Richard “Rick” Gaillardetz – RIP


No community should botch its deaths. Mircea Eliade said that. What underlies his wisdom here is the truth that what we cease to celebrate we will soon cease to cherish.

With that in mind, I would like to highlight what we, both the religious and secular community, need to celebrate and cherish as we mourn the recent death of Richard Gaillardetz.

Richard, known as “Rick”, was a husband, a father, a friend to many, and (by most every assessment) the best ecclesiologist in the English-speaking world. He taught at Boston College, but lectured widely elsewhere, both as an academic lecturer and as a popular speaker. Beyond his stature as an academic, he had a humanity, a robust sanity, a keen intellect, a natural warmth, a friendliness, and a sense of humor that made him both pleasant and stabilizing to be around. He brought calm and sanity into a room.

What’s to be said in terms of highlighting his contribution? What should we not botch in processing his death? What must we celebrate so as to continue to cherish?

Many things might be highlighted, all of them positive, but I would like to focus on four extraordinary gifts he brought to us.

First, he was a theologian who worked actively at bridging the gap between the academy and the pew. Rick was a highly respected academic. No one questioned his scholarship. Yet, he was highly sought after as a popular lecturer in spirituality and never compromised his scholarship for the sake of popularity. That combination of being understood and respected both in the academy and the pew is a rare thing (it’s hard to be simple without being simplistic) and a huge risk (being a popular speaker generally makes you suspect among your academic colleagues). Rick took that risk because he wanted his scholarship to serve the whole community and not just those fortunate enough to be in graduate classrooms.

Second, he was an ecclesiologist who used his scholarship to unite rather than divide. Ecclesiology is about church, and it is church denominationalism that still divides us as Christians. The divisions among us are largely ecclesial. In most other things, we are together. We share Jesus; we share a common scripture; we share (in different modalities) the Eucharist; we share a common struggle in trying to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings; and we share many common human, moral, and social struggles. Spirituality unites us, but ecclesiology still divides. Rick’s work in ecclesiology is a breath of fresh air in terms of helping us move beyond centuries of division. He loved his own denomination, Roman Catholicism, even as he was fully appreciative of other denominations. His secret? He didn’t just do a theology of the church; he also did a spirituality of the church.

Next, he was a man who loved the church, even as, inside that love, he could be healthily critical of the church when it was merited. I attended his final public lecture in September of last year, and he began that lecture with these words: I was a Catholic by birth; then by choice, and now by love. He went on to share how the Catholic Church was the greatest love in his life and how, too, it has brought him continual disillusionment and pain. He challenged us to love the church and to be critical of it, both at the same time. That manifests a big heart and a big mind. Some can love the church and never see its faults; others can see its faults but never love the church. Rick could do both.

Finally, he was a man who faced his death with faith, courage, and dignity that can serve as a paradigm for the rest of us who, all, someday will have to face what he faced. About eighteen months ago, Rick was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He knew that, barring a miracle, he probably had less than two years to live. Whatever his own internal anguish and struggle to come to peace with that, everything he said, did, and taught during the eighteen months following that diagnosis manifested faith, trust, courage, and a concern for others. He kept a journal of his thoughts during this period and those journals are soon to be published and will constitute Rick’s last great gift to the church and to the world.

I’d like to end this tribute with a little anecdote which Rick himself, I’m sure, would appreciate as adding a bit of color to a tribute which otherwise would be too somber. Some years ago, I went to hear Rick give a public lecture at one of the local universities here in the city. He was being introduced by a well-known theologian, Marianist Bernard J. Lee. After listing off for us, the audience, Rick’s academic achievements, Lee turned to him and asked: “Richard, how the hell do you get the pronunciation ‘Gay-lar-des’ out of this spelling?”

Whatever the spelling and whatever the pronunciation, Richard Gaillardetz was a theological treasure whom we lost much too early.

The Pew and the Academy


I live on both sides of a border. Not a geographical one, but one that separates the church pew from the academic halls of theology.

I was raised a conservative Roman Catholic. Although my dad worked politically for the Liberal party, most everything within my upbringing was conservative, particularly as this pertains to religion. I was a staunch Roman Catholic in most every way. I grew up under the papacy of Pius XII (and the fact that my youngest brother is named Pius will tell you how loyal our family was to that Pope’s version of things). We believed that Roman Catholicism was the one true religion and that Protestants and Evangelicals needed to convert and return to the true faith. I memorized the Roman Catholic catechism and defended its every word. Moreover, beyond being faithful churchgoers, my family was given over to piety and devotions: we prayed the rosary together as a family every day; had statues and holy pictures around our house; wore blessed medals around our necks; prayed litanies to Mary, Joseph, and the Sacred Heart during certain months; and practiced a warm devotion to the saints. And it was wonderful. I will forever be grateful for that religious foundation.

I went from my family home to the seminary at the tender age of seventeen and my early seminary years reinforced what my family had given me. The academics were good, and we were encouraged to read great thinkers in every discipline. But this higher learning was still set solidly within a Roman Catholic ethos that honored my religious and devotional background. My initial university studies were still friends with my piety. My mind was expanding, but my piety remained intact.

But home is where we start from. Gradually, through the years, my world has changed. Studying at various graduate schools, teaching on graduate faculties, being in daily contact with other expressions of the faith, reading contemporary novelists and thinkers, and having academic colleagues as cherished friends has, I confess, put some strain on the piety of my youth. Truth be told, we don’t often pray the rosary or litanies to Mary or the Sacred Heart in graduate classrooms or at faculty gatherings.

However academic classrooms and faculty gatherings bring something else, something vitally needed in church pews and in circles of piety, namely, a critical theological vision and principles to keep unbridled piety, naïve fundamentalism, and misguided religious fervor within proper boundaries. What I’ve learned in academic circles is also wonderful and I am forever grateful for the privilege of being in academic circles most of my adult life.

But, of course, that’s a formula for tension, albeit a healthy one. Let me use someone else’s voice to articulate this. In his book Silence and Beauty, Japanese American artist, Makoto Fujimura, shares this incident from his own life. Coming out of church one Sunday, he was asked by his pastor to add his name to a list of people who had agreed to boycott the film, The Last Temptation of Christ. He liked his pastor and wanted to please him by signing the petition, but felt hesitant to sign for reasons that, at that time, he couldn’t articulate. But his wife could. Before he could sign, she stepped in and said: “Artists may have other roles to play than to boycott this film.” He understood what she meant. He didn’t sign the petition.

But his decision left him pondering the tension between boycotting such a movie and his role as an artist. Here’s how he puts it: “An artist is often pulled in two directions. Religiously conservative people tend to see culture as suspect at best, and when cultural statements are made to transgress the normative reality they hold dear, their default reaction is to oppose and boycott. People in the more liberal artistic community see these transgressive steps as necessary for their ‘freedom of expression’. An artist like me, who values both religion and art, will be exiled from both. I try to hold together both of these commitments, but it is a struggle.”

That’s also my struggle. The piety of my youth, of my parents, and of that rich branch of Catholicism is real and life-giving; but so too is the critical (sometimes unsettling) iconoclastic theology of the academy. The two desperately need each other; yet someone who is trying to be loyal to both can, like Fujimura, end up feeling exiled from both. Theologians also have other roles to play than boycotting movies.

The people whom I take as mentors in this area are men and women who, in my eyes, can do both: like Dorothy Day, who could be equally comfortable, leading the rosary or the peace march; like Jim Wallis, who can advocate just as passionately for radical social engagement as he can for personal intimacy with Jesus; and like Thomas Aquinas, whose intellect could intimidate intellectuals, even as he could pray with the piety of a child. Circles of piety and the academy of theology are not enemies. They need to befriend each other.

Helplessness as Fruitful


Sometimes we are the most helpful and life-giving at the very times when we are most helpless. We’ve all been there. We’re at a funeral and there’s nothing to say that will ease the heartache of someone who has lost a loved one. We feel awkward and helpless. We’d like to say or do something, but there’s nothing to be said or done, other than to be there, embrace the one nursing the grief, and share our helplessness. Passing strange, but it is our very helplessness that’s most helpful and generative in that situation. Our passivity is more fruitful and generative than if we were doing something.

We see an example of this in Jesus. He gave both his life and his death for us – but in separate moments. He gave his life for us through his activity and his death for us through his passivity, that is, through what he absorbed in helplessness. Indeed, we can divide each of the Gospels into two clear parts. Up until his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is the active one: he teaches, he heals, he performs miracles, he feeds people. Then, after he is arrested, he doesn’t do anything: he is handcuffed, led away, put on trial, scourged, and crucified. Yet, and this is the mystery, we believe that he gave us more during that time when he couldn’t do anything than during all those times he was active. We are saved more through his passivity and helplessness than through his powerful actions during his ministry. How does this work? How can helplessness and passivity be so generative?

Partly this is mystery, though partly we grasp some of it through experience. For example, a loving mother dying in hospice, in a coma, unable to speak, can sometimes in that condition change the hearts of her children more powerfully than she ever could during all the years when she did so much for them. What’s the logic here? By what metaphysics does this work?

Let me begin abstractly and circle this question before venturing to an answer. The atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment (Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, and others) offer a very powerful critique of religion and of religious experience. In their view, all religious experience is simply subjective projection, nothing more.  For them, in our faith and religious practices, we are forever creating a god in our own image and likeness, to serve our self-interest.  (The very antithesis of what Christians believe.)  For Nietzsche, for instance. there is no divine revelation coming from outside us, no God in heaven revealing divine truth to us. Everything is us, projecting our needs and creating a god to serve those needs. All religion is self-serving, human projection.

How true is this? One of the most influential professors I’ve studied under, Jesuit Michael Buckley, says this in face of that criticism: These thinkers are 90% correct. But they’re 10% wrong – and that 10% makes all the difference.

Buckley made this comment while teaching what John of the Cross calls a dark night of the soul. What is a dark night of the soul? It’s an experience where we can no longer sense God imaginatively or feel God affectively, when the very sense of God’s existence dries up inside us and we are left in an agnostic darkness, helpless (in head, heart, and gut) to conjure up any sense of God.

However, and this is the point, precisely because we are helpless and unable to conjure up any imaginative concepts or affective feelings about God, God can now flow into us purely, without us being able to color or contaminate that experience. When all our efforts are useless, grace can finally take over and flow into us in purity. Indeed, that’s how all authentic revelation enters our world. When human helplessness renders us incapable of making God serve our self-interest, God can then flow into our lives without contamination.

Now, this is also true for human love. So much of our love for each other, no matter our sincerity, is colored by self-interest and is at some point self-serving. In some fashion, we inevitably form those we love into our own image and likeness. However, as is the case with Buckley’s critique of the atheistic thinkers of the Enlightenment, this isn’t always the case. There are certain situations when we can’t in any way taint love and make it self-serving. What are those situations? Precisely those in which find we ourselves completely helpless, mute, stammering, unable to say or do anything that’s helpful. In these particular “dark nights of the soul”, when we are completely helpless to shape the experience, love and grace can flow in purely and powerfully. In his classic work The Divine Milieu, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin challenges us to help others both through our activity and through our passivity.  He’s right. We can be generative through what we actively do for others, and we can be particularly generative when we stand passively with them in helplessness.