To Be an Old Man Who Goes to Mass Every Day

I’ll be 59 this summer, the last age at which I reasonably can say that I’m not an old man. You may say that 60 is the new 40, but if you ask my 20-ish daughters about 40, they’ll say it’s the age to start shopping for caskets. As a Catholic, though, I’ll be happy to be 60, happier still to be 70 and 80, if I’m even destined to get there. As long as I’m going to Mass every day, I’ll be the happiest old man in town.

I see that happiness every morning in Frank G., Frank K., and Ferde, though, even at 70-plus, my big brother Ferde will not appreciate the “old man” tag. I saw it all last year in Henry, too. In October, Henry and his wife, Phyllis, stood inside the church door at the end of Mass while Father Barnes blessed them. Then the elderly couple headed off to South Carolina for the winter. The implication of the blessing seemed clear—one or both of them might not make it back in the spring.

Henry is only an inch or two taller than Phyllis, who doesn’t clear five feet, but they look hale and hearty and are both beamish and twinkly. During my first two years of daily Mass at 7 a.m., as I drove or walked my route from home to church, I often saw the two of them out walking by 6:30. They had a daily route, starting out from their apartment down near the train station and winding their way through the neighborhoods on a path that left them at the church door about five minutes of seven. I would arrive at church before them, but could almost set my watch by their arrival: First Phyllis, coming alone up the center aisle and taking her place in the second pew from the front. Then Henry, about thirty seconds later, with their two missals in hand. He would settle himself gently beside Phyllis and hand her her missal. They would often exchange a whispered word or two. They seemed to have trouble hearing each other and, I thought, repeated everything twice. They read aloud faithfully from their missals as the liturgy unfolded. One time, when the antiphon to the psalm reading was particularly long, Father Barnes afterwards thanked Henry and Phyllis from the pulpit for being the only ones who chimed in on the antiphon, because of those missals.

I didn’t see Henry and Phyllis all winter and began looking for them on their morning walk by the official start of spring this March. Not until this week did I see them—and saw them both. Phyllis is using a cane lightly now, without leaning heavily, and Henry is still following behind her with the missals. This morning they were wearing matching green Irish sweaters. Henry’s read “Sean-Athair” and Phyllis’s “Sean-Mháthar”—Irish for grandfather and grandmother. I couldn’t have been happier to see them if they had been my own grandparents.

When I was in college, I used to have a poster on my dorm room wall, one of those crunchy hippy-dippy posters we used to feature in the late 60s and early 70s. It showed an old man who looked much like Walt Whitman—whispy gray hair and beard—walking through a field holding a flower gently between his hands. I remember thinking that I wanted to be that old man some day. It seemed an odd wish for a 19-year-old who thought he would live forever. But I think that even then I knew I would not live forever.

We are all moving relentlessly toward old age (if we get there) and death (when we get there). So it matters what our vision of old age happens to be. This morning, my vision is Henry. My vision is being an old man who goes to Mass every day, preferably with my Phyllis, and carrying her missal.

(NOTE: This post owes a debt to Dr. and particularly to Mrs. Thomas Howard, about whom I wrote here.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12442813565745123497 MUJERLATINA

    Okay, Webster. Make me weep my way into Monday morning!! What a beautiful and poetic post this morning. How ironic that you wrote about aging — and the positives of this process. For not only am I myself feeling old lately, but a bit down about that reality. Our culture reveres youth, beauty, health and fashion. Come to think of it, so did those Spanish Conquistadors searching for the Fountain of Youth…. Somehow though I think it is worse now. When I was at Mass yesterday I was pondering about how, as Catholics, we revere the ancient, the rituals and traditions. Mass is the 'great equalizer' in the sense that, old, young, healthy or infirm there we all stand before our God. Because you are a decade older than I, and because you often write with wisdom about your journey, I have been drawn to YIMC as a Catholic looking for a roadmap from somebody just a bit older than I. Despite my tears this morning, you have once again helped direct my spiritual compass for the day. Pax Christi.

  • Anonymous

    Love your column…love the quiet souls at daily Mass. I too will be 59 in a few weeks. However, I was blessed to have my last child at 44…he just turned 15 and I can't let myself feel that I am an "old woman" when I turn 60. I prefer to think of myself as very very young considering that I will live with God for all eternity and I just began my existence a mere 60 years ago. Looked at from this perspective I am a mere child…a child of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02064673794877417232 Sarah Harkins

    I personally love the older generations and see so many positives in this season of life that I have a hard time understanding why so many older people are deeply offended by the their proper title: OLDER than me. Big wooop! At the very mention of the "O" word, my in laws give me the look of death. I agree that our society favors the young, but I would have to say that in my experience, wisdom and holiness favor the old. In this day and age, I would much rather strike up a conversation with a wise and learned older person than talk to a soul-less twenty year old. I think you so much to be thankful for! Let's name a few: A life well lived, children, grandchildren (maybe)memories of a simpler time in American society, wisdom, knowledge, and what I think is the greatest gift to retirees and older people whose kids have grown: more TIME to grow in holiness and knowledge of God before entering into his presence. Older age is a season just as youth– both have pros and cons. Maybe there should be more resources for older people to realize what their role in life is when they move to a new "season". I think I'd like to buy such a book for my in-laws ;)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Excellent post Webster. This morning I saw this from the world of the monks on Mt. Athos,The Karouliotan ascetic elder Philaretos when nearing his end, called his co-ascetic neighbor, Gabriel, to come to him and bring a pick-axe and shovel. “Brother come, my end is near. I must prepare for my trip. By your love, let us go a bit further away from my hut.”He got up with great difficulty. As they arrived at a spot between some rocks where they found some soil, Elder Philaretos lay down. “Here is the place where my grave is going to be. Measure it and dig it, to be ready.” Father Gabriel marked the measurements on the ground and started digging.About a week later Father Philaretos, the friend of the desert and of virtue, departed from this temporary life.from An Athonite Gerontikon

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00082345889350401296 A Thespian in the Desert

    Webster, your post was really touching. And wonderful on the accompaniment, Frank. I would just like to say that the three of you (that means you too, Allison) are a constant in my journey as an ageing (43 and counting) Catholic convert. Maybe a book is on the horizon, co-authored by our blogging-trio??? Pax! Shawn

  • crazylikeknoxes

    Personally, I enjoy the image of the clean-cut, silverish fox, Mr. Bull in his "crunchy hippy-dippy" dorm room. Is that Neil Young I hear in the background?

  • Anonymous

    I thought that I was the only one who thought about growing old when I was young and longed to always attend Mass on a daily basis. Strange.But then there were times I thought I was the only who still believed! Glad to see I was wrong on both counts! At 64 I qualify and yet there are many more who are more qualified…Praise the Lord!

  • Anonymous

    As I approach my 68th year on the planet, I find it more comforting every year to be able to attend daily Mass. Somehow the day does not seem complete without the Mass.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05040495946170037805 Julie Cragon

    Great examples one and all of the importance of daily Mass, of relationships, of caring for one another, of family and of our Faith journey together. I am grateful for all the work you three do keeping up this site. I somehow always seem to relate to the posts.

  • Anonymous

    I must copy my wife who turns 60 on December 28th! For myself, 66 will come in June! I enjoy getting a senior cup of coffee at MacDonalds…that is all I get from there! I still work and so I guess I'm not old…wife said I might want to work until 70…I pray the Lord gives me the opportunity! I talked to Him today. I was the altar boy at Mass…it was nice to be only five feet away at the consecration. So the Lord got an earful! Amen

  • Webster Bull

    @Mujerlatina, Thanks as always for your kind, supportive, thoughtful comments. I've been away from the computer all day and can only reply now, at suppertime. I've always thought I would have "no problem" with aging, but of course there are very specific problems with aging which are…problems! LOL@Sarah, The funny thing is, some people look at all the gray heads at Mass and think, How sad, this Church appeals mostly to people who are over the hill. Setting aside all the young people and children in our parish (and there are hundreds at Sunday masses), I think it is obvious why gray predominates at daily mass: we're the wise ones!! :-)@Thespian, Maybe a book is on the horizon. I like that thought. @Crazy, Never cared much for Neil Young. What you probably hear is a mix of The Byrds, Incredible String Band (ROFLMAO), (early) Joni Mitchell, and a few nonmusical cuts from Firesign Theatre…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14219506985543037186 luvfenix

    Hello Webster, came upon your column on newadvent site and found that what you've written seems to reflect what I've always envisaged my world would be when I grow old. Thank you

  • 45&Praying

    I long for just one smile, one hello, or one good morning from the 60+ folks at morning Mass. Is not Mass a celebration? I just don't understand. Let the Grace within you abound! Love your neighbor!

  • Webster Bull

    @45amp,You might have to smile at them first. :-)

  • 45andPraying

    Touche' Webster, and I agree wholeheartedly. But whether we are 45, 60, or 80, we all have the promise of everlasting life in Jesus Christ. What more do we need to smile about? Mother Theresa saw Christ in everyone. I challenge everyone who reads this to make the effort to smile or say hello to a stranger at Mass. That stranger just might be Jesus Christ Himself.

  • Anonymous

    This old man (age 71) walks the two blocks to Church every morning for rosary and then Mass. Then I return home to Morning Prayers with my cat curled up on my lap. With apologies to Dylan Thomas, I am going gentle into that good night although, to echo St. Augustine, 'not yet Lord'.

  • JMB

    When my youngest began first grade and I started going to Daily Mass, I remember looking around and wondering why I was the youngest one in the church. I'm 43. Now I have all these friends in Christ who nod to me at the supermarket or post office when I run into them. It's beautiful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04545510194367389333 Stefanie

    My Dad is a daily Mass attendee (he's almost 76 now) and I always think it's interesting how much he knows about those in attendance even though my Dad is a very private guy and doesn't like people 'chattering' to each other inside church. Sometimes, I've surprised him by slipping into the pew next to him on special days (like his birthday which is also the feast of the Assumption).In the Fall, our last child begins to attend college (locally — in fact, I'll probably be the transport for the first year)– and then perhaps I'll have the early morning time to join my Dad. I hope so!At our parish, we often talk about the fact that our daily morning Mass folk are a powerful and prayerful 'small faith community' all their own…not needing to be encouraged to join another one simply because it's the latest thing to do.Another irony — our "youth Mass" on Sundays is predominantly attended by those baby boomers and elders! They like the music and seeing the young folks who are there. Older people really do appreciate and rejoice in the youth of our Church.

  • Ferde

    Fifty-nine, Webster. Wow. Gettin' up there. I hope you can make it to Thursday.

  • Anonymous

    Webster, I've missed your blog lately. Probably because I don't have time to read the whole New advent every day. The headline is sometimes misleading. I am one of those 6:45 Mass attenders and recently found Eucharistic Adoration nearby by chance. That's where I go after Mass to continue the Practice of His Presence. This all sets up my day for whatever comes along. I also see some loving older couples.I also agree withe Anonymous #1. Found myself in the same boat at that age 27 years ago. She has a long way to keep going, and when the grandchildren come she will find even more strength at daily Mass to cope with them.That's where I remember my Latin. Rogamus, Deus, tuam majestatem,auribus sacris gemitus exaudi.

  • Anonymous

    Whoever said "old age is not for sissies" wasn't being emphatic enough! The reason old people don't smile a lot is probably because they are hurting physically, if not emotionally…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02064673794877417232 Sarah Harkins

    Maybe it's just my adorable children, but the old people love to smile at me and my kids! I guess it goes to show we shouldn't judge an entire group of people by a few of them.

  • Webster Bull

    Hey Sarah, I've even been known to smile from time to time! ;-)

  • Michael

    I almost wrote back to say "Webster, go gently into the night" – only to remember that I am turning 59 this winter (southern hemisphere)! But what then, is "Old Age" other than a state of mind? If we knew how much we influence ourselves by our thoughts and how they manifest in the physical, be they positive or negative thoughts, we would take care about what we think! Some people may only be 35 or 40, but they could already be "psychological antiques" – they never changed, year after year they remained same. It is my prayer that, God willing, we will be "aged men … sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience".(Titus 2:2)

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Michael. I have written down that wonderful description from Titus in my notebook and will read it from time to time.


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