For some, the journey of trusteeship ends with a funeral in the seminary chapel. This past May, midway between Orthodox Easter and Pentecost, the body of Jaroslav Pelikan lay in an open casket beneath the icon of Christ, the All Powerful, painted into the dome of St. Vladimir's Seminary chapel. For 24 hours, seminary members kept vigil by singing psalms between the "Divine Services for the Funeral of a Layman during the Forty Days of Pascha."
In his last years, Dr. Pelikan and his wife, Sylvia, had grown more open in their faith. His life's work as a scholar of Christian doctrine landed him in the lap of Eastern Orthodoxy in 1998, less a conversion than a "return," he said. He started with his family's Slovak Lutheranism within the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and later moved to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but over time he "peeled back the layers of my own belief to reveal the Orthodoxy that was always there. "After he and Sylvia were received at St. Vladimir's, they stayed there, entering fully into the parish life in its chapel. He also accepted an invitation to join the seminary board of trustees.
Although St.Vladimir's Three Hierarchs' Chapel is not technically a church, other Orthodox Christians in the region have always treated it as their parish. Jary and Sylvia of Hamden, of Connecticut, like Joe Domanick, a retired policeman from New York, loved the place. Priests from the administration and faculty do their best to provide pastoral care, including marrying and burying. In fact, more than one volunteered to drive the Pelikans to and from services as Dr. Pelikan's lung cancer progressed.
One of his favored aphorisms, that "tradition is the living faith of the dead" and "traditionalism the dead faith of the living," characterized his own scholarship. His former student Robert Wilken, a professor at the University of Virginia, recently described him as roaming "freely and confidently over the whole history of Christian thought," in the firm belief that "the great thinkers of the past were living interlocutors whose ideas, ways of reasoning and imagination commended them to Christian thinkers today."
As Yale University's Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, he was best known for a five-volume work, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, and the four-volume Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, which he edited, both sets to be found in every seminary library. Jesus Through the Centuries, richly illustrated with period art, was written for a popular audience.
A scholar who accepts the vocation of seminary trusteeship brings unique gifts to the role. Isn't the stewardship of its religious heritage — "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" — the reason for the stewardship of all other seminary resources? Too often board membership can grow lopsided because of the urgent need for members with good business sense, networks of potential donors, significant political savvy, or representation of the school's "market segments." Boards do need those kinds of members, but tending a school's living tradition requires broad historical knowledge. And such trustees can be drawn into fuller understanding of all the practicalities of sustaining a tradition's institutional embodiment. As Dr. Pelikan taught and learned through his trusteeship, he thoroughly enjoyed his role as a conversation partner with fellow trustees about the riches of the Orthodox tradition, its ecumenical connections, and the purposes of a seminary as a school for the church.
The rites for Dr. Pelikan were lavish as the Orthodox tradition is lavish.Yet, the ebb and flow in the tide of chanted prayer that washed over the congregation during the services made the stunningly simple point: Pelikan's greatness lay not in his personal genius, but in the full witness of his faith. He died surrounded not by the luminaries who had sung his praises, but by believers who sang God's praises. He wanted it that way. Restless, he found his rest.