One of my all time favourite people passed away yesterday. Fr Thomas Hopko was a priest of the Orthodox Church in America whose distinctions are too many to list here. What I liked most about him though, was listening to him speak and reading things he wrote. He displayed a rare gift for insight and understanding, the kind that leads to a profound wisdom. His knack for synthesising new ways to express the ancient Orthodox Christian faith and Tradition to modern life in ways not only relevant, but even inspiring, was remarkable. He combined this with an indomitable humility and sincere compassionate love for all. The motto of one of his podcast series, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, nicely captures his courageous contribution to desperately needed Church reform in many areas.
He will be sorely missed by many in the Christian community. One of them is Samuel Kaldas, who provides a much more fitting eulogy for Fr Tom than my brief words in the following guest post…
Fr. Thomas Hopko fell asleep in the Lord today. As a theologian, he had a remarkable gift for delivering important and complex ideas to a non-academic audience. Through his constant (and ridiculously high) output of podcasts, sermons, books and articles, he became a bridge between the “ivory tower,” academic world of the Seminary and the “real-world” of the Orthodox faithful. In many ways, his work as an educator achieved precisely what his father-in-law Fr. Alexander Schmemann identified as the chief task of the theologian: to supply “that essential link between the Tradition of the Church and the real life, to assure the acceptance of the faith by the faithful.”
This was only possible because of his great humility: he did not spend his time on original research that would only be read by professional theologians, though he certainly had the intellect, and encouraged many other brilliant students to do such research during his time as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He did not trumpet himself as a new and exciting voice in academic theology. Instead, he was always concerned with the Church outside the Seminary. As he himself put it:
“… my vocation, I think, is to be kind of a loudspeaker, perhaps even through Ancient Faith Radio, for the teachings of Professor Verhovskoy, and also the teachings of Fr. John Meyendorff and Fr. Alexander Schmemann … and all of my teachers. I’m not a scholar, I’m a reporter, a microphone.”
Inevitably, his “reporting” brought out his own keen insight and compassionate character; all his talks and articles reveal Fr. Tom’s brilliance as much as the beauty of the ideas he expounds. But he hides in the background; his personality as a writer and thinker only clarifies and intensifies the teachings he delivers – it never distracts from them. I can think of no greater compliment to give any teacher than this.
At any rate, it is difficult to think of anyone else in contemporary Orthodoxy (except perhaps the late Pope Shenouda III) who was able to take such a huge range of important, difficult ideas (just look at the titles of episodes of ‘Speaking the Truth in Love’) and deliver them to such a wide audience in such a way that they became liveable and actionable. Fr. Tom really believed that theology was not just the business of professional theologians. As Schmemann put it, among the Church Fathers “theology is always addressed not to ‘intellectuals,’ but to the whole Church, in the firm belief that everyone in the Church has received the Spirit of Truth and was made a “theologian” — i.e., a man concerned with God.” All of Fr. Tom’s articles and podcasts are shot through with exactly this sense of the urgent relevance of theology to every faithful person: one of the most common phrases in all his lectures was the question, “What does this mean for me? What does this have to do with our life?” (See especially his series on “The Word of the Cross” and “The Theotokos”). Even if he was not always right, he was always real.
To quote Fr. John Behr: “His reach and touch has been immeasurable for so many, and not least upon the seminary … He will be sorely missed, but his touch and influence remain. May he rest in peace and rise in glory!”
For those of us who remain, we are still blessed with Fr. Tom’s legacy in articles, books, talks and podcasts. Listen to them! Here are some good places to start:
- Fr. Tom’s Lectures (mostly from retreats and camps) are excellent introductions (or re-introductions) to some of the most basic elements of the Orthodox faith – like how we read the Letter to the Romans and the Book of Revelation, what the Cross means for us, who the Theotokos is and what she means for our life.
- Speaking the Truth in Love – Fr. Tom’s “stream of consciousness musings” on a hugely diverse range of difficult topics.
- The Names of Jesus – a step by step exploration of each of the titles applied to Jesus in the Bible and Liturgy. What does it mean to call Christ the “Redeemer” or the “Passover” or even “Sin and Curse” as St. Paul does?
- Worship in Spirit and Truth – an exploration of the Liturgy.