As a youngster, I wondered why there always seemed to be so many old people in church. A few kids and younger adults attended Mass every morning, but most in the church were really old - 50 and above. We cynical teenagers speculated that older folks came to church so often because they were bored just sitting around the house. Church was free, after all, and a good place to meet up with their old friends. I also heard it said that older folks were afraid of dying. They flocked to church to make sure they got on God’s good side.
Now that I am regularly offered senior citizen discounts, even though I’m not that old, I have a different perspective. A Catholic church near my workplace has a Mass at 6:30 every morning. I stop there several times a week. I seldom arrive before the offertory and usually have to leave right after the Lord’s Prayer. Nonetheless, I go for a number of reasons.
I go to be with fellow travelers on a spiritual path. I don’t know any of the people there by name, but I recognize them. They, too, are pausing on the road of everyday routine to connect spiritually with other human beings and with God. And I can do this at Mass in my parish church or anywhere in the world. During a business trip to Tokyo a few years ago, I went for a walk one morning and came upon a huge old Catholic church, St. Ignatius. Every day before 8 a.m., St. Ignatius offers four Masses. At the one I went to, I didn’t understand a word of the readings or the prayers. Still, I experienced myself as not just an observer but a participant in the sacred celebration. While others prayed in Japanese, I prayed in English.
We are at Mass so often simply in order to be one with each other while in the presence of Jesus. Praying with friends we may not even know by name, we praise God, love God and, in a very real way, love one another. For some it may be the only time they get to reach out lovingly to touch and be touched.
I recently heard a story about an older man who stops at his church every day after work and spends an hour in the presence of God. When asked what he does for that hour, he was struck silent at first. Finally, he said, I go in and thank God for the day and tell him what went on. Then when I’m done, I look at him, and he looks at me, and we love each other. At church, we sit with God, and he sits with us. He listens to our demands and our pleas. We can talk about our anger with him and what is troubling us. We can seek his forgiveness, and we can praise him. Knowing I can pause, pray and listen to what God has to say to me brings me serenity.
As younger persons, many of us looked for fulfillment in dozens of different waysthrough job prestige, promotions, higher salaries, successful kids, attractive spouses, big houses and expensive cars. We pursued them, or at least coveted them. As senior citizens, we don’t have that sense of urgency. We know everything doesn’t have to be done right now. We realize we don’t have to compete in order to achieve God’s graces. In church, we find self-acceptance. We find the closeness to him we had been truly seeking all along.
Older people don’t go to church for fear of dying or to win God’s approval. We are there because God is there for us. He listens when others do not or cannot. He allows us to express our feelings. He comforts us with his presence. But he never demands we show up.
Finally, we are in church so often because, after all, that is where we want to be.