiritual and religious activity of the Judeo Christian.
“So, I think for a lot of students who were perhaps unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the idea that reason and states could communicate with each another, he was a breath of fresh air and a new perspective on what that could mean.”
Schall retired from teaching and gave his final lecture titled “The Final Gladness” in December 2012. Even after retirement, Schall continued to write and be active in public speaking. He lived in a retirement community with his brother Jesuits in Los Gatos, California until his death.
“He was very personable, very connected to you as a person,” said Fischer. “It felt like regardless of all the people that he had relationships with, both within his family and across generations that he taught, it felt like you had something real, something tangible with him. He touched so many lives in so many different ways.”
Emily Hawk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling the newsroom at 641-628-3882.