The Rev. John Houlihan, lean and spry at 73, sits in the nave of St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral and counts off his upcoming engagements.
He’s got a wedding and an ordination coming up later in the week. He’ll make stops at two Billings hospitals to visit the Catholic parish’s sickest patients and their families.
Houlihan also gets over to the YMCA three times a week to exercise. And he golfs as often as he can.
“I went golfing yesterday and it went very well,” he said, sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair in an area to the right of the altar. “I went out to Pryor Creek and I shot a 92, which is good for an old guy like me.”
He wears a twinkle in his eye as comfortably as he does his clerical collar. A lilt in his words gives proof of his Irish heritage.
Though semi-retired, he doesn’t spend much time in a rocking chair. He was ordained June 14, 1964 in Ireland and is marking his golden jubilee this year.
The people of St. Patrick intend to help him celebrate. A 10:30 a.m. Mass Sunday at the downtown cathedral will be followed by a reception from noon to 2 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus hall, 2216 Grand Ave., in Billings.
Houlihan, the oldest of 10 children, was born in 1940 in County Tipperary and raised on a farm. He did everything from milking cows and feeding pigs to plowing fields with a tractor and pulling weed with his hands.
“I used to love to work outside in the park across the street,” he said. “I like to have flower gardens and plants and all those sorts of things.”
His faith is as much a part of his heritage as his Irish roots. Houlihan was raised in a strong Catholic family that went to church on a regular basis and was involved in the life of the local parish.
“Somewhere in my early teenage years I began to feel a call, an urge, an inspiration from somewhere that maybe I should give my life to the priesthood,” he said.
His family supported his decision, and in 1958 he attended St. Patrick’s College at Thurles for six years to study philosophy and theology. His first assignment as a parish priest was in Glasgow, the one in northeast Montana.
“St. Patrick’s College has been sending priests to Eastern Montana for over 100 years, mainly because it was regarded as a difficult mission because of how remote it was,” Houlihan said.
The trip to Montana was a world away from what he had known. Coming from a land with a climate that was mild and moist, the young priest had to get used to the extreme cold and heat and the tiny, isolated communities.
After Glasgow, Houlihan served in Scobey, at Holy Rosary Church in Billings, at Billings Central Catholic High School, in Great Falls, Miles City and the last 20 years of his full-time tenure at St. Patrick.
What informed his ministry probably more than anything was the proximity to his ordination in 1964 to the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, a year later.
“Many writers regard it as the most important church event of the 20th century,” Houlihan said. “Certainly it was for Catholics, and it meant a total change in attitude about the liturgy, about how we understand what the church itself is, about how we related to non-Catholics.”
The first six months of his priesthood, he said the Mass in Latin. By the season of Advent, near Christmas, he switched to English.
“For me it was wonderful, it was the way it was meant to be, involving the people in the worship of God in their own language and involving the parishioners in the actual celebration,” Houlihan said.
Eventually, lay people were asked to read at Mass, they were invited to sing and eventually they became Eucharistic ministers. It was a time of upheaval and not everyone in the pews embraced the differences, he said.
“Fifty years later, we take it for granted,” he said. “But back then it was a struggle to make the change.”
Houlihan had an impact of a different sort at St. Patrick. He worked with the congregation over several years to complete renovations on the beautiful but aging building. The rectory also was torn down and a new parish center built to meet all the church’s needs.
Houlihan’s work as a priest hasn’t been without controversy. In 1998, the diocese settled a lawsuit filed by a priest who claimed he was sexually assaulted by Houlihan, although both Houlihan and the diocese denied the allegations.
And again in 2002, the diocese agreed in a separate case to pay a former associate pastor at St. Patrick $35,000 to settle a complaint of sexual discrimination. A Montana Human Rights Bureau investigator reviewed the claim and dismissed it, suggesting it has been filed by the priest in retaliation for Houlihan’s lack of support for the priest in a different matter.
Houlihan declined to talk about the cases, saying his lawyer has advised him against it. But he said the pain he felt then has helped him empathize with those he serves.
When he talks about the future of the Catholic Church, Houlihan often brings up Pope Francis. Houlihan sees the new pope as an extension of what began with Vatican II, a man who cares about people, and especially the poor.
Houlihan predicts Pope Francis will meet the challenge of the declining number of priests, suggesting the church may see changes once unheard of.
“I’m hoping he’ll eventually approve of ordaining married men, and eventually women as well, although that’s probably a little farther down the road,” he said.
For himself, Houlihan has no plans to retire. As long as he’s in good health, he plans to continue his ministry.
That includes substituting for the Rev. Robert Grosch when St. Pat’s full-time priest is on vacation. Grosch also asked Houlihan, who retired from full-time service five years ago, to continue his work visiting the very ill at the hospitals and bringing comfort to their families.
He finds some of his greatest satisfaction in those situations, being the hands and feet of Jesus. He also enjoys the occasional wedding and baptism he presides over, as well as preaching the word of God and celebrating all the sacraments.
It’s all about spending his time among the people he serves, something encouraged by Pope Francis, and the momentous work done 50 years ago.
“Vatican II reminded us that the priest is one of the people,” he said. “We’re not separate from them.”