Opinion

A UNC physician follows an unconventional path to the priesthood

Ted Vaden
Ted Vaden

As a retiree, Vincent Joseph Francis Kopp is unusual in two respects. At age 66, he has set forth on a new calling, into the priesthood. And he enters the ministry via an untypical path – after 40 years as a physician in private practice and at UNC School of Medicine.

I recently had the privilege of witnessing Kopp — a close friend and sometime fly-fishing partner — become ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church.

Unlike other denominations, the Episcopal deacon is not a volunteer congregational leader, but rather one of three orders of ordained ministry, along with priest and bishop. Deacons must be trained in divinity school, go through a multi-year discernment and examination process and be approved for ordination by a Bishop.

Kopp’s ordination as deacon came in June, in a ceremony at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill that included three bishops, several pews full of clergy and a sanctuary filled with family and friends. The sermon was delivered by the Right Reverend Peter Lee, retired Bishop of Virginia now living in Chapel Hill. Lee noted that the role of the deacon in the Episcopal Church is to serve others.

“Deacons are servants to the world through the church – modest, humble, strong and constant, reflecting the servanthood of Christ himself,” Lee said. “Those of us who have known Vincent Kopp over the years can testify that those adjectives describe him.”

To see a person of Kopp’s station in life devote himself to spiritual service was inspiring. I wanted to know more, so I called him up for a chat.

First, Kopp said, it is not surprising to see a physician devote himself to serving others.

“That is really what a doctor should do,” he said. “You efface your own self-interest so that you can help somebody else get past a patch in their life – illness, emotional trauma, physical injury – so that they can move on with their life.”

Raised a Roman Catholic, Kopp said he first felt the call to ministry at age 10 or 11, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to the celibate life of a priest. “I had this conundrum of feeling called to be a priest but at the same time feeling called to be a father and a husband.” He chose the latter and undertook the path to medicine.

An English and religion major at UNC, after graduation he decided to go to med school and re-entered UNC as a special student, supporting himself with a job and on food stamps. He did marry, raised three daughters and became a pediatrician and anesthesiologist.

There are many families in Chapel Hill who can tell you about Kopp taking care of their children. But all along, he continued to feel the tug of ministry, and late in his career, at the urging of his wife Katherine, Kopp answered that call. After retiring from UNC, he underwent seminary training over a two-year period and served one year as an intern at St. Luke’s church in Durham.

The final step of becoming a deacon is approval by the bishop. In Kopp’s case, the bishop was Michael Curry, the former Bishop of North Carolina, now presiding Episcopal bishop of the United States, who recently electrified the world with his sermon on redemptive love at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

The intersection of Bishop Curry in Kopp’s path reminded me of a crucial decision by Curry in the history of the church in North Carolina. Shortly after he arrived here as the first African-American Bishop of North Carolina, Curry in 2003 made the bold decision to authorize priests in his diocese to bless same-sex unions in their churches.

That was a controversial action at the time, made by only a few bishops nationwide, and it stirred dissent among North Carolina Episcopal parishes. Some churches, including a few of the largest and richest, withheld all or part of their support to the diocese.

As a member of Chapel of the Cross, I’m proud the parish reacted by increasing its contribution. Bishop Curry remained ever grateful for that gesture and as bishop gave Chapel of the Cross plenty of attention — and some additional diocesan support. (I also have a fond feeling for Curry because he confirmed my daughter into the church at age 16 – she doesn’t remember much else about that except the Bishop’s fiery sermon – and I remember him dancing the Twist with parishioners at a parish dance in 2015.)

It seemed not accidental that Curry’s emergence onto the international scene coincided with the ordination of the former physician/now deacon in Chapel Hill. In the Episcopal church, clerics must become deacons before becoming priests. Kopp intends to pursue that next step as well. He’ll begin by serving as assistant to the priest at St. Timothy’s Church in Raleigh and as chaplain to that parish’s 500-student private school.

Kopp said he’s ready to serve, in a different role.

“The fact that I started later than a lot of people just adds a grace note to the mystery of it all,” he said. “I feel like my life has built up to this near point. This is a penultimate point, not the ultimate point, and I hope it continues to the priesthood and that I keep myself open to the possibilities, go where I’m asked to serve and just do the best job I can do, wherever I am.”

Ted Vaden is a retired newspaper editor living in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at tedvaden@gmail.com

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