MEMORIES OF FR. JOHN MEYENDORFF
Fr. John Meyendorff, known to virtually everyone in the Orthodox Church as a teacher, pastor, theologian, and ecumenist, died on July 22, 1992 after a very brief battle with pancreatic cancer. Fr. Meyen-dorff was the author of many books and articles on the Orthodox Faith, was the first president of Syndesmos (the international Orthodox Youth organization), was the editor of St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly and The Orthodox Church for many years, was Professor of Church History and Patristics at St. Vladimir's Seminary and finally was Dean of the Seminary from 1984-1992. He was known in international circles as an eloquent and scholarly defender of the Faith. But he was also known to many as simply a teacher, friend and confessor. The following are a few remembrances of this very special man by some of his former students.
My memories of Fr. John are very mixed. I remember him during a wedding, talking with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, them calling each other "Sasha" and "Vanya." I remember coming for a final in one of his classes, only to find out that he had left for France two days before, and had made no provisions for the final (we made it up a week later). I remember going to his house to play bridge with his family and once even he played (he was not a good player). More than his classes, I remember him at home, the discussions that would sometimes occur, the french coffee that he would prepare (the kind of coffee in which you can almost stand up a spoon). Most of all, my memories are of his kindness; he disagreed, but never belittled, so that you were never left feeling like an idiot. I didn't always understand him; I had a hard time reading his Christ in Eastern Christian Thought, but he was always very patient, always willing to explain. He is, to my mind, the model of the Christian teacher.
Fr. Seraphim Gisetti, Terryville, CT
Among my memories of Fr. John as professor, scholar, Seminary Dean, and a leading theologian are two recollections of a different nature.
The first memory came as a result of a course on Contemporary Orthodox Church History. Fr. John was relating the spread of the Orthodox Church across the North American Continent in the early part of this century. As he began discussing the origins of theological education in the new land, I recall a battle going on in my conscience. After being asked to direct the 1989 Summer Octet, I had been busily preparing music for services and program presentations. This meant a lot of night-time hours. As I sat in class that morning, my subconscious began a violent attempt to awaken me. I had been in that all-too-familiar situation of hearing the lecture, but somehow from a distance. It dawned on me that Fr. John would probably mention St. Mary's Cathedral in Minneapolis (my home parish) as the sight of the first seminary. As I tried with all my being to open my eyes and be attentive, I heard these words: "We have a representative from that parish here in class. Well, see, he is asleep!"
The second memory came as I planned to ask Cindy Shakun to marry me. I was still at seminary at that time, and arranged to go to a nice restaurant where I would get up the nerve to ask one of the biggest questions of my life. As I planned the evening in my mind, I struggled over whether to leave for the restaurant after Vespers or stay through the Matins of the Feast of the Protection of the Holy Virgin. Before the Vigil that night, I approached Fr. Thomas Hopko to tell him of my intentions, in order that an announcement could be made the following morning (if Cindy said yes!). He relayed this message to Fr. John.
During Vespers I could not concentrate on a single word thinking only of the question that I was to ask, and playing out various scenarios of her responses. Finally, I resolved to leave after Vespers. Following the end of the First Hour, Fr. John came out and announced our engagement! With this came two things: a surprised gasp from the congregation, and a call from Fr. John to ring the chapel bell as is customary in these situations. At long last, my close friend and classmate Ralph Geeza succeeded in relating to Fr. John that we were not in the chapel and that I had not yet proposed! Everyone was waiting for us to return to Seminary that night to see if we were indeed engaged, and to relate the evening's events in the chapel. I can only imagine what I would have done if we had stayed for Matins that night!
Through these and other events, Fr. John was a true and caring person in my eyes. All of his knowledge and work did not separate him from influencing many persons' lives whether or not he was even aware of it. Thank you for everything that you gave me and so many others, and may your memory be eternal.
Fr. Steven Voytovich, Ansonia, CT
I have two special memories of Fr. John. The first concerns a Patristics course I took with him in the fall of 1978. I was informed by the the chancery that Metropolitan Theodosius would be visiting my home parish (St. John the Baptist, Rochester, NY) on Sunday, December 10, 1978. I was at the point where I was to be ordained to the Holy Diaconate, and I wanted to be ordained at home. The only problem was that final exams were to begin on Monday, December 11th. The exam I had scheduled for that day was Fr. John's. I spoke with him and explained my predicament, and he was very gracious and said I could take an oral exam the following Friday. The only problem was I had never taken an oral exam before and they scared me to death!
Friday came, and the excitement of my ordination had already given way to the grind of exam week. I was nervous about the oral exam but was confident that I would pass, provided Fr. John didn't ask me too much about St. Augustine. I went to Fr. John's house and we began our discussion. It was evident from the beginning that much was to be expected about Augustine! He phrased the questions in a way that what I did know would be self-evident. If I gave an unsatisfactory answer, he questioned a little deeper to see if it was my nerves or my ignorance which was causing my answers to come out the way they were. Finally, the exam had passed. My natural question was "Had I?" Fr. John looked at me and said, "Well, you see, you passed the exam, but so, you don't know very much about St. Augustine!" For the record, I got a "B" in the course, and a great measure of sympathy from Father on that exam!
The other thought of Fr. John is not so much a memory as a reflection. One of the most powerful images I have is that of how closely linked were the lives and ministries of Fr. John and Fr. Alexander Schmemann. They were two distinct, almost opposite personalities, but in their friendship and lives they combined to literally bring the Orthodox Church in this land out of the dark ages. Fr. Alexander was older, had come to America first, became Dean of the Seminary first. But he was, and is, forever linked in my mind (and, I would guess, in the minds of almost everyone who knew both) with Fr. John. Fr. Alexander was my father confessor, and I knew him in a much more personal way than I knew Fr. John. But it always seemed to me that they were complementary to each other in their strengths and weaknesses. Fr. John was the softer, more patient side of the duo, while Fr. Alexander was more passionate (in the good sense of that word) and fiery. Both were brilliant. Both were dedicated totally to the success of a truly united Orthodox Church in America. Both were world-renowned theologians. Both came from that last link with the old Church from Europe, along with others just as well-known. Both worked tirelessly to bring Orthodox understanding to the average person in our parishes. Both were, one could argue very easily, saintly. Fr. Alexander was Dean of the Seminary, but the logical, indeed, the only choice to succeed him after his death, was Fr. John. And now Fr. John has joined his friend with our Lord.
With Fr. John's passing, an era has come to an end. God brings us the leaders that we need and deserve in His own good plan. Fr. John's ministry in teaching, preaching and witnessing can really be boiled down to one to make us ready to take up the cross where he left off. May your memory be eternal, Father!
Fr. John Dresko, New Britain, CT