By Msgr. Michael Flannery
I worked closely with Bishop Houck and served as his Judicial Vicar for eight years and as his Vicar General for nine years. I can say that he was a true southern gentleman and had tremendous work ethic. He loved his priesthood and serving the church. He lived a full active life all of his life and was in relative good health until the end. He came to the office every day and seldom if ever took a day off.
Working as closely as I did with him over the years, I learned a great deal about him. He was a man of a very deep faith and put the Lord first in his life. He was a man of prayer. Anytime he had a difficult problem he turned it over to the Lord in prayer. After his prayer time, he usually knew what to do and he was a decisive man. Once he made a decision that was it.
On numerous occasions when we would be discussing some problem or other he would say to me: “Mike, I need to pray about that.” I knew then that he needed his space to bring it to the Lord. He was a workaholic. He came to the office usually at nine in the morning and he would not leave until nine at night. He worked Saturdays and Sundays.
Bishop Houck took all his responsibilities seriously and he loved to minister to people. At confirmation time which was usually during the Easter Season he would travel all over the diocese, comprising of 65 counties, celebrating confirmations. He liked to have a designated driver for these excursions and he would read every letter the candidates had sent him. During his homily he would weave some of those writings and make the homily personal every time.
I remember one incident in particular. It was right before 9/11. I had driven him to the airport in Jackson so that he could attend a meeting of a bishops’ committee of the United States Catholic Conference. Nine eleven took place the following day and the whole country came to a stand-still. There were no planes flying. He was stuck in Washington, D.C. for four days. He had nothing to do and it was driving him crazy. He was just about to rent a car and drive back to Jackson when they opened the airports again. He was on one of the first flights that arrived in Jackson and was interviewed by the press as to his experience.
Bishop Houck would always say to me: “After faith, a good sense of humor is the most important thing in life.” I loved that man. I would do anything for him. In a way we were kindred spirits. I am a workaholic and so was he. He would say about me: “Never give anything to Flannery unless you are absolutely sure that is what you want him to do. Because when you look around the project is complete.”
One humorous incident that involved Bishop Houck was the service one year on Holy Saturday night at St. Peter the Apostle Cathedral. It so happened that Msgr. Noel Foley of happy memory, was the pastor at the time. He had ordered a paschal candle and it came in on the first week of Lent. However the candle was broken and he sent it back to the church supply company believing that they would send a replacement. The candle never came.
Msgr. Foley ended up with a well-used paschal candle. It was only about six inches tall. I commented to him that the candle was more a symbol of death than it was resurrection. Msgr. Foley called upon the ladies of the parish to assist him. One of them was very creative and took the candle and placed it in a cardboard roller used for altar cloths. Then she covered it with while paper and decorated the outside beautifully. It looked gorgeous and was six feet tall.
Bishop Houck did not know it was a fake candle. There is one part of the ceremony when the paschal candle is placed in the baptismal water. When Bishop Houck placed the candle in the water there was a sucking sound as the water penetrated the cardboard exterior. Bishop Houck began to take the candle out of the water and there was water pouring out from all sides. It was an embarrassing moment for him because he was very particular about celebrating liturgy.
Another story that comes to mind was the time Bishop Houck invited the Methodist and Episcopal bishops and their wives to dinner. Since Bishop Houck did not have a wife he invited me to come as his significant other. The three bishops had a custom of meeting every month for breakfast and they would discuss pastoral issues on which they could collaborate. Bishop Meadows, the Methodist bishop, was being transferred so the dinner was a going-away party. We were enjoying the hors d’oeuvres when Bishop Meadows asked to see Bishop Houck’s upstairs chapel. Bishop Meadows noticed a telephone and challenged Bishop Houck about the phone. Why have a phone in a chapel? Bishop Houck was embarrassed so I stepped in to say “Bishop Meadows, you have to understand, that is no ordinary phone. In fact, it is a direct line to the Lord –and from here it is a local call!”
Even in retirement, Bishop Houck kept abreast with the most recent developments. He was a regular visitor to the Vatican website and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops webpage. He had a tremendous energy level given his age. He had a keen reflective mind and he did not miss much. He was close to all his family members and would call each of them every week.
I will miss Bishop Houck. He was a close friend and confidant and a great mentor to me. I will always be indebted to him for his spiritual guidance and wisdom. I will continue to cherish the memories I have of him for years to come.
(Msgr. Flannery is working in the Tribunal for the Diocese of Jackson, although he is technically retired from ministry.)