Musings of an Inveterate Geezer-Watcher

I have a confession to make. I have been spying. All my life as a Jesuit. On unsuspecting older Jesuits. (Drum roll. Dum-ta-dum-dum...)

Let me explain. Even as a young man I was intrigued by the ways different people handle the experience of growing old. What accounts for the fact that some older men are graceful, pleasant, interested in other people and in events and ideas in our world and our church, while others become -- honesty calls us to say it -- sullen old grouches wrapped up in their petty grumblings and peeves?

When we're talking about older men, the presence of aches and infirmities must surely be a factor to be considered, of course. Our bodies don't always cooperate with our highest instincts and ideals. But that reality can't be the total answer, because some of the men who are the most gracious clearly deal with diminishments equal to or far greater than their curmudgeon brothers.

So I observed. Over time I came to some conclusions. They appear pretty obvious at this late date, but they may need saying anyway.

The first is that the process doesn't start when you turn seventy. Somebody famous (I can't remember who) said that, as we age, eventually we get the kind of face we deserve. Just as small physical marks and creases on our skin from a younger era either develop into lines of wisdom and the remnant of a thousand smiles, or else become unsightly blotches in later years, our latter-day personality and character apparently begin in tiny patterns and responses long before the mantle of seniors is draped about us.

The second is that qualities I find attractive in older Jesuits are those I would like to be able to achieve in myself. We humans are model-seeking beings. Certain embodiments outside ourselves speak to desires deep within us, desires we may not even know we harbor. They challenge us to keep responding to the work of the Lord who is shaping us for our future through attractions at work in our inmost spirits.

That being the case, I take a small risk by sharing a few stories of some older Jesuits I have known and observed. My choice of the stories, and especially my way of telling them, will probably reveal more about me than about the men in question. But hey, they're worth telling just as stories, so why not?


When I came to know 'Pop' Sanders, he was some years retired from being a long-time teacher of Scripture at Woodstock. I never had him as a teacher so I can't vouch for the truth or falsity of evaluations of him from that aspect. By my time on the faculty he puttered around as an 80-something geezer. I see him sitting in the rec room at preprandials with a snifter in his hand. Someone has just made a forgettable comment about the holiness of one of the Society's saints. Pop says, "Oh, I never paid much attention to a lot of that hooey about our saints. Aloysius dressing in such a modest way that he never saw his feet, and all that. Our saints clearly were too believable and effective with the people around them that they couldn't have behaved in nonsensical ways like that." Age does give some people the freedom to take on the myths of the clan, I guess; they have nothing to lose at that stage. I don't know about you but I found it refreshing, the familiarity of someone sufficiently at home in the family to smile at its legends.

When Vatican II ended and the faculty decided that we should begin to educate people about what had happened, we began summer institutes for priests, sisters, and laity. I was made the ecclesiastical cruise director. The first year we housed our female guests in a convent across the valley, but by the second year it was clear that the thing to do was to take a wing of Woodstock itself and make it into living quarters for the women. One day I met Pop at the bulletin board and he asked me solicitously, "George, is it true that the women are going to be living in the house this summer?" I knew the news was going to go down hard but there was no avoiding it so I told him the truth as gently as I could. He shook his head and muttered --- not angrily but like someone swallowing a pill, "The sons-of-bitches, I knew they'd make it sometime..." The irony is that when they did come he reveled in the experience! The women sat at meals with him and just performed the simple act of asking him about his life, and he had a ball regaling them with stories. Was it that mysterious Ignatius thing of being comfortable around women -- or just having some attention that we his brothers were too busy to give?

After the council the practice of concelebration had been approved but the date for implementing it was some time off, so naturally the faculty jumped the gun and began daily concelebration. One day we were talking about it in the rec room when Pop said, "Huh, those guys think they're saying Mass. They don't realize that I sit in the back of the chapel and say the words of consecration before they get to them . . . ." It would be a great class exercise to charge some students of liturgy with unpacking all the assumptions behind that situation!


In the case of Horace McKenna it was a matter of wonderment at a man so completely engaged with the life of the poor on the streets of Washington (he let them use his old car to sleep in at night) and yet so solidly grounded in the latest thinking in moral theology and canon law.

When the dissent over Humanae Vitae became public, Horace, quite without intending to, became the informal leader of a large group of diocesan and religious priests opposing the teaching. Cardinal O'Boyle suspended them from exercising their priestly faculties -- thereby cutting off access to his own confessor, the very same Horace McKenna! It went on for weeks, with public opinion increasingly opposed to the cardinal.

O'Boyle finally realized that he was in a corner. So he called the priests in one by one, to set the conditions under which they could get their faculties back. On the afternoon after his interview with the cardinal Horace came over to Woodstock and we asked him what happened. He said, "Well, the cardinal began by asking me, 'What are you doing in this position?' I said, 'I just happen to think I'm right' and the cardinal said, 'Well suppose the pope thinks you're wrong?' and I said, 'Well maybe he's been playing too much golf with Cardinal Colombo...' The cardinal said, 'Come on, let's get serious'. After going round and round he finally said, 'Look, I can restore your faculties if you promise you won't preach, or teach, or counsel on the subject of birth control'. I said, 'I won't preach, and I won't teach -- but if a man asks you how to get to city hall you have to tell him'. So he gave me my faculties and said, 'Just get out of here'."

I've always felt sorry for the poor cardinal. Within his categories there was no way of putting together the two realities he knew he was experiencing: a man he revered for his holiness and a priest publicly disagreeing with the pope. But more significantly for my study: where did Horace get that supreme freedom of spirit? I've long wondered if it came from years of intimate engagement with the most down-and-out.


Actually, Harry isn't his name. But I was brought up in an era which taught de mortuis nil nisi bonum, --- you younger men can ask a geezer for the translation --- and "Harry" is very much mortuus, so we'll give him an alias.

Harry belonged to a province somewhere East or West of the continental divide. As a young Jesuit he had written a book, at a time when that made you what sportswriters call a phenom. The result was that he was lionized for the next 45 years. And the process of lionization can produce some very loud roars.

When Harry was well into his 70's his community became blessed with a superior who is outwardly the soul of kindness but inside is sheer tempered steel. Some of the lesser lions, led by Harry, had developed the unhealthy practice of ignoring the regulations of the fire department concerning doors that were to be kept closed lest fire sweep up the stairwell and turn all of Ours to cinders. It was too much trouble, you see, for Harry to have to open a door each time he went up or down stairs, so he just put stoppers under the doors.

Over some months the superior tried valiantly to alert the community to the risks in this irresponsible behavior, but to no avail. Finally in exasperation he used his last weapon. He posed a notice forbidding the men under virtue of holy obedience from stopping the doors.

That night Harry came storming into the superior's room, declaring "You're treating us like children!" The superior sat quietly while Harry fulminated. Then he said very quietly, "Harry, you're a bully. You've been bullying people for 45 years. But you're not going to bully me." At that Harry's veins bulged all the more and he said, "No superior has ever spoken to me like that before!" To which the superior just said, "I know, Harry, and I'm sorry about that . . . ."

How did Harry get like that? Over the years, as a result of my ministry with many organizations and groups of religious I've come to a different answer than I might have given as a younger person. Earlier in my spying I would have been inclined to find the origins totally within Harry and his personality. From watching human systems function, I'd say today that we make our 'Harrys'. Whatever the seeds in Harry's own personality, he became a bully ultimately because those around him allowed him to. The language of 'tough love' wasn't part of the culture of those days. And the fact that we can use the term quite facilely today doesn't make the practice of it any easier. Who wants to wrestle with a young lion? Apparently, though, life operates on the same law as the Fram filter ad: 'pay me now or pay me later.' And later can be costlier.

And --- Moi?

The years of geezer-spying have gone by quickly. Having now reached geezerhood myself, I am reminded of the old saw about the fellow who said, "There was a time when I couldn't even spell 'teecher' -- and now I are one."

As I look at the issue of graceful-or-sour aging from the vantage point of 70+ years, my hunches have shifted. I have a suspicion that the answer may turn on a factor that lies deeper even than either personality or the human groups that have shaped us. Maybe it's all about coming to terms with death. I think Pop and Horace and so many of our gracious older men 'got it'. When one finally grasps the reality that that Brother is not far away, what sense does it make to cling to things like door-stoppers? Or things even of much greater substance, like status or reputation or adulation of the powerful. Continue to love? Yes, and passionately. Continue to care --- about our world and our church? Indeed, and with full-bore commitment to act. But to cling, that's something else. Clinging can get one seriously bent out of shape.

A Contemporary Voice

To conclude. Pop didn't have much tolerance for our romanticized hagiography, and I'd bet Horace wouldn't either, if the question were placed to him. They would probably rather have savored the wisdom of a secular contemporary. In a recent interview Lena Horne was asked, "You're 82 now. Do you ever fear death?" Her reply: "Oh, heavens, no. I've thought about it since I was 30. . . at 30 I began to think, 'Well, kid, you'd better get ready for the end.'"

A member of the Maryland Province, George Wilson, S.J., does organizational facilitating with Management Design Institute, out of Cincinnati, Ohio. e-mail: