I met Fr. Tom Hopko almost 25 years ago. He was lecturing at my alma mater and my old professor invited me there to hear Fr. Tom speak and then suggested that I take Father to the airport in Pittsburgh, which almost two hours away but on my way home. We talked about many things that day, including his desire to retire and live simply near the monastery where his daughter and son-in-law (the monastery groundskeeper) lived. I was not Orthodox yet, but he was gracious, open, talkative and so very kind.
He went back to St. Vladimir’s Seminary and I went on with my own seminary and then into the future — where I became Orthodox, got married, became a deacon, became a dad, and then a priest. I would hear about Fr. Tom from time to time, I would see him speak on occasion, and eventually he did retire. He moved right across the street from the monastery, into a nice house overlooking a picturesque stream.
Over time we reconnected. I think it was because he was getting frustrated with a new computer. I showed him how to move around the word processor, then I showed him how to save his podcast recordings and upload them to Ancient Faith Radio. All the while we would talk about various topics, mostly about things that were of some concern to him.
Fr. Tom was a bit of a rebel. He championed his causes, for sure, but he was also fond of smashing ideals that he saw as false idols. He gave me a copy of the writings of the French Catholic, François Fénelon. “You know that prayer from Optina? ‘O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day…?’ They got it from Fénelon,” he would say with a shimmer of a laugh in his voice and a gleam in his eye. It was conversations like this one that kept me wanting to come back for more.
He would be in the congregation when I served at the Monastery on occasion. Talk about nerve-racking: try preaching in front of him! He would patiently wait for me to wrap up the Liturgy, then we would go sit somewhere and talk for an hour or two or three.
Fr. Tom had amyloidosis, a horrible disease from which there is no cure. As he got sicker, he was not able to serve any more. But I would still hope for a visit, hoping for a chance to talk a bit more. One of the last visits I had with him was a trip to New Castle to lunch. We ate together at a local Syrian restaurant, then I asked him if he would like to stop for ice cream. He was delighted. The conversation that day was beautiful, deep. He talked about his time with the World Council of Churches, mentioning people he knew personally that I read in seminary. He was so grateful for that time, and we both expressed our hope that it was not our last.
Recently, an Unction service was held for Fr. Tom, and I was so privileged to serve at that sacrament. There were seven of us, the perfect number. And there he was, tired but strong. He was one with the service. And by this I mean he was woven into the prayers, into the readings. There he was, in our midst, reading the prayers he knew by heart.
At the conclusion, Fr. Tom then greeted every single person that was there: bishops, other priests, friends, family. When my time came, he took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “Thank you for being my friend.” I looked back, “Thank you for everything.” I said.
As he passes from this life to the next, I am so grateful that I got to be Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko’s friend. At the end of the day, that, I think, is exactly what we need. Friends who journey together, laugh together, cry together. Together friends can make sense of a very strange world, and together friends can walk together towards the kingdom of heaven; even, sometimes, get a glimpse of it in a little New Castle Dairy Queen.
Memory eternal, Fr. Tom. Thank you for being the wonderful teacher, mentor, counselor, and friend that you were.