LIVES | The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, 1942-2011

President William L. Fox ‘75 applauds as the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, rector of Memorial Church at Harvard, is hooded by University marshals Aileen O’Donoghue and J. Mark Erickson after receving an honorary doctor of divinity degree honoris causa at St. Lawrence University’s 150th Commencement in May 2010. Gomes died on Monday. Image taken by Tara Freeman, University Photographer.

The passage of the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, longtime Pusey Minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the School of Divinity, is worth noting here. Mrs. F. alerted me to his passage just after I arrived at work this morning. Gomes died Monday at Massachusetts General Hospital from complications of a stroke he suffered in December. He was 68.

Though neither of us are Harvard people, we shared a Laurentian affinity with Dr. Gomes, whom we met last spring when he was awarded an honorary degree at St. Lawrence’s 150th Commencement. As I noted on Facebook earlier today, Gomes delivered the finest speech I’ve heard at any of the dozen St. Lawrence commencements I’ve attended. His oratory, which drew simultaneously on his African-American roots and the best traditions of the English church, was remarkable. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writing for The New Yorker today, likened Gomes’ style to Cotton Mather’s. Here’s a favorite passage from his delivery in Canton:

… I am obliged to say a few things to you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t think me worthy of the degree that has just been given me. And so, I have given some thought as to what to say to candidates for degrees on this very happy occasion. I love occasions like this. They remind those of us who live in the University, as I do, that there is a greater and a wider world out there. And from time to time we must go into it. This is the day in which you must go into it, for better or worse. I salute my colleagues in the faculty, for we don’t have to go anywhere. That is one of the glories of academia. …

You can download — and I strongly recommend you do download it — Gomes’ speech here.

Indeed, he was terribly stylish. All of us who attended last spring’s commencement remarked on his appearance — watch fobs, three-piece suits, circular, tortoise eyeglasses. Remarkable. He received his degree in Harvard’s crimson robe, a tailed Roman collar and a pinstripe suit.

But far more important than that, Gomes was substantive. He was a member of the sadly dying breed of flamboyantly brilliant American public intellectuals. He was deeply complicated. He made waves in the early 1990s when he came out of the closet. As a child, he was convinced that he was a descendant of the Pilgrims — much of his scholarship was devoted to the beginnings of Yankee culture. He was a staunch Republican who delivered the benediction at Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural but broke with his party late in life to support Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. And he believed the story of Christian faith was ever evolving.

I’ll leave you with this video, in which Gomes addresses the Kennedy School’s Center Public Leadership on the misuse of power by religious authority:

Here’s the Times obituary.

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