Fr. Dennis and I entered St. Vladimir’s Seminary in the same year of 1968. He came as a collegiate division student, after spending some time in school in Serbia. I came as a collegiate division instructor and doctoral student, after spending five years as a newly ordained priest in Ohio. From the very start, when Dennis knocked me into Troublesome Brook that runs through the seminary campus during a football game between the seminary staff and students, we became the greatest of friends, soul brothers and co-workers.
What can I say about Fr. Dennis now that we are both retired? And perhaps even more importantly, what do I believe that I can say together with Fr. Dennis now that we are both at this point in life?
First of all, without a doubt, we thank God for His salvation of us sinners in Christ our Lord. We thank God for His Holy Church. We thank God for our common teachers at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, especially Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Prof. Serge Verhovskoy, Fr. John Meyendorff and Prof. Veselin Kesich. We thank God for our priesthood. We thank God for our dear wives and children. And we thank God for all the faithful with whom we form a rather pathetic and sinful, but still inexpressibly grateful and joyful family of God in Christ.
Fr. Dennis and I always love to kid each other and to joke about things, especially when they are particularly difficult and painful. Hopefully this is not a sin, at least not a very big one! We hope that it is a sign of humility, for the word humility in English (a language which we both think can be used by Orthodox Christians, even in Church!) comes from the same root as the word humor. That word in Latin is humus, which means “earth” or “ground” or “soil.”
For me, Fr. Dennis is a man and a priest who is really “down to earth.” He is a solidly “grounded” servant of Christ who never feared to get “soiled” in his daily duties. In a word, he is a humble man; a man without guile, a man who has always known how to “turn and become like a little child” for the sake of God’s kingdom. But Fr. Dennis has never been childish. He has always been a big, strong, mature man. Those who went with him on one of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary summer octets know this very well since Fr. Schmemann and Prof. Verhovskoy told him to “take care of the boys” during their travels. Fr. Dennis did so, firmly and clearly, just as he took care of his people during all the years of his priestly and pastoral ministry.
Fr. Dennis has always been strong, firm and clear. One of the funny things he would tell me was that his goal in life was to prove that “a Serbian could be a Christian,” beginning with himself! He would joke that his mission was to show that the Serbian Saint Sava and the holy Serbian Slava were both about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God, and not about anything else!
When I think of Fr. Dennis, with gratitude and joy, I think of something I once read in the Life of St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third century church father, bishop and martyr. St. Cyprian’s disciple wrote that when the holy pastor’s people experienced his anger and wrath, they always knew for certain that he loved them and cared for them and was ready to die for them. And when they experienced his kindness and mercy, they were filled with fear and awe in his pure and holy presence.
Fr. Dennis is one of God’s great gifts to me in my earthly life. I hope and pray that we will spend eternity together as well. But first we must both make it through retirement!
May the Lord bless, guide and protect Fr. Dennis and his beautifully devoted Protinica and their family and friends for many peaceful, joyful and fruitful years to come, as the Good God provides. Mnogaya i Blagaya Lyeta !
With love, admiration and gratitude,
Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary
Crestwood, New York
Reprinted from the St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary website.