A former rector of Holy Cross Seminary, Fr Philip Handforth, is being remembered to his gentle manner, his skill at preaching, and his faithfulness in suffering.
Fr Handforth died at Mercy Parklands Catholic Hospital in Auckland on September 29, aged 73. He was farewelled from St Joseph’s church in Takapuna on October 2.
The principal celebrant at the requiem Mass, Auckland diocese vicar general, Msgr Bernard Kiely, acknowledged the presence of priests and bishops who had worked with Fr Handforth at the seminary or in his days in parish ministry.
Among those concelebrating the Mass were Hamilton Bishop Stephen Lowe, Dunedin Bishop Michael Dooley, Fr Simon Eccleton from Christchurch and Bishop Denis Browne, who had ordained Fr Handforth to the priesthood in 1989.
Although his eyesight problems meant he was not principal celebrant, Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn gave the homily, saying how touched he had been at the many messages he had received following Fr Handforth’s death. These included many messages from former students at the seminary, both ordained and not ordained, which related how much the former rector was appreciated.
Bishop Dunn spoke about Fr Handforth’s two spells as a seminarian himself, and his work in the broadcasting industry before being ordained.
“He had a great appreciation of the need to be short and sweet if you wanted to get your message across. He was a very good homilist.”
Takapuna was Fr Handforth’s home parish when he went into the seminary for the second time. After ordination, he worked in parish ministry for 10 years in Howick, Takapuna, Ellerslie and East Coast Bays, the latter two as parish priest.
“In the year 2000,” Bishop Dunn said, “the bishops were looking for a spiritual director for our national seminary. And Philip very graciously agreed to step aside from parish work to undergo training as a spiritual director.”
After a year training in Melbourne, Fr Handforth started his 12 years of work at Holy Cross Seminary, the final eight as rector.
“Seminary life is always full of ups and downs and challenges,” Bishop Dunn said. “Philip, with that lovely placid personality . . . he was very faithful.”
“By the year 2012, we realised that Philip was getting really weary and tired,” Bishop Dunn continued. “The plan was for Msgr Peter Jeffrey to replace him as rector, and 2013 was going to be a recovery year for Philip. Initially, the plan was to go to Norfolk Island.”
Fr Handforth liked staying on Norfolk Island. He had been there several times with his mother and at other times by himself. Bishop Dunn related an anecdote of how Fr Handforth, on returning to Auckland airport from one of his visits to Norfolk Island, was taken aside by Customs and his bag was thoroughly searched.
Bishop Dunn explained: “And he said, why are you doing this to me? He said, I am a Catholic priest. And they said, oh yes, we are really sorry, but just on the computer, you fit the perfect profile for a drug smuggler. I think Philip was quite flattered.”
Fr Handforth went on another visit to Norfolk in January, 2013, but became unwell.
Bishop Dunn said he received a phone call from then-Bishop Anthony Fisher, OP, who told him “I have just anointed one of your priests”.
Fr Handforth was initially diagnosed as suffering appendicitis, but was eventually found have a significant tumour. He was airlifted back to Auckland and underwent multiple operations – frequently not successful, Bishop Dunn said – and bouts of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
“It was a very difficult year,” Bishop Dunn said.
“I sometimes think Philp had been 12 years at Holy Cross Seminary. The motto of the seminary [is] In Cruce Salus (In the cross, salvation). It is the motto of our diocese too. I sometimes felt that Philip from 2013 onwards began to walk in a special sense the way of the cross.”
Fr Handforth would go on to be priest in residence at Liston Village and would eventually live at St John Vianney House in Ponsonby. “They were difficult years for Philip,” the bishop said.
But Bishop Dunn noted that the Gospel Fr Handforth had chosen for his requiem Mass was an “Easter Gospel”, the appearance of Jesus to his disciples on the shores of Lake Galilee, after the Resurrection.
“He chose a Gospel that doesn’t talk about the cross, but talks about the wonderful life beyond the mystery of the cross.”
Bishop Dunn also noted that it was “a lovely coincidence, perhaps a heavenly message”, that Fr Handforth had died on the feast of the archangels and was being buried on the feast of the guardian angels.
He was looking forward to seeing Jesus, Bishop Dunn added.