Sense and Nonsense: John Joseph Schall

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On April 28, a Friday morning, about ten-thirty, I boarded United Express at Islip, Long Island, for the flight back to Washington. The plane landed at about noon at Dulles.

On the flight back, I thought I had better make arrangements for a ticket to the West Coast to see my family after classes ended in May. This year I had planned to go first to Spokane to see my brother Jack and family.

When I got back to my room, I noticed there was a message on the phone. I was to call my brother Jerry in Santa Cruz. As my step-sister Jeanne has had a serious cancer problem, as had my brother Jack, I was naturally uneasy. It was my brother Jack. He had died in Spokane that morning, almost at the very moment I landed at Dulles.

So I had to get to Spokane as soon as possible. The funeral was scheduled for Monday morning, May 1, at Jack’s parish, St. Thomas More, in North Spokane. He often attended morning Mass at St. Thomas More and respected the priests there. When it was first discovered about eighteen months ago that Jack had an esophagus cancer, he told me that after Mass one morning he mentioned it to the Pastor, Father John Steiner, who simply said to him, “Well, we better give you the Sacrament of the Sick right away,” which he did. Good priest.


John Joseph Schall was my next younger brother. He would have been sixty-six in August. He was born, as was I, in Pocahontas, Iowa, on a farm north of the town. My parents had four children. My mother died in 1937, so I suppose there was no reason that we might not have had other brothers and sisters had she lived. In any case, my father married a dear lady about five years later, a widow, with two daughters, my good step-sisters of now so many years. Our step-mother Mary had, in fact, died about two years ago, the afternoon Jack and I drove over to see Grand Coulee Dam. We flew together to her funeral in San Jose the next day.

When Jack was in Sacred Heart Hospital for radiation treatments, one of my old classmates, Father Tom Williams, one of the world’s good men, looked in on Jack fairly frequently. Jack liked and enjoyed Tom. Tom was at the Funeral Mass also. I asked Tom to say a few words about Jack. He began, “Jack Schall was a realist.” This is exactly what Jack was.

Actually, Jack’s death was moving in many ways. He had not told me that he was not feeling well again. He died at morning Mass at a neighboring parish. Jack’s little granddaughter Katie was to read something at the children’s Mass that morning. He would never miss anything that his grandchildren did if he could help it. He had evidently told her, as she said later, that he was going to die. In any case, he collapsed before he could hear her read. In the vestibule, a good nurse there at Mass revived him a bit; the ambulance came, but he died of cardiac arrhythmia just after he arrived at the hospital.

Jack had said to one or the other of us in recent years, often to Jeanne when she suddenly developed cancer, that death is not something to be feared. As Jeanne said later, “Jack understood what such suffering was about.” In fact, he told his good wife Gwen, that death was no doubt a thing of joy, that it would be like preparing for the happiest day of your life, like your wedding, when you knew it would be delightful but you were not quite sure why.

As I flew out to the funeral of my brother, I said to myself that the very best thing that your parents give to you is brothers and sisters. It is perfectly all right to be an only child, of course, but there is an abundance of joy in having brothers and sisters. A good deal of what I think is good and true, of where I have been, and of the people I know is all because I have brothers and sisters. But if you do have brothers and sisters, one of you must go first.

Someone said to me once that you can never really fear death if someone you love has died. But what you realize from your brother’s death is that your parents gave you an especially great gift in giving you a brother who in turn had a wife and children and grandchildren, each of whom he loved dearly and each of whom is part of your life.

This brother was a good man. His funeral and burial were quiet and dignified, as he would have wanted it. I managed not to weep while saying Mass thanks to Fathers Steiner, Williams, and Stewart, also a former classmate of mine, but also because Jack would have wanted to hear what I had to say.

The important thing about a human being, of course, is neither his date of birth nor his name, but that he manages to get born in the first place and that when he dies, he knows what life is about, that he is made for the glory of the Lord. Jack knew this, I think, much better than his clerical brother. This was his realism, as Tom Williams rightly said. Clerics have good brothers and sisters, I am sure, so that someone will be around to keep them sane, no easy task. And brothers and sisters have children who call you “Uncle Jim” and carry on your brother’s legacy to you. When I said the final prayer at graveside, I thought, the Church does it right with the steps it takes us through at the death of a brother—the rosary, the Mass, the final prayers. John (Jack) Joseph Schall, RIP.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).