In praise of Father Schall

One does wonder sometimes about God’s ways with his most devoted servants. Several years back, Father James Schall, S.J., one of the greatest of American Jesuits and the living embodiment of Catholic liberal learning at Georgetown, was struck by an illness that cost him an eye. This summer, Father Schall is recovering from some nasty surgery, which involved removing a cancerous jawbone and its attendant teeth and replacing the jaw with bone taken from Schall’s leg. Father Schall has taken this with his customary faith, good humor, and sang-froid; his convalescence, and his enormous grace amidst suffering, prompt me to pay him long overdue tribute.

He is a deeply learned man, yet he wears his learning lightly. He looks the part of the old-school Jesuit he is: if someone told me that, like the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, Schall uses duct-tape to fix his battered shoes, or that he cut chunks out of old Clorox bottles to make the tab collars for his faded clerical shirts, I wouldn’t be surprised. He is a marvelous teacher and a great spiritual director; and he is both because he is a man at peace with the absurdities of the world, which he knows to be part of a divine plan he doesn’t presume to grasp fully. Yet he is no ambiguist: he would rather thrust his hand into the fire than put a thought not congruent with the truths of Catholic faith on paper. I imagine he would happily die a martyr; the thought of the axeman’s face, confronted with Father Schall’s smiling, one-eyed visage, is worth a meditation.

He is the author of many books: some, exercises in political philosophy of the highest caliber; others of a more popular sort. His scholarly work is finely balanced between Jerusalem and Athens, embracing both revelation and reason. And while he has written on just about everything, from Plato to American sports, he brings to whatever engages his attention that sense of wonder with which all true thinking starts.

The man is also very, very funny. Indeed, he once concocted the greatest book subtitle since Gutenberg. Another Sort of Learning is a guide for university students adrift in the vacuities and disarray of so much of contemporary higher education. An insight into Father Schall’s qualities as mentor to those lost in the groves of academe (or to those wondering, years later, what happened to them there) may be gleaned from what follows the invitation to “another sort of learning” on the book’s cover: “Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still at College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Books Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found.”

Were I ever to find anything I had written on a James Schall book list, I would face the final assize confident that I could give a satisfactory answer to the question of what I had done to all those trees.

How did Catholicism get great priests and teachers like Father Schall? That’s perhaps the most urgent question facing Catholic higher education today, as the generation of giants that emerged from the Catholic intellectual renaissance of the mid-20th century passes from the scene.

My hunch is that the giants we have known—and, in the case of Father Schall, hope to know for years to come—combined a distinctively Catholic rootedness in the intellectual tradition of the West with a sense of adventure in engaging a modernity of which they were neither overawed nor afraid. A solid son of the American Midwest (Pocahontas, Iowa, in his case), James Schall could think clearly in the turbulence of the late 20th and early 21st century because he was solidly grounded in the enduring truths, and because he was a man of faith who knew that God’s purposes would, finally, win out in history. May God grant him a swift recovery and many more years of showing us the way.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.