Camilla Bonn meets the nonagenarian monsignor whose life and works continue to influence English Catholics. TODAY'S YOUNG Catholics
"lack self-confidence", believes Mgr Alfred Gilbey, venerable sage, priest, author and eccentric, well known for his outspoken views and formidable energy and intellect. He recently spent his 94th birthday with his nephew in Guernsey after a brief visit to Jersey to stay with friends.
In their garden, in the cool of the evening, bent-backed beneath his black soutane, the Monsignor sat calmly on a wooden bench. His bones may have softened with the march of time but there's nothing brittle about his mind.
Fashionable theories of education have robbed this country's young Catholics of the firm, coherent knowledge of their faith which used to be taught by rote at an early age, he explained.
Compared to the "ebullience" he saw in Catholics in the 1920s, the Monsignor now recognises a certain subduedness.
"The simple reason is that they have never been taught the Penny Catechism a reasoned authoritative statement about divine revelation. Modern educational theory has it that you have to tease something out of a child, whereas at Catholic schools in our days we were taught a systematic exposition of the revealed truth".
Some see this rr.narkable
man as a relic ft a longgone era.
The Monsignor lives permanently in a gentleman's club. The Travellers, in Pall Mall, has been his home for 25 years and if you see him shuffling towards the altar five mornings a week in the sidechapel at the Brompton Oratory, he does exude the mysterious aura of awesomely great age.
Now, sitting outside on the bench beside me, he sees me staring at his antique hands. "This is not blood, it's sherry," he jokes, pointing to a gnarled blue vein and referring to the Gilbey family business which diversified from the wine trade in the 1850s to brandy, whisky and the famous gin. His mother, a Spanish Catholic, came from Jerez de la Frontera.
Do not be deceived, however. He may be a "year younger than the century", but the conundrum is the ease with which he relates to young people.
One of Cambridge's most popular and eccentric characters during his 33 years as Catholic Chaplain there, he is well-accustomed to discussion and debate with lively and rebellious undergraduates.
In fact, it may be his very unflinching traditionalism, combined with warm humour and great clarity of thought, that for over 60 years has attracted the curiosity and admiration of the younger generation in particular.
A few months ago, for instance, he flew for a hectic 10 days to the United States where, as well as being invited to lunch at The Wall Street Journal and meeting the Pope's publisher, he appeared in Alabama on a television phone-in show on which he wowed 39 million viewers with what he had to say about his book, We Believe.
The book, a discussion of his religious convictions which has sold over 10,000 copies in the last decade, was "forced out of him" says the Monsignor, by a Peterhouse undergraduate. The student, to whom Mgr Gilbey was giving a course of instruction, persuaded the Monsignor to allow tape recordings of the sessions.
"I had never been to America before, and I'd left it rather late. It was demanding but rewarding," he commented, understatedly, of the transatlantic trip.
On the subject of celibacy, he was more vocal. "Obviously, if everyone had been celibate, Christians would have died out straight away," he said. But there is a distinction between the Ten Commandments, which are mandatory, and ecclesiastical discipline.
Only a small section of people are called to the ecclesiastical way of life. But those who are, he is convinced, must stay celibate, for if they were to marry, a husband's "solemn duty" to provide food and shelter for his wife and family, and to protect them, would obstruct the ecclesiastical undertaking to give up unworldly goods and to "turn the other cheek". With the recent argument currently gaining ground amongst European Catholics that the Catholic Church would consider relaxing its ruling on priestly celibacy or face a disastrously dwindling number of vocations over the next few decades, was the Monsignor worried for the future of the priesthood in the next millenium?
"Worried?" he asked, bemused. "Worried, my dear? You have probably noticed that I never, ever use the word 'worry'. It seems to me to be the most useless of occupations. It means thinking about a disagreeable subject, without making a decision".
The same serenity showed itself when, at the end of lunch, he rose from the table to offer a prayer of thanks, remembering also the soul of the faithful departed, and added, smiling, "For soon I shall be joining them. Oh yes, I could go tonight."
Later I asked him if he feared death.
"The older I get," he answered, "the more I believe in Providence. We enter this world and we leave it at precise moments that are not of our choosing. Both of these moments Our Lord has known through all eternity; both are absolutely plum right."