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.