A holy man tipped to lead the nation’s Catholics

Mary Wakefield meets Dom Hugh Gilbert, the Benedictine Abbot of Pluscarden — said to be the Pope’s ‘dark horse’ candidate to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

18 March 2008

Mary Wakefield meets Dom Hugh Gilbert, the Benedictine Abbot of Pluscarden — said to be the Pope’s ‘dark horse’ candidate to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

What is holiness? How do you spot it? I’ve come to Worth Abbey in Sussex to meet a monk often described as ‘holy’ — Dom Hugh Gilbert, OSB, Abbot of Pluscarden in Scotland — and I wonder as I wander around in search of him, what form his sanctity will take.

What is a holy man, and where is this holy man? Worth seems deserted. Puddles lie low in sleeves of ice; clouds hang motionless over what looks like a spaceship but must be the church. The air is full of a curious, attentive silence.

On further investigation, the spaceship, too, is empty. There’s a vast cross suspended over an altar, and in a hallway, a little unmanned bookshop containing Pope Benedict XVI’s collected works and — phew! — a note addressed to me: ‘Dear Mary, Apologies for being late, Fr Hugh.’ So I sit in the shop and wait, watched over by little book-jacket Benedicts.

It’s nice of the Pope to keep me company, and it’s fitting too. After all, he’s the real reason I’m here. Later this year he’ll have to name a new leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to replace the outgoing Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and 55-year-old Fr Hugh — much though he’ll loathe the proposition — is said to be the dark horse, the one to watch in the race towards Westminster.

Why a monk? Why even consider giving England’s soul to a man who’s spent 33 years buried in northern Scotland? Well, according to Vatican gossip (not in short supply), the kind Pope is concerned about our capsizing country and wants England to have a devout, inspired leader — one as far removed from the tired clique of England’s urbane and power-hungry liberal bishops as possible. Fr Hugh fits the bill.

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‘Hello, Mary?’ Fr Hugh Gilbert is standing in front of me smiling, his bald head poking tortoise-like from a white cowl. I follow him to the spaceship’s upstairs sitting-room, where I discover that one of the side-effects of holiness is a reluctance to bang on about yourself.

‘Not much about me on Google? Oh well, um, what do you want to know? I went to St Paul’s School, then university in London, then 33 years ago I moved to the other end of the country,’ says Fr Hugh, blushing. But you weren’t born a Catholic, how did you become one? I’m hoping for a Damascene conversion or a Newmanesque moment of clarity (‘I saw my face in the mirror, and I was a Monophysite!’). No dice. ‘There was nothing dramatic,’ says Fr Hugh apologetically. ‘I suppose the holiness of saints struck me as a thing of joy — the fullness of human existence.’ He drums his feet on the floor and grins. I try to remember the last time I had to encourage someone to talk about themselves.

What Fr Hugh really wants to discuss, it turns out, is Pluscarden, where he has been in charge for 16 years, and where by some miracle, at a time when vocations are pathetically rare, there are now 27 monks living, working, praying in the Morayshire hills. Do you have men from all backgrounds? I ask. ‘Oh yes, yes!’ he says. ‘We have accountants, barmen — oh goodness — soldiers and teachers.’ Isn’t it a difficult life? ‘Of course it is. St Benedict says, “Let him not be given an easy entry.” But to put it grandly and simply, one enters the monastery because one wants union with God, so one accepts the consequences of that choice. Who desires the end desires the means. And, well, you fall back on grace.’

A bell begins to toll. Through a window I can see the monks of Worth moving across the frosty lawns in the winter sun, and I say with more bitterness than I intended: so what good does a monk do for the rest of the world? Aren’t you men of God supposed to be helping everyone?

Fr Hugh grins again. ‘That’s a fair question, yes. Well, of course we provide sanctuary. Believers and non-believers can come on retreat to Pluscarden and find silence and beauty. And then, I hope, we pray, which would be the main thing.’ But does prayer actually do anything? I ask, feeling like a teenager. ‘Intercessory prayer does raise a lot of theological questions,’ says Fr Hugh. ‘But the fact is, putting it very simply, it seems God wants it. God works with prayer.’

Fr Hugh looks sympathetically at me. I remember a passage on prayer in his book, Unfolding the Mystery: ‘The monk hopes that his modest, daily, never quite consummated attempt, nonetheless repercusses positively and far; that his prayer somehow keeps prayer alive and pure.’ It’s the idea of the monk as spiritual gardener, working to clear the silted-up channels between God and man. And I wonder: is it fair to take this man of prayer and dump him in Westminster?

Of course, it sounds reasonable to want a holy chap to head up the Catholic Church in England but, in reality, isn’t there a paradox? To be holy is to rely utterly on God, to have kicked your addiction to the usual daft comforts, but can such an unworldly man survive such a very worldly job? Fr Hugh has been likened to Basil Hume, our last monk-Cardinal, but Hume (though holy) was God’s gift to public relations, trailing natty soundbites and celebrity pals. Fr Hugh Gilbert, by contrast, is utterly unPR-ed, an unspun hero, full of the levity that comes from humility. He’s happy to laugh at himself and quick to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers. On the subject of Islam he says: ‘Yes, I think Muslims are praying to the same God but, at the same time, we should stand up for Christian identity and values. But look, I really would have to think more before answering such a serious question.’

Every priest hungry for the top job will have long prepared a punchy response to the problem of Britain’s dwindling church attendance. The impressive and sensible Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols (one of the chief contenders for Cardinal), has published a timely book about the need for vigorous evangelisation. Dom Hugh Gilbert’s latest book, on the other hand, is about how the liturgical year unfolds the mystery of Christ, and his remedy for secularisation isn’t leaflets or lobbying, but the Holy Spirit. ‘We need to go back to the patrician period, the period of the fathers of the Church, to see how they dealt with the culture. Our culture is in many ways antipathetic if you like to the work of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is still the Holy Spirit and can still, well, raise up children to Abraham out of the stones.’

As I get up to leave, I have my last lesson in holiness, which is that you just can’t second-guess it. Would you ever leave Pluscarden? I ask, expecting a definitive ‘no’. But Fr Hugh looks thoughtful: ‘Yes, I think it is time to leave. I can’t stay there forever, though I have no idea what I’ll do next.’ And equally unexpected is an email I receive a week later:

Dear Mary,

You may well have decided that I was not worth ‘profiling’, which I would quite understand. If not, am I allowed a little follow-up?

I like the idea that beauty and holiness are the apologia for Christianity. The beauty of Christianity needs to shine out more; this is where the celebration of the liturgy becomes central. And the goodness of Christianity, i.e. the holiness of self-giving love (the witness of charity) and of prayer, needs to be sustained and developed. And this too, certainly: that the one thing Christianity has to offer is Easter. Simply: Christ is risen!


Fr Hugh

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Show comments
  • Paul Potts

    Dear Mary (what, not another one?}

    I;d have thought when an outsider gets this kind of publicity, that’s the end of him. Not that he wants to be cardinalised, or does he?

    The reason why the Vatican might be looking again for a Religious, not a Diocesan priest for the job is that there are none of the latter with remotely the required talents, none that wouldn’t be simply embarrassing. It’s not that they’re “liberal” – they wouldn’t dare. I propose the Archbishop of Canterbury to be the next Catholic Primate of England and Wales, but I’ve got much better bets up my sleeve if you’re interested.


  • Vincent McKenzie

    “the problem of Britain’s dwindling church attendance”

    The way I see it, yes personal opinion, is that the church has not kept up with the problems which face ordinary people. They don’t want to hear personal opinions, nobody does unless you have letters after your name. A reply to an email to The Protestant Truth Society about the lack of empathy for working class people stated: “What we seek to do, as a society, is, to point all believers to the necessity of living their life according to the scriptures, to hold fast sound doctrine and to seek to present the Gospel to all”.

    And that’s it is it? All I can say is your churches are empty mate. I made an enquiry last week to the Midlands Bible College (http://www.midbible.ac.uk/content/view/12/41/) about studying their “Knowing Your Bible” corresponance coure, it stated that I have to provide a Christian reference! It’s this level of smug elitism which keeps the pews empty on Sunday. I made the application anyway and explained that I do not require any priestly status, nor do I seek employment within the church, no reply as yet.

  • NC

    What a beautiful soul: may he keep praying for the Church wherever God may wish to lead him. The Church certainly needs more men who sincerely affirm that “the Holy Spirit is still the Holy Spirit and can still, well, raise up children to Abraham out of the stones”.

  • John Bishop

    Oh dear.If Dom Hugh Gilbert doesn’t realise that Muslims pray to ‘Allah’ and not to the Christians triune God the See of Westminster is in for an even worse time than under the present incumbent. If that is possible to envisage.

  • caesium

    Dom Hugh is a decent egg but it seems strange to appoint someone from outside the English & Welsh hierarchy. He is no intellectual and it is interesting that he has not even become Abbot general of the Subiaco congregation of which Pluscarden is part.

    The Catholic Church in the UK remains moribund partly because CMOC and his mates are committed to its destruction from the inside. They belong to a generation that hates the Church. People talk of the failure of Vatican II. There was no failure it was a resounding success and the council was implemented in the image of Hume, Worlock and CMOC. The empty pews are the fruits of their success – it’s what they wanted all along.

    The revival will only take place when British atheists reembrace the Faith. In other words, when Spectator journalists and their readers stop behaving like perverts and pray for to the Holy Spirit as recommended by Dom Hugh.

    All this banter about the next Cardinal is complete tripe.

  • Paul Coyle

    The Catholic Church in England is turning into a very odd organisation. It seems to be increasingly made up of homosexual converts who are more interested in living out their Brideshead Revisited fantasies than the reality of the Catholic church. It was never English in nature and it despised homosexuality. I long for the good old days.

  • Paul Barry

    Spot on Mr Coyle. It’s about time that someone said it. No wonder we have all of the scandals. By the way am I the only person who feels like vomiting every time Ann Widdicombe appears. Who made this creepy convert spokesman for real catholics.

  • Vincent McKenzie

    Dear Mr McKenzie

    Thank you for your application of 18 March. Apologies for the delay in responding because of the Easter break.

    I note your comment about not wishing to supply a reference. Generally speaking, given its nature we rarely take up references for this course anyway. But in light of your comments on the college which were posted on The Spectator website (http://new.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/features/563866/part_4/a-holy-man-tipped-to-lead-the-nations-catholics.thtml), I thought it important to clarify this issue.

    Most colleges, secular and theological, require at least one reference, and usually two to help determine an applicant’s suitability to enrol on a course. Theological colleges require a reference for the same reason. Learning about an applicant’s spiritual and theological reflection to date not only determines if they are applying for the most suitable course for them, it also helps a college provide the necessary support to ensure studies are a success.

    Meanwhile, some theological colleges are confessional in nature, that is, they take a particular confessional stance and do not simply teach theology from an observer/outsider point of view. So it doesn’t matter if someone is studying to be a church leader, lay minister, or simply out of interest. The confessional community requires assurances that the applicant fits in with and agrees with the confessional stance in question.

    As it happens, though MBCDS is an Evangelical college, nonetheless we do not operate a strongly exclusivist admission policy. Quite the opposite. We don’t have a long statement of beliefs as many other confessional colleges, preferring instead to publish a short statement of core values which applicants must agree to respect and abide by. Our college includes students from non-Evangelical backgrounds, so there is nothing `smugly elitist’ about our admission policy at all. Nonetheless, we do not simply teach theology and biblical studies as phenomena to be observed from outside. Rather, we encourage our students to engage intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and theologically with their studies, which is why a Christian reference may be sought for certain other courses (but rarely for Knowing Your Bible). On our website page you indicate in your Internet comment there is no mention of requiring a reference, while the wording of our application form is very clear: “Should we require a Christian reference, please indicate below the name and address of someone we may contact.” This is somewhat different from the impression you gave on this public site.

    Concerning another of your comments on that website, you should also note that if by listening to personal opinions you mean tutors should automatically agree with anything anyone says or else be charged with elitism, then theological study may not be for you after all. The Knowing Your Bible course is about establishing and utilising rules of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpretation) and biblical studies. You are, of course, free to take any position you wish in your assignments but will be marked according to whether or not you have argued your case in an academically consistent and persuasive manner. Opinions are one thing, opinions backed up with good evidence and strong argumentation is precisely what underpins educational systems everywhere.

    If you are able to confirm a willingness to approach the course objectively and openly, prepared to challenge your own presuppositions or else defend them persuasively, and also agree to respect and abide by our core values, then of course you are most welcome to study with us, and neither will a reference be necessary. But in light of your comments on a public website I thought it important to clarify this position. I await your reply.


    Calvin Smith
    Course Director

    “I rest my case”

  • Clare

    At the end of this interview Fr Hugh makes a curious comment suggesting that he is ready to leave his monastery.

    I think it is important to draw attention to a comment that appears in the letters page of the following issue of the Spectator:

    Sir: May I be allowed a single comment on the gracious article concerning myself (‘A holy man tipped to lead the nation’s Catholics’, 22 March)? Towards its end, in response to a question as to whether I would ever leave my monastery, I am credited with the words: ‘Yes, I think it is time to leave. I can’t stay there forever…’ I find no trace of these words in the recording I made of the interview. Certainly they do not express my mind. As a Benedictine with a vow of stability, I cherish the intention of living and dying in my own community, and have my heart firmly set on the plot in our cemetery which awaits me. For a monk, this is not a minor matter.

    Dom Hugh Gilbert, OSB
    Pluscarden Abbey, Moray

    I find it very odd, and rather worrying, that the journalist would put words in her interviwees mouth in this way.

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