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“One of the Top Experts on the Church”: Remembering Theology Professor Richard Gaillardetz

Richard Gaillardetz was a world-renowned theologian, but he also made the well-being of his students and colleagues his top priority, according to Stephen Pope. 

“He was a person who really had international stature as an expert on the [Catholic] Church and especially Vatican II,” Pope, a theology professor at Boston College, said. “And yet, he treated each person as if … his whole concern was focused on you and he was not somebody who went around promoting his own ego.”

Gaillardetz, former chair of the BC theology department, died on Nov. 7, 20 months after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 65. 

Gaillardetz served as theology department chair from 2016 to 2022.

Pope said the BC theology department had its eye on Gaillardetz long before he came to BC, as he was well-known for his work surrounding the Catholic Church. 

“I had known about him before he came here because he was one of the top experts in the church field called ecclesiology,” Pope said. “And he’s one of the top experts on the church … we’d had our eye on him for a long time.”

When Gaillardetz arrived at BC, he immediately strived to create a community within the department. According to theology professor Jeremy Wilkins, Gaillardetz read an article in The Boston Globe about the lack of male friendships among middle-aged men and took the initiative to create a friend group of men with similar experiences within the department.

“It has been a great support and consolation for all of us,” Wilkins said. “It really just kind of originated with his experience instead of reading this article and thinking ‘Gosh, we really should be kind of intentional about having friendships with other men and being able to share our life experiences.’”

According to Catherine Cornille, when Gaillardetz became theology department chair, he was democratic in the way he listened to others’ opinions, and he ensured that everyone was on board with the direction of his work.

“He spent a lot of time soliciting people’s opinions and explaining his own views,” Cornille, Newton College alumnae chair of western culture in the theology department, wrote in an email to The Heights. “So he certainly was not somebody who was just pushing his own views forward—he was very democratic in his approach to the way he chaired the department.”

Pope emphasized Gaillardetz’s care for every person in the department, saying that he approached everyone as a person, not just somebody with a job.

“In every group of people, if you have 40 or 50 people, you’re gonna have some people with more challenges than others, some people with more difficulty at work than others, and some people who are a little more difficult to get along with than others,” Pope said. “And he was really good at making sure that people who needed the most care got it from him.”

Cornille described Gaillardetz as having a “larger than life personality,” noting that he developed many deep friendships within the theology department. 

“He was also very sensitive and alert to what people thought of him and cared about what people said,” Cornille wrote to The Heights. “He had an incredibly large heart. He was very caring, especially for people in the department who were struggling.” 

Alongside the support he provided to those in the department, Pope said that Gaillardetz continued to challenge all of his faculty to be the best they could be.

“I would also say a hard thing about his job that he did well is to challenge people in effective ways, to challenge people to be better colleagues or be better teachers or be better research writers,” Pope said. “And it takes skill to be able to nudge people without feeling that you are domineering.”

Gaillardetz was always concerned with making sure that people were flourishing in terms of their research and role within the theology department, according to Cornille. 

“He would really reach out to faculty members who he thought might be struggling and trying to help them advance their research and their career,” Cornille said. “So I think that was an incredible gift to the department or two ways in which he really helped to move the department forward.”

Wilkins said this support did not stop with faculty in the department—Gaillardetz also had great care and love for his students.

“He really wanted to do right by everybody, but that engendered a great deal of devotion and appreciation from his students who really looked up to him and really, I think, loved him as a mentor,” Wilkins said. “He was a champion for them. He wanted them to be their best and to succeed, and he really contributed a lot to their intellectual and spiritual growth.”

Gaillardetz would often invite graduate students to his home for dinner parties, according to Cornille.

“So, he was very engaged in the graduate program and devoted to his graduate students who, you know, all testify to how much they learned from him and how much they gained from the relationship he had with them,” Cornille wrote.

According to Pope, Gaillardetz had a great commitment to diversity and inclusion, which the theology department will continue to carry on.

“Gender and racial diversity is something he cared about and as do the rest of us,” Pope said. “There’s actually nothing contentious about the commitment to want to hire people of color to teach theology and want to hire more women to teach theology. So I think that’s the direction we’re going in and it’s a direction that he encouraged, fostered, energized.”

November 19, 2023