With the blessed repose of the Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko last Wednesday, tribute after tribute have justifiably filled the Internet.
Indeed, considering Father Tom’s 50+ years of service as a priest, his pivotal role instructing many of our bishops, priests, deacons, and leaders, his vast and insightful writings that have open the door for so many people wanting to know more about Jesus Christ and His Body, the Church, and his numerous Podcasts that made the world his classroom, it is no wonder the Orthodox world stopped what it was doing, to wait, to pray and to hold vigil at his repose. And is no wonder that many touching and beautiful stories have been shared about a man whose life was in Jesus Christ, by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ, and nothing else.
Many people had personal relationships with Father Tom, either as friends, peers, students, and spiritual children; not me. I only met Father Tom three times, and maybe spoke less than a few sentences each time.
The first time I actually went and spoke to Fr. Tom, I was so nervous that I must have of muttered and stumbled over my words, like a blathering teenager (I was 44). Another time I met Father Tom was when he came to the Cathedral in Ottawa, and I was chastened for my exuberance and flamboyant censing.
But the one time that has stayed with me throughout the years was an encounter where no words were said, it lasting only a moment. I was having a horrible day during the All American Council in Toronto (2005). I had fumbled my way through Matins, serving as the deacon, lost the key to the apartment where my family was staying, leaving my wife and three children under the age of 5 stuck inside, until I got a replacement key. That was just a bit of everything that was going on with me.
I was sitting by the door during one of the plenary sessions, when this older priest (Father Tom) came walking by on his out of the room. He saw me, looked at me with the warmest, most engaging smile and put a reassuring hand on my shoulder, and then went on his way. With his smile, and touch, the weight of the day lifted, as if someone opened a window and let in fresh air. I was speechless as to his kindness and even empathy considering that nothing had been said.
The funny thing about this encounter was that I didn’t know that it was Father Tom. I would look through the photos on OCA.org, or through the pages of the now defunct Orthodox Church magazine, hoping to find a name to go with that face. It wasn’t until I saw his photo on Ancient Faith Radio that it connected. Of all the people in the world to take a moment to smile and encourage a miserable deacon all those years ago, it was none other than a giant of Orthodoxy in North America, writer, teacher, a leader of men, and, as it happens, a true pastor.
In the years since that encounter, I got to know Fr. Tom better, through his writings, Podcasts and talks. I can’t think of anyone, who along with my own father, and my spiritual father (who was his student), guided me more to Jesus Christ, and to know the honour of serving at the Altar.
But despite the wealth of knowledge and wisdom passed on to me and the whole world by his teachings, what I cherish and remember the most was that moment, that smile and reassuring touch.
I never got to thank Father Tom for that day (not that he would have remembered it, anyway), but I certainly thank God for it continually. I know with certainty that as brilliant and articulate as Fr. Tom was, it all sprung from a desire to make manifest the saving love of the Lord in the world around him, and make present the Lord’s compassion and mercy even to a deacon having a horrible day.
May my Priesthood be as humble and loving as his. And may his memory be eternal.