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Fr. Giles Hibbert O.P: Requiescat in pace

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Following the the death of our Brother, Giles Hibbert O.P. some members of the Studentate attended his funeral on 15th January at Blackfriars, Cambridge, where Fr. Giles had lived for the past year.  Fr. Giles's friend and brother, Fr. Fabian Radcliffe O.P, gave the homily, which we reproduce here in full.

Homily for the Requiem Mass of Fr. Giles Hibbert O.P.

Had Giles lived another 12 days he would have reached the age of 85. That’s quite an achievement for someone who in the last two decades of his life suffered severe arthritic and neuralgic pain, and kept going largely on morphine. He was certainly tough. Still, we have not come here simply to congratulate him on living beyond the four-score years that the Psalmist allotted to the strongest of us. No. We have come here primarily to commend Giles to the mercy and love of God and to pray that he will enter into the fullness of Christ’s risen life for which he longed. 

So if that is the purpose of a requiem mass, then the homily should not just be a eulogy about the dead person. At the same time how can one preach a funeral homily without saying something about the one who has died? And if you are to speak about him, you will certainly want to speak well of him, which is precisely what a eulogy is.

Incidentally, that word ‘precisely’ was one of Giles’s favourites. But, as he ruefully remarked, Edmund Hill in his review of Giles’ book, gently pointed out that his use of the word was usually in inverse proportion to the clarity of his thinking.

Giles came from what we can call an ‘establishment’ background. His father had been a General in the army and his grandfather an Admiral in the navy. He followed his father into the army, and saw service in North Africa and also in Korea, where, like Julius Caesar, he threw bridges across rivers. After a few years, the army sent him to Cambridge to do a degree in engineering. It looked as though he was set for lifetime in the Army. But that was not to be.

What was it that transformed Captain Robert Hibbert of the Royal Engineers into Brother Giles Hibbert of the Order of Preachers? It’s not easy to say, because he never really talked about it. I sometimes left openings in conversation so that he could reveal more, had he wished; but he never did. But from what little he did say, we know that at Cambridge he had a ‘Damascus Road’ experience: Christ came to meet him, and overwhelmed him, and he was convinced that his only possible response was to become a Catholic and a Dominican. 

We tend to compare experiences like this with St Paul’s conversion. I think Giles had some reservations about St Paul, but he loved St John; and perhaps John’s story of the call of Nathanael is closer to Giles. Nathanael had scoffed at the suggestion that the Messiah might come from the wretched little town of Nazareth. But then Philip took Nathanael to meet Jesus; and Jesus said: ‘Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no guile’. Nathanael was astonished. ‘How do you know me?’ he said. Jesus replied: ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’. Just what that means we can never know. But it overwhelmed Nathanael. ‘Rabbi’, he replied. ‘You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel’. Cambridge, it seems to me, was Giles’ fig tree, where Christ saw him, and knew him, and called him. And like Nathanael he replied: ‘You are the Son of God’.

This experience seems to have come to him out of the blue. But his response must have been a wholehearted ‘yes’, because he never seriously wavered, either as a Catholic or as a Dominican. That’s not to say, of course, that he didn’t have difficult moments, periods when he was exasperated with the Church and with the Order. But then, surely, we all experience that. He always knew that for him any alternative way was simply not possible.  

His life in the Order was characteristically unconventional. He studied in Louvain, taught in the studium, was Regent of Studies for a short time, and worked on a long drawn-out doctorate, with a typically vast theme: the doctrine of man in St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas and St John of the Cross. At one point he received a letter from his supervisor which began: ‘Dear Mr Hibbert, I do not seem to have heard anything from you for over a year’. He cherished this letter with a mixture of pride and shame. 

Round about this time he became involved with the peace movement, and made links with peace groups in East Germany and with the communist party in Britain. All this was inspired by his sense of justice. But politics was not his strength. He was essentially a highly intelligent engineer, witness his complex model railway set-up in the cellars of Blackfriars, Oxford, and his intricate electric bell system in the Priory entrance hall there. Years later, when Giles had moved away from Oxford, the electrician who dismantled the system marvelled at its sophistication, and could not imagine how anyone could have devised it. 

In the late sixties he and I embarked on a series of epic holidays: canoeing down the River Severn, exploring the north-west of Scotland, five times to the west of Ireland, and then to Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. In the early eighties he moved into university chaplaincy at Sheffield and briefly at York, and became a strong supporter of Student Cross. Later he moved to our house in south Manchester, where he began Blackfriars Publications, printing and publishing small theological pamphlets, which he saw as his contribution to our preaching apostolate. He became the national chaplain to the Newman Association, and chaplain to its Manchester and North Cheshire Circle.

After the closure of the Manchester house he moved to Chapel-en-le-Frith; and there he stayed, still publishing, until it became too difficult for him to live on his own, and he moved to the London Priory, and later here to Cambridge.

So he came back to be with his brethren in a priory. And he settled in remarkably well. He was not always easy to live with. He could be fractious, aggressive and contemptuous. But this did not come from malice or perversity, I think, but from a temperamental impatience with what he took to be hypocrisy or pomposity or limp piety or self-deception in others. Sometimes he realised his judgement of someone was quite wrong, and then he was disarmingly and sincerely repentant. Those who looked after him when he needed it in his later years discovered that though he could be exasperatingly difficult, he was at the same time humbly grateful for their care. The novices, I am sure, will remember this. Some years ago at Chapel-en-le-Frith, after he had been ill in a local nursing home, he went back, with presents, to say thank you to the staff who had cared for him. 

That illness sparked another change: a deeper reflection on death and purgatory. He had earlier been puzzled, perhaps sceptical, about purgatory. Some years before, when Bob Ombres wrote a booklet on purgatory for Blackfriars Publications, Giles wanted to entitle it: ‘Purgatory? You must be joking!’ But now, faced with the prospect of dying, he clarified his thoughts in a short paper which he called ‘Embracing the Future’. We are to die with Christ, he says, so that we can live with Him. And he suggests that at death, “in a flash of timelessness”, we are confronted with all those whom we have hurt, confronted with all the times and ways that we have put ourselves first, either in aggression or through laziness. And we are healed by the loving presence of the Christ who stands by us as friend, teacher and healer. 

So purgatory is not passive – being healed or cleansed – but rather a process of responding positively to those whom we have hurt, having to meet the challenge of being healed through them in Christ. So one is able to say: “I look forward to dying, however painful the experience of purgatory is going to be”. It is better, he says, to speak of ‘dying’ rather than ‘death’; the one is positive, the other somewhat negative. “Dying authentically”, he says, “is rather like building a bridge – constructive and creative, a leap forward towards something new – the other side”. So the elderly, ailing friar joins hands with the young army engineer. 

I cannot but think that this is the spirit in which Giles embraced his own death, in which he sought forgiveness, in Christ, of all those whom he had harmed and wounded. “I hope”, he wrote (in words that might have been written for today) “that I don’t ‘meet’ any of you ‘there’; for it would mean that I had at some time hurt you, or failed in caring for you. I hope, however, that we shall all ‘meet up’ purified in the glory of the light of the Resurrection – in other words, in Heaven”. And then, characteristically, he adds: “whatever the meaning of ‘meeting up’ might be”.

Fr. Giles Hibbert O.P.


leigh bellis commented on 28-Feb-2015 02:50 PM
I made my first confession to Giles just before he received me into the church at Blackfriars in 1977.He instructed me in the faith with compassion and humour and introduced me to some great music along the way. May he rest in peace.
James Mather commented on 05-Dec-2017 11:18 AM
An Anglican comment. 2017, I have only just seen that Fr Hibbert has died. He was a great friend to me during my undergrad years at Sheffield. I enjoyed his frankness and his mind, as well as his music. And he taught me Old MacDonald in Latin, a gift I shall always treasure, with the memory of his laugh. Requiescat in pace.
Gabs Awre commented on 26-Apr-2021 03:34 PM
Giles is remembered with love and we often delight in his humour. His passion for justice was inspiring and that and the 'original greek' came across in every sermon. He always said 'Call no man your father' and as students in the 1980s and on Student Cross he was called Giles not 'Fr. Giles' so I'm delighted this is how he is named on his elegantly simple white gravestone with his fellow Dominican John Clune OP. (I visited his grave yesterday with my husband Chris- he married us in 1995 ). He will not be forgotten!

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