What it All Comes Down To

During the season of Lent, the Church invites us to ponder the transience of life by reminding us that we “are dust, and unto dust [we] shall return.” Dutifully reflecting on old age and mortality, I recently found myself thinking of an encounter that took place in July 2016.

I had been asked to interview Monsignor Vincent Topper, a retired priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg, who was about to celebrate his 104th birthday. At the time, Monsignor Topper was the oldest and longest-serving priest in the country.

I spoke with Monsignor Topper in the rectory of St. Catherine Labouré Parish in Harrisburg. He was seated in a wheelchair in his office, surrounded by books, papers, and religious images that he had acquired during his eight decades of priestly service.

He said that he had been born with tuberculosis, the disease that would take the lives of his mother and three of his six siblings.

“They didn’t expect me to live,” said Monsignor, who was baptized upon birth. “But God had another plan.”

He was in second grade when he told his parents that he would become a priest. But at age 15, after graduating high school, the priest-to-be was declined admittance to seminary. Eventually he was accepted on probation to St. Vincent Seminary, despite his struggle with the Latin and Greek languages.

I picked up a framed document from a nearby shelf and handed it to Monsignor. “Can you translate the Latin text on this document?” I asked him.

Monsignor spoke the words in a strong, clear voice: “‘Dei et Apostolicae Sedis Gratia,’ that is, ‘By the grace of God and the Apostolic See…’”

The document was his Certificate of Ordination, dated June 6, 1936. After his ordination, Monsignor Topper would go on to serve six parishes under seven bishops and eight popes.

Some attributed Monsignor Topper’s longevity to his adherence to a regular routine. Four days of the week, Monsignor would celebrate Mass in the Rectory Chapel, and on the remaining days he would concelebrate Mass from his wheelchair at the Shrine Church of St. Catherine Labouré. The highlight of his week was the visit of the St. Catherine Labouré School students who would regularly come and recite the rosary with him.

Despite his advanced age at the time of our conversation, the practice of “memento mori” – the recognition that death may come at any time – did not weigh heavily on Monsignor. The elderly priest saw little difference between his earthly life and eternal life, “because when you are ordained, you are in heaven.”

Woven throughout all of Monsignor Vincent Topper’s days was what the faithful priest called “…a deepening awareness of God’s presence.”

“[It is] one of the gifts of old age. It is His way of getting our undivided attention! It moves you to deeper prayer and reflection. What will I say I have done with my life when I stand before God? My answer will be: I tried to be a good priest and to bring others to Christ. It might sound simple, but it’s what it all comes down to.”

Monsignor Vincent Topper passed away three months after our conversation, on the very day dedicated to the devotion he loved, the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary.

As we meditate on our own mortality during this Lenten season, may we remember our final goal: To be able to say, when we stand before God, that we strove to conform our lives to Christ, and to bring others to Him.

It is, as Monsignor Topper would say, “what it all comes down to.”

By Celeste Behe, a parishioner of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, Hellertown. Find her online at www.CelesteBehe.com.


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