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PHILIP HOLDSWORTH

Born: 1921 –  died: 31 Dec 1998
Clothed - 27 Sep 1939
Solemn Vows- 28 Sep 1943
Priest - 17 Jul 1949

David Holdsworth was born in Feltham, Middlesex in 1921. The earliest information we can find of him is his painting his little sister with lead paint so as to make her a more convincing Red Indian. She survived. He was sent to school at Ampleforth at the age of fourteen, and came to St Cuthbert's House. A scholar rather than a sportsman, he nevertheless followed the Ampleforth Beagles for the next thirty years. There is no reason to suppose that Fr Sebastian appointed House sacristans because of their piety, but he performed this office before applying to enter the monastery on leaving school in July 1939.

By the time he received the habit as Br Philip two months later, war had begun. We need not suppose he had already acquired the suspicion of armed conflict that characterised his mature years. Perhaps for a pious young man a life of prayer was a reasonable response to what must have seemed a struggle between good and evil. Within three years he was at Oxford studying classics and philosophy, followed by a theology course with the Dominicans at Blackfriars. He was ordained priest in 1949 and the following year returned to Ampleforth. After eight years away studying he may have felt that a gulf had grown up between himself and some of his contemporaries. They were well established in their teaching - the real world - while he brought with him a variety of unshared thoughts and ideals.

At once Philip was asked to edit the Ampleforth Journal which he did for the next twelve years, from 1950 until he moved to Warrington in 1962. The issues of that period show a characteristic balance, with an avoidance of any strong or disturbing statements, but with a wide variety of often deeply considered articles. He was not infrequently short of an item: he would then take the chance to introduce a new element into the two or three articles which then were the customary fare. He wrote only one Editorial, on the occasion of the proclamation of the dogma of Our Lady's Assumption, but it was typically even-handed, yet penetrating the issues and bringing out theological elements which do not look out of place nearly half a century (and one whole council) later. It reinforces the impression that his was a quiet but extremely able mind, and that he had by no means under-used his eight years at Oxford.

Sensitive perhaps to the movement of thought, he wrote two perceptive essays as the fifties drew to their close. 'Monastic Mission' was a reflection on the tension between the traditionally restricted nature of the contemplative monastic vocation and that of the call to preach and bear witness to the Gospel, 'Our Lady and Redemption', equally balanced and penetrating, was a compact explanation and discussion of the ideas involved in considering Mary as what is called Co-redemptrix. In this Philip kept clearly in view both accurate Catholic theology, and the importance of keeping in touch with the thinking of the Church, and an awareness of the wider implications and insights into our Lady's role which have remained at the front of theology to our own day. Characteristically, Philip cautions against excess, but equally makes us attend to the validity implied even in some apparently overstated views. And perhaps lurking behind this - for two of his three statements concern Mary - lies that sympathy for woman, and devotion to the mother of God, whose roots perhaps lie deep in a family past.

At the same time he taught classics in the school and soon was teaching theology and then philosophy to the student monks. He may not have been a brilliant teacher, though anyone with the desire to learn would find in him a sharp mind and a willingness to exchange and explore ideas. What came across to all was his concern for his students as people. He was never condescending to the less clever and the little group of boys he gathered in the Lady Chapel to say the rosary during May were drawn by his talent for friendship which communicated his devotion to Mary.

All through the fifties Philip continued to develop that independence of mind engendered no doubt at Blackfriars. Monastic renewal, Liturgical renewal, the Peace Movement: all engaged his interest and loyalty. His love of truth was not cold and academic, but demanded engagement in the pursuit of justice. 'God is revealed wherever there is love', he once wrote, 'but injustice in all its forms excludes love and in that case God is not revealed.' His stand on principal could be on minor points, as when he refused to celebrate the Easter Vigil at a convent until the Reverend Mother had rustled up the required number of altar servers. It could be the action of a gad-fly: when a parent complained that Philip was wearing a 'Ban-the-Bomb' badge at Exhibition, the Headmaster was driven to say, 'Madam, you can't believe all you see'. But there was no doubt in his own mind that such awkward questioning about matters of justice, witnessed to by his participation in the Aldermaston Marches, contributed to his being asked to move to Warrington in 1962.

He had already looked after the parish of Helmsley in the mid-fifties, but this transplanting to an industrial town must have changed Philip's view of things. Perhaps he was never fully immersed in the everyday concerns of parish life, but he became deeply engaged with schools and with the young. His warmth and personal interest, and his idealistic questioning must have struck sparks in young minds especially during the sixties. When he came to be a parish priest in 1974, the parish house became a meeting place for the young. But individuals of all ages recognised in him someone whose practical concern transcended the petty legalism in which they had so often been brought up. His widespread contact with the female sex encouraged him to develop the affectionate side of his nature, which had always been present, and multiplied his circle of friends. But his concern for justice never waned - he took an active interest in the movement for the ordination of women - it was others that came round to his way of seeing things. By 1972 he was a member of the Bishops' Commission for International Justice and Peace. In 1979 he became one of the Abbot's Councillors. In 1980 on the death of Fr James Forbes, he was made Master of St Benet's Hall.

The seventies had seen a marked decline in vocations to monastic houses in Britain, so that Philip took charge of a Hall with no monk undergraduates. A small group of priests maintained the monastic character of the house. Over the next eight years he gradually filled St Benet's with monks or other religious. This was not just a question of filling beds, or choir-stalls, but of ensuring that a disparate group of young monks lived together as a community. A combination of gentle concern, a readiness not to impose unduly on other people, and a complete faithfulness to the monastic way of life went a long way to bringing this about. As one of his students said, we knew that he would be in church without fail and we were expected to do the same. He avoided the flashier side of Oxford life yet he exerted considerable quiet influence. Many came to see and consult him. He also played a significant part in developing the Oxford Diploma in Theology, a course given by the University for non-degree students and which had a wide ecumenical input.

And then he fell ill. It was as if his task was complete. St Benet's was a monastic house again. Even the nuclear bombers down the road at Greenham Common, where he had given the women's camps so much support, were being withdrawn. For three years Philip was parish priest at Workington where he presided over the parish at the same time as delegating much to his assistants. It has been said of him that he could always be relied on to give sound advice in matters spiritual or practical.

Finally his strength gave out and he returned to the Abbey. These last six years show Philip as the monk he had always been. Faithful to prayer, private and in choir, he struggled against lassitude of body and mind. He had always been a man of obedience: even when he had defended himself to a disapproving abbot in the early days of nuclear disarmament, he had made it plain that while his conscience was clear, he was ready to submit to whatever ruling the abbot made. Now he accepted his illness without complaint as the will of God.

In his stronger moments he continued to show interest in things of the mind, as well as in what he saw as the struggle to keep the Church faithful to the Reforms of Vatican II. He drew much comfort from the support of his sister Mary, to whom he remained as always the much loved, but slightly teasing elder brother. He died quietly on New Year's Eve, his rosary in his hand. Philip's ideal in life had been openness to the new, in both church and politics, without ever imposing his ideas harshly on others. He is buried in the vault outside the Abbey Church. What better place for a monk awaiting the renewal of the resurrection?

'Editorial on the Assumption' Ampleforth Journal 56 (1951) 1-3

'Monastic Mission' ibid. 63 (1958) 84-90

'Our Lady and Redemption' ibid. 64 (1959) 95-102

J.B.K. [Fr Bonaventure Knollys]


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Details from the Abbey Necrology


Philip David HOLDSWORTH		31 December 1998


1921 Jul 12†††††††††††b. Feltham Middlesex 
††††††††††††††††††††† ed. Ampleforth 
1939 Sep 27†††††††††† Habit at Ampleforth†††† Abbot Byrne
1940 Sep 28†††††††††† Simple Vows†††††††††††††††† " "
1941 Feb 5,11,12††††  Tonsure & Minor Orders††††† " "
1943 Sep 28†††††††††  Solemn Vows†††††††††††††††† " "
1947 Jul 20†††††††††† Subdeacon†††††††††††††† Bishop Brunner
1948 Jul 18†††††††††† Deacon††††††††††††††††††††† " "
1949 Jul 17†††††††††† Priest††††††††††††††††††††††" "
1942-46†     †††††††† St Benetís Hall Oxford Mods & Greats 
1946-50    †††††††††† Blackfriarís, Oxford, Theology STL. Taught at Ampleforth College. R.I & Latin mostly taught 
1950-62††††    †††††† Editor of the Ampleforth Journal 
1951-53†††††††    ††† Teaching Theology - Ampleforth
1953-62††††††††††     Teaching Philosophy -†††† " 
1953-58††††††††††††   Priest in charge Helmsley
1957 Aug††††††††††††† Member of EBC Commission for Studies 
1961 Aug††††††††††††† Re-appointed as above 
1962 Sep††††††††††††† St Benedictís Warrington Assistant 
1966 Sep††††††††††††† St Albanís Warrington Assistant
1972-76††††††††††††   Member Advisory Commission to Bps Conf. on† International Justice & Peace 
1974††††††††††††††††† Elected vice Chairman of above 
1974 Feb 27†††††††††† Appointed PP of St Albanís W. 
1979††††††††††††††††† Appted by Abbot to Council 
1980-86    †††††††††† Elected to Council 
1980-88††††    †††††† Master of St Benetís Hall Oxford 
1989 Sep††††††††††††† PP Workington 
1992 Jun††††††††††††† Left Workington and returned to monastery
1998 Dec 31     †   † Died




Sources: AJ 104:1 (1999) 40
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