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In Memoriam: Father Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983)
13 December 2010 • Feast of St. Herman of Alaska
On the Feast of St. Herman of Alaska, the seminary community joined in celebrating a memorial service for Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, the prominent 20th-century Orthodox churchman and theologian who served as Dean of St. Vladimir's from 1962 until his death on December 13, 1983. Our current Dean, Archpriest John Behr, served the panikhida for Fr. Alexander's repose, and presented the following homily that wonderfully encapsulated his earthly ministry:
Today we celebrated the memory of St. Herman of Alaska, the one who brought Orthodoxy to these lands. Now, this evening we will serve a panikhida for Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, who more than almost anyone else in the past century helped shaped Orthodoxy in America. Today, in a very particular way, as the weather turns colder and life around us begins to die, with these two figures—St. Herman and Fr. Alexander—we celebrate our own “Winter Pascha," knowing that through their work Orthodoxy will continue to flourish in these lands.
Father Alexander came to St. Vladimir's Seminary in 1951, and when the Seminary moved to Crestwood in 1962, he was appointed Dean, in which role he served for twenty-one years until his death in 1983. There is probably no figure as identified with our Seminary as Fr. Alexander. During his time as Dean he worked tirelessly, taking up three specific challenges:
- First, that of secularism and modernity; he insisted that Christianity never become a "mere religion," commoditized on the marketplace of American consumerism. Although we are now in a post-secular and a post-modern culture, his words are still as applicable as ever.
- Second, he emphasized that Orthodoxy must find its indigenous expression here in the new world, become an American Orthodoxy, with full canonical regularity. And again, his message here is as timely as ever.
- And third, of course, he revived the liturgical practice and experience of the Church, trying to communicate to others the joy and taste of the Kingdom that is given in the liturgical celebration of the Church. This message is not simply still relevant—it is eternally relevant.
A few weeks ago, as we celebrated the holiday of Thanksgiving, which was the day he served his last liturgy, we read the sermon that he gave that year, which begins with the words: “Everyone who is capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”
Let us give thanks then, for Fr. Alexander and for all that he has given us—the work he did building up the seminary, and the words that he has left for posterity—knowing that all who are capable of thanksgiving are capable of salvation.