Over the last five years, the priest that has undoubtedly had the largest impact on my ministry is Fr. Thomas Hopko, who departed this life in March 2015. I was thinking of him and giving thanks for his life recently after listening to this tribute, aired last month on Ancient Faith Radio. I never met Fr. Tom, but I felt as though he was a fast friend and something of a disembodied mentor. He was a good shepherd, and I knew his voice in hundreds of hours of podcasts.
Fr. Tom was an Orthodox priest, the sometime dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and a theologian with a huge pastoral heart. In fact, even though he wrote and spoke about every topic under the sun, he always humbly claimed that he was no scholar. His vocation as a teacher was to popularize the wisdom that he had gleaned from his mentors, who were some of the greatest theological heavyweights of the age. Most notably, his father-in-law was Alexander Schmemann, whose work is known and loved by many readers of this blog. If you haven’t read For the Life of the World, stop what you’re doing and get it now. Fr. Tom would certainly advocate this course of action.
Fr. Tom had three different podcasts, and the first that I note here gives a strong impression of what mattered most in Fr. Tom’s life and ministry: The Names of Jesus. These talks, which began in 2009 and are now being collected into a book, are the product of a mind and a heart so deeply steeped in Scripture that I would have bet my life on Fr. Tom in a Bible trivia quiz over any evangelical on earth. They are simply magnificent: fifty-five episodes of nothing but our gracious Lord in all of his various titles. Fr. Tom was all about Jesus. Everything he did and said pointed to the Lord of glory. What more could one possibly want out of a priest of the Church? And what could edify the faithful more?
Fr. Tom’s second podcast is called Worship in Spirit and in Truth, and it served particularly well in exposing non-Orthodox to the Divine Liturgy. For a High Church Anglican like me, it was a major fleshing-out of my own education in Prayer Book spirituality. Everything we do in a line or two, the Orthodox do in a page or two … and, ideally, gloriously so. But the ideal was often missing, and this grieved Fr. Tom’s heart. Liturgy was too perfunctory and too detached from the heavenly realm that it was meant to reveal. It was time to go back to basics, and he insisted on re-examining the link between theology and anthropology, elaborating on Schmemann’s revolutionary insistence that humans are naturally Eucharistic creatures. Fr. Tom believed that his own Orthodox brethren needed a deeper understanding of their liturgical lives, so that they truly would be doing something authentic. It was a much-needed reminder for us all. “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says of the Pharisees and the scribes (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8-9). Fr. Tom was on guard at all times to bring the gift of faith and worship down into the heart of the faithful worshiper. In the end, 84 episodes were not enough space for Fr. Tom to finish talking about the structure of the Divine Liturgy before he went to his rest in Christ. He made it as far as the Kiss of Peace.
And this brings me to the third and by far my favorite of Fr. Tom’s podcasts, Speaking the Truth in Love: 282 installments of pure, holy gold. In these talks, Fr. Tom discusses everything from his favorite translation of the Bible to encounters with evangelicals to Russian literature to marriage, psychology, popular piety … you name it. And the shining triumph was a 57-episode series on bishops, in which he travelled through time (council by council, canon by canon, and country by country) to cast a vision of a world in which Christ reigns. These teachings completely changed the way I think about my ministry, and I commend every single one of them to you (even the ten episode romp through all 102 canons of the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils, which I once wrote about here).
Fr. Tom had a great sense of humor and a powerful yet kindly delivery. He was also a keen ecumenist who never compromised the faith of the Church. For non-Orthodox Christians (but possibly orthodox ones!), there is a generosity in Fr. Tom’s teachings that simply make me want to love Jesus as much as he did. One of my very favorite podcasts he ever gave was on C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, a text that he thought was one of the most important books anyone could read. What moved me most about it was a side comment about his assurance of Lewis’s salvation. I thought to myself: “I know these matters aren’t up to you, Father … but, as an Anglican who counts Lewis as a spiritual hero, it means a lot. Maybe there is hope for me too!”
I already greatly miss hearing new reports from his study in Elwood City, Pennsylvania. Night after night as I do dishes — the time I almost always spent with Fr. Tom’s voice coming through my headphones — I notice his absence.
Pray for me and all of us sinners, Fr. Tom. And thank you for your life and witness.
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