My Jesuit province is in the process of “discernment,” as St. Ignatius liked to say. We’re attempting to map out the future of the Society of Jesus in New England—praying together about where God might be calling us, considering new ministries and evaluating our traditional ones: overall, looking at where we are and where we could be, given our resources, the needs of the church and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Our most recent meeting was held on a blustery Saturday at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
During the lunchtime break I grabbed a sandwich and wandered over to a table of familiar faces. Sitting together were some of the men who had entered the Jesuits just a few years before me. As I stepped over to join them, one cheerfully greeted me: “Welcome to the middle-aged Jesuits table!”
I almost dropped my tray.
Though my birthday had passed a few months prior, it wasn’t until hearing those words that its import finally dawned on me: Oh no, I’m 40!
Now I am not about to subject you to a Dave Barry-type column, where I lament my creaky bones and potbelly. (I’ve neither of those...yet. On the other hand, my barber advises me with alarming regularity that if I wear my hair short it won’t look like I’m losing it so rapidly.) Nor will I force upon you one of those stomach-churning New York Times “About Men” columns—remember those?—where 40-ish men would tearfully cast their minds back to more halcyon days. (The “About Men” columnists always seemed to wax nostalgic about either their first car or grass infields—two topics that occupy precious little space in my own private field of dreams.) Finally, I will not offer up any Proustian reveries about les neiges d’antan, le temps perdu or, for that matter, anything else perdu. (You’re spared something like that because, first, I didn’t grow up in late 19th-century France; and, second, even if I had, I can never remember whether temps is singular or plural.)
On the other hand, I’d be fooling you if I didn’t say that things were a little different.
For one thing, it feels rather odd saying “I’m 40.” (It’s even stranger than saying, “I’m a priest,” because at least I’m happy about that development.) Greatly cheering me, however, was a Jesuit friend who told me over a birthday dinner that “early 40’s” sounds much younger than “late 30’s.” I’m not sure whether it was the wisdom of his remark or my desperate need to feel young, but I found his comment immeasurably profound. When, however, I related this observation to a 30-year-old friend, he just laughed. But I’ll wager that my friend will soon recognize its wisdom—in roughly 10 years.
Two years ago, another Jesuit pal marked his own 40th birthday with notable élan. He gathered together his friends and colleagues and celebrated a wonderful Mass, during which he preached a terrific homily about vocation and trust in God. Afterwards, the congregation retired to a local restaurant for some great (and inexpensive) Italian food. “What a perfect way to celebrate!” I thought. During the dinner I decided this is what I would do in a few months. But interposing itself between this decision and my birthday was ordination, and the prospect of once again sending out bales of invitations was too horrifying to contemplate.
So the birthday itself passed more casually. Come to think of it, I was at the time attending yet another province planning meeting. (There’s a lot to plan, as you can see.) But it turned out to be an excellent place to mark the occasion. For besides being able to celebrate with my brother Jesuits, the express purpose of the meeting was to gather together Jesuits in formation as well as those born after 1960. Most gratifying of all was the title of the conference: the provincial was calling it the “Young Jesuits Gathering.”
And who was I to argue?