Updated: Feb 21
Watch the livestream of the Requiem Mass for Mgr Alfred Gilbey below:
When we celebrate a Requiem Mass, we are not doing as many modern people do at funerals, celebrating the past life of anyone deceased - nor are we merely mourning their death, whether in the pain of bereavement as for a dearly loved one, or in some ritual form, as we do, for instance, on Remembrance Sunday for those killed in wars. A Requiem Mass is unlike any merely human act following death. For it is, above all, a Christian celebration, in which we announce the death and resurrection of the Lord until He comes again.
But what does ‘announcing the Lord’s death’ mean? By the word ‘announcing’, I do not mean simply mentioning it aloud in words, but rather making it evident, showing it in signs. How does a Requiem Mass make evident the death, resurrection and second coming of the Lord? What signs does the Church use?
The pre-eminent sign is the Body and Blood of the Lord, which will shortly be made present here on the altar, as at every Mass. The Body and Blood of the Lord are the greatest signs we have, because they are powerful enough to present to the Father in loving appeal for the salvation of the living and the dead who are joined to this offering through unity with Christ’s Body in baptism. Our baptism makes us sharers in the sacrificial offering which Christ made for us on Calvary and which He gave us to offer in His name on that evening when He gave His Apostles the signs of His Body and Blood under the visible forms of bread and wine at the Last Supper.
It is that which He did at the Last Supper that we are now doing again, just as He told His Church to do in memory of Him, not as a passive, merely mental act of remembering, but as an evocation of, and entering into, the very act of surrender and self-giving that undoes all the harm that human sin has done to the entire human race from its beginning to the end of the world. It is sin, that act of rebellion against God’s will and goodness, that has plunged us all into a state of confusion and misery, whose final prospect facing us all is death, not just the death of the body, but separation from God and from all His joy and goodness for ever.
But Christ, by this act of self-surrender, of self-sacrifice which we now remember and re-present to the Father here in the Mass, gives us hope; hope that we can at last overcome sin and the greatest of its consequences: death. ‘Hope’ is the key word. As St Paul says to the Romans, it is ‘in hope that we are saved’, and hope is what the Requiem Mass offers us. In illustration of this, there is one text in particular that I want to draw to your attention.
The Preface of the Mass for the Dead, which we will shortly hear sung, has not been part of the Roman Mass for very long in terms of the history of the rite as a whole. It was added by Pope Benedict XV in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, when Christian hope seemed to have turned into a nightmare. Yet this Preface is a magnificent hymn of praise to God for the gift of hope that we may indeed look forward to eternal life in the risen Christ.
The Eucharistic Prayer, or ‘Great Prayer' as it is also called, always opens with a preface, whose purpose is to announce that it is truly right and fitting, just and for our salvation always and everywhere to give praises to God the Father through Christ His Son. It is after this opening declaration that the particular purpose of the offering of this sacrifice here and now is made manifest. It is here that what we are about to do is described as the sign of hope. Here is my version of the words we will shortly hear: In Christ, the hope of blessed resurrection has shone forth upon us. Resurrection is seen therefore as Christ’s own sign of life and hope, a sign which is light shining on us, a light which makes our own praises radiant both before God and before the world, and which fills us with confidence in Him.
Yet although death has now been defeated in the sense that it no longer holds us in eternal bondage, it still has the power to make us fearful and sorrowful until the hope that we have will finally be fulfilled. In the meantime, not only must we feel the sorrow of losing those whom we love, but must face the prospect of our own death. This is what the preface describes as our ‘being saddened by the certainty of dying’ and proclaims that, by Christ’s resurrection from the dead, ‘we might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come’.
As Christians, we know that we cannot avoid death any more than they who do not share our faith, yet we are given an assurance that something which is hidden from us is nevertheless shown forth in the sign of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. So the Preface puts it: ‘Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur’ - 'for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not taken away'. The Latin verbs are so similar that they evoke the contrast more dramatically: what seems to be stolen away is in reality only changed.
But how is this change to be understood? If it is the case that our bodies, like those of all mortal humans, descend into dust and corruption after death, what then is different for us who have hope in Christ? The Preface continues, stating that when this bodily house of earthly sojourn has dissolved, an eternal dwelling is being made ready in heaven.
This earthly dwelling, comprising mortal flesh and blood, does indeed dissolve into dust, but another and everlasting, incorruptible dwelling of flesh and blood is being prepared for us in heaven by Christ our Lord. That dwelling, our risen body, will not be made manifest to us until the end of all things, when Christ will be all in all. He is the present sign to us of what then we shall be. That sign is given to us not visibly but in hope, which means that we trust that Christ will be true to His word that we who here and now eat His Flesh and drink His Blood will on that last day be raised by Him to eternal life and glory. Until that time comes, we pray in the Canon of the Mass for those who have died in Him to be granted a place of refreshment, light and peace. For in the meantime, God has granted those who love Him and are united with Him in Christ, a certain share in His life even before the resurrection of our bodies has taken place.
In this Mass, we pray particularly for the repose of the soul of Mgr Alfred Gilbey, chaplain here at Fisher House for over thirty years and generous benefactor to those of us who either now enjoy, or have in the past enjoyed, all that Fisher House has given over the years since he laboured here. His mortal remains are buried outside this chapel, awaiting the resurrection. We pray that until then, he who announced in the Gospel Christ as the resurrection and the life, who announced and offered the Body and Blood of the risen Christ in lifegiving sacramental signs, whose good works have gone with him to judgement, may now enjoy the reward of his labours until the day of the resurrection shall at last dawn and Christ will raise to life all those who have faithfully and patiently waited and laboured for Him. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon him.
This homily was preached by Fr Guy Nicholls Cong. Orat., of the Birmingham Oratory of St Philip Neri, at the Requiem Mass for Mgr Alfred Gilbey in 2021. The Mass was offered for the repose of Mgr Gilbey's soul, and celebrated at Fisher House, Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy, at 5.30pm on Monday 8 November 2021.
Mgr Gilbey was the Catholic Chaplain to the University of Cambridge from 1932 to 1965, and is remembered as a much-loved figure who fought to prevent Fisher House from being demolished for redevelopment. Thanks to Mgr Gilbey, Fisher House remains the only part of Cambridge's medieval heart to survive the redevelopment of Petty Cury. He was interred in the courtyard at Fisher House in 1998, in whose Chapel of St John Fisher a Requiem Mass is celebrated annually for the repose of Mgr Gilbey's soul.