Father Tom Taught Me…

Today the Church mourns the passing of a truly great man. Fr. Thomas Hopko fell asleep in the Lord this afternoon surrounded by his family and by the prayers of so many; those close to him, former students and colleagues, and also many who had only met him a few times or not at all but whose lives were affected by his life in one way or another. It’s a tremendous understatement to say Fr. Tom was a prolific teacher and writer. Most recently he took his gift for explaining and preaching the faith to an excellent and much beloved series of podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio.  This evening a parishioner shared that he always looked forward to new episodes from Fr. Tom and lamented that there would be no more new material to learn from. I certainly share this sentiment as an avid follower of all his podcasts.

Those who know him better can do a much better job than me at sharing glimpses of the man behind the voice, the words so many of us grew to love and depend on. I will not attempt to speak to that. Those who had him in class can speak to the professor, the mentor that was Fr. Tom. I will not attempt to speak to that either. I only met him a few times. But Fr. Tom did teach me a few very important things on the occasions I was in his presence. I mean, I owe part of my becoming Orthodox to his writings and his catechism books (ones we still use at our parish), but the important things I want to share have to do with his shaping who I am (or rather hope to become) as a priest. I’m sure he has no idea the influence he had on me, another young priest passing through. But these moments have been imprinted on me, and I have returned again and again to them. And so, on the day of his repose, I thought I would share my experience, to honor in my small way the Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko.

The first encounter happened on the week before my ordination to the priesthood. I spent a week of retreat at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA. Fr. Tom and his family, including his mother-in-law Matushka Juliana Schmemann live very near the grounds of the monastery and frequent the services there. Fr. Tom served liturgy there often when he was in town. He happened to be in town on one of the days, and I had the great honor of serving as a deacon with him. I don’t have any direct quotes, I didn’t write anything down, but here is what I took away from that experience, an experience that impressed upon me many important aspects of what it means to serve in the altar, and how to serve in the altar.

Fr. Tom taught me:

Always pray so the people can understand you.

Do not rush but do not drag unnecessarily when praying liturgically.

Sometimes speak prayers plainly. Sometimes chant them. The variation keeps you and the people awake.

Don’t ever be uptight or mean in the altar.

Serve with joy.

Take serving very seriously, every time.

And most importantly… remember you are there to PRAY, the people you serve expect you to pray so you’d better really pray and not just recite or go through the motions! It’s the altar of the Lord!

The second encounter happened after I was a priest for a few years. Our parish took a Lenten retreat to Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I was asked to serve Presanctified Liturgy one day. Fr. Tom was traveling, and wasn’t expected to be back in for the service. The abbess, Mother Christophora asked if I would be willing to give a brief homily at the end of the service. When I turned around at the end of the service to give the final blessing, I noticed Fr. Tom standing in the back. He had returned in time for the end of the service. At that moment I had a true experience of holy fear, which surprised me a bit, and which I’ve reflected on many times later to try to get to the bottom of. I’ve preached at large gatherings before, I’ve had homilies scrutinized in classes, and I’ve certainly had other moments, many moments of not feeling worthy to say anything. But there was something about Fr. Tom, a man I had not had in class, and had only met a few times, but whose presence was formidable in a good way, that made me examine in a few short moments between the blessing and the homily what it meant to be asked to give a word, to preach. So, I’m taking license here, forgive me, Fr. Thomas, but I want to share what I learned from that experience in what I think he taught me in that moment. I almost hear him saying it in my mind when I recall it, but again, he didn’t speak a word that day.

Fr. Tom taught me:

You preach the Gospel on every occasion (this is one my spiritual father also taught me).

If you’re going to speak, you’d better have something to say.

If you’re going to say something, you’d better know what you’re talking about. Or, more importantly, you’d better BELIEVE what you’re talking about.

If you don’t know something don’t be afraid to admit it.

Don’t use empty platitudes – you’re not impressing anybody.

Always preach with words and examples that people can understand.

Thank you, Fr. Tom, for your tireless work for Christ and His Church. You will be greatly missed. Thank you for the short time you took with me, and for teaching me, with and without words. Peace of Christ be with you, dear Father. Memory Eternal!