Turning 60

Cambridge, MA. Turning 60 seems to be the kind of event that deserves some attention. I have been pondering this fact for a number of months, but now with increasing awareness — today being August 17, my birthday just two days away; but I am still not sure whether it is really a significant marker or not. As a baby boomer, I realize that many of us have been turning 60, are turning 60, or will in the new few years; it is not all that difficult, it seems, and perhaps the rest of the world is not riveted by what is happening to us.

Were I a Hindu, it would be somewhat easier to rise to the occasion. Completing one’s 60th year — shasti-purti — is indeed an important event, the completion of a lifetime’s cycle of with accompanying rituals that mark the fullness of a life cycle. Life and health after 60 are then a grace, a gift.


Yet still, even among non-Indians, 60 marks a threshold of sorts. After 60, only in odd contexts is one still young — as in, “At 60, I am still safely in the younger half of American Jesuits." 60 is about getting old. There are reminders in the news all the time. Four years ago, Bill Clinton turned 60 (he and I share August 19), announcing his entrance into “the youth of old age;” Tony Judt, well-known historian and commentator on current issues, died recently of ALS, at age 61; Christopher Hitchens, another public intellectual and scourge of the comfortable of all stripes, recently published a celebrated memoir to mark turning 60, Hitch-22, but is also now suffering grave cancer. (See Charlie Rose’s compelling interview with him.) Or, on a happier note, my friend Jim Shaughnessy, SJ, recently turned 60, but still flourishing and undaunted in his long-time hospital ministry in Boston; see the recent piece on his ministry in the Jesuit.

It would be clearer how to think about 60 if I could know how much time I have left after 60. Granted, it is a marker for getting old, but it could still be a completion of just three-quarters of a life, or even just two-thirds (if I take after my 91 year old father) – but might it not be a reminder that there may be very few years left? (This last phrase sounds gloomy, even if obviously true, although I have no sense of impending doom; getting run down while crossing Harvard Square may be the likeliest threat I face right now.)

If we are lucky and healthy and peaceful, 60 may still mark a time of mixed expectations — young enough to have many opportunities: as for me, I have more than I can manage at Harvard and CSWR, but also a sense, with AARP reminders coming in the mail and administrators hinting at how good an idea early retirement is, that I will not have the resources and time now to do what I might have done were I a Harvard professor and CSWR director at 40.

So I am perplexed. But nonetheless, here are some bits of wisdom — notes to myself — I think might guide me through the next few years:

First, in this 60 year old body: eat (veg)! run (a bit)! pray (always)! and in all things, be patient.

Second, as a child of the 60s who imagined a better world: seek out that slender place of hope that stands between naïve optimism and cynicism. The world will not be healed in my lifetime, tyranny will not end, and our woes, from the financial to the military and the environmental, will continue their up and down cycles after I’m gone. The urgently needed changes in the Church will probably not happen soon either. It seems unlikely that a woman priest will preside or preach at my funeral, even if I live to 90, though I’d be willing to stay on until 100 for that to happen. Thus my limited expectations: this is a sober appraisal of where we are, but there is little value in waiting optimistically for a utopian nation or church-soon-arriving; conversely, there is no value in a cynicism that ever settles for a never-changing status quo because nothing can ever change for the better.

Third, as a scholar and teacher: Even the old dog’s tricks may be good tricks, or at least the best available. I do best to go deeper into what I do know, avoiding the temptation of entirely new projects, or the ageing academic’s temptation to try to write something magisterial in hopes of that elusive best seller. I will probably never write about Daoism, and never produce a grand theory of religions. But as I do what I do, I need also to find ways to keep contributing to projects that will live on after I am gone; my field of comparative theology is not my personal possession, and it is younger than I am. Similarly, as a teacher, I need to be more alert to sharing my learning with my students, while not hampering projects and issues that seem urgent to them now. It is a tricky thing to decide when to stop teaching — since we have no retirement age — but somewhere in the next two decades I will want to pull back (and open a slot; on the ethics and merits of retiring, for the sake of a younger generation of professors, see the recent New York Timesdiscussion).

Fourth, as a priest: With the number of recognized priests ever declining, it may be the case that I never need retire; but if I am still at this 20 years from now, won’t being an elderly Mass priest be a mixed blessing for me and a congregation? Would I being doing good work, God’s work, and yet propping things up? I will need to think about how to be a good and useful priest in a situation that is both blessed and messed up.

Fifth, as a Jesuit: We have a reputation for never retiring — work until you drop, to put it inelegantly; no grandchildren to rejoice in, after all. But underlying all the preceding, the need for discernment does not wane. The basic questions of the Exercises remain alive — how to be a companion of Jesus, at this particular age; it is ever a new thing to see how and where Jesus calls me at 60, or 70, as he called me at 15 or 20 or 30. Since we cannot say what Jesus would have done in his old age, he’s left it to us to ponder how the mission continues even as we personally seem less, not more. But the magis is God's, not ours.

But enough of this introspective moment! I am young! 60 is the new 40! Or, returning to reality: some of you reading this have surely turned 60 already, so don’t hesitate to write in with your bits of wisdom, advice on what to do, how to be at 60. But for now, I had better go and take a nap…

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jim McCrea
8 years 4 months ago
At 60 you remain a young whipper-snapper!

I have you by 10 and still feel like a young whipper-snapper, feisty as ever, and unwilling to tolerate BS from these kids of all ages.
Pearce Shea
8 years 4 months ago
As someone who has spent, so far, the majority of their life in the Episcopal tradition and has had plenty experience of women of the cloth... you're not missing anything. They gave just as bad, dull, self-referential, self-loving homilies as the men did. 
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
8 years 4 months ago
What about celebrating your 60th birthday as if it were your 6th?  Spend the day doing what you liked to do then.   
Read a book you liked then.
Play with a toy or game you liked then.
Eat what you liked then.
Watch a t.v. show or movie you liked then.
Look at pictures of  people you loved then.
8 years 4 months ago
Happy 60th, Fr. Clooney.

I would have to disagree with you though on this statement:  "The urgently needed changes in the Church will probably not happen soon either."

The changes in the Church ARE happening as we speak.  Young, orthodox blood of religious vocations and laity are flowing back into the Church!

As one of your co-generationalists sang: "times they are a'changin."
PJ Johnston
8 years 4 months ago
Happy Birthday!

Maybe some of those much-needed changes in the Church will happen sooner than you think (or are happening even as we speak), albeit on a modest scale.  For instance, there seems to be a canon law loophole about the status of women who were ordained validly in the apostolic succession before converting to Roman Catholicism.  I imagine some probably maintain an active sacramental ministry when there is a pastoral reason to do so (being priests forever after the order of Melchizedek, and therefore never really off the hook).  It's not what anyone would hope for, but it's something.
charles jordan
8 years 4 months ago
'' It seems unlikely that a woman priest will preside or preach at my funeral ... .''

Well, I reckon that anyone can preach at a funeral. You might have to forgo the funeral Mass for this to happen but remember, the Body of Christ is with us whenever two or more are gathered in Christ's name. I am guessing that it would be a gift to the living that women and men who knew you do the preaching.

Something to ponder during a dour moment?
Happy Birthday!
michael iwanowicz
8 years 4 months ago
Jerome Groopman, in his 1st book (The Measure of Our days), referred readers to Psalm 90 verse 12 (So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart).
Deacon Mike
Molly Roach
8 years 4 months ago
When I was 25 and confused, I yearned to be 60 because I thought (hoped) by then that my confusion would be gone and I would have a direction and sense of purpose.  60 will arrive in November and I am happy to say that the direction and purpose did develop, as I hoped.  But I remember what is was to be young and confused and hopeful and I want to be guided by that with all the young I am in contact with.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 4 months ago
Happy 60th Birthday, Fr. Clooney (and Molly in November),
My 60th birithday is coming up in 10 days (Aug. 30th) and it's nice to know that others are contemplating this momentous event as I am.  My friend in Germany tells me that the best part about getting old is that we're all doing it together.  I'm still confused but have learned that confusion is ok.  Maybe that's wisdom! :-)


The latest from america

The act of planting a garden is the easier part: It’s the small daily acts of caring over the long haul that can be a challenge.
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 15, 2018
So what is it about these cheesy, mass-produced films that make them so irresistible?
Colleen DulleDecember 14, 2018
Last year, 'America' published “An (unconventional) Advent Playlist.” This is my (much more conventional) Advent playlist.
Molly MattinglyDecember 14, 2018
Jeff Daniels in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (photo: Julieta Cervantes)
Two starry new Broadway productions have no qualms about speaking their mind.
Rob Weinert-KendtDecember 14, 2018