Monday, November 06, 2006

Wilken on Pelikan as Teacher of the Church

(Several months ago, the esteemed Church historian Robert Wilken wrote a eulogy to his teacher and colleague Jaroslav Pelikan in the journal First Things. I deeply admire the work of both men; the eulogy is a moving witness to the faithful legacy of a great Christian scholar.)

When I walked into the chapel at St. Vladimir’s Seminary on a bright spring morning for the funeral of Jaroslav Pelikan, I saw an open casket in the center of the church. Next to it was a young woman standing at a reading desk chanting a psalm with tears running down her cheeks. As she turned the pages of the psalmbook, her other arm held a young girl standing on a chair to her left. Members of the seminary community had been taking turns through the night reciting psalms as they kept vigil over Jaroslav’s still body.

As I listened to the recitation of the psalms, the eyes of the saints painted on the walls of the chapel looked down on the simple ritual unfolding before them. Soon the building would be filled with mourners, but it seemed that the church was already present to commend Jaroslav to the care of the angels. When people began to take their places, I sensed that on this occasion there would be few reminders of the university world in which Pelikan had lived for so many decades. Besides the Pelikan family, most in attendance were from the local community: students and faculty garbed in the Orthodox inner cassock, called a podryasnik; mothers and wives; women and men carrying infants in arms; two little girls playing quietly on the wood floor close to the casket. The company that gathered that morning was more like a family, the family of the Church, a fellowship united by much deeper bonds than those of the academy. Their words and music and gestures were the solemn liturgy of God’s people who had come to offer praise to the holy, mighty, and immortal God and to celebrate, in the language of the Orthodox Church, a “Divine Service for the Funeral of a Layman During the Forty Days of Pascha.”

It was fitting that Professor Pelikan’s funeral should take place at St. Vladimir’s. He and his wife, Sylvia, had been regular communicants in this chapel, and his final book, a theological commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, was dedicated to “my liturgical family at Saint Vladimir’s” with the inscription, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). But there was another reason a theological seminary was the right place. Though Jaroslav Pelikan had a distinguished career in the university, he was a graduate of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he taught for several years. He always felt at home in a theological community and saw himself, and was revered by others, first and foremost as a doctor ecclesiae, a teacher of the Church.

Read it all here.