Thomas A. Horkan. Photo courtesy of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Thomas A. Horkan, the first director of the Florida Catholic Conference (now known as the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops (FCCB)), is soon to enter eternal life. According to his children, no one could be more willing and ready than Tom and he knows his situation. Thus, before he leaves us, I wish to add my memories of this grand man. I first became involved with State Catholic Conference in 1969 when I was hired as a layman to staff the Ohio Catholic Conference’s new office of Government Programs in the Education Department. State Catholic Conferences were still relatively new at that time and only about twelve states had genuine state Catholic Conferences fully staffed. In 1970, all of the directors met for their summer meeting in Columbus, hosted by our state director, Ted Staudt. It was that August that I met Tom Horkan of Florida for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful, unfailingly kind and bright as could be, Tom made no effort to impress anyone but did so nonetheless.
State Conferences of bishops were an early outgrowth of the Second Vatican Council and its invitation to the Church to invite competent lay people to represent the case of moral values to the political arena. Prior to that, bishops were the only trusted spokespersons before governmental officials. Almost every nascent state Catholic Conference in existence in 1970 had a lay man as Executive Director (soon a religious sister and a religious brother would accede to that role in Michigan and Texas). It was an exciting time. Ohio and Pennsylvania had tuition tax credits for parents of private school children, it was before Roe v. Wade, and the era of abortion simply on request was unthinkable. I learned at that first summer meeting in Columbus that the true wisdom of church-state relations rested with a few of its directors, like Tom Horkan. He told me how he had been practicing law in Miami when its first Bishop/Archbishop, Coleman Francis Carroll asked him to move to Tallahassee and begin to represent the Church before the government of the state of Florida. He told me that he and his wife were full of misgivings, not about representing the Church but about picking up, leaving the practice of law in Miami and moving to faraway Tallahassee. I asked him how he got along with Archbishop Carroll who had something of a national reputation for being irascible and he told me that the Archbishop trusted him and they got along swimmingly, and indeed they did.
After Roe, the pro-life effort within the Church began to grow significantly and Florida, under Horkan’s leadership, began to expand staff to meet the growing needs and expectations of a growing Church. Soon the state Catholic Conferences began to do more than simply represent the Catholic Church before the three branches of government in state capitals. They started serving as coordinating offices for schools, religious education, health care, etc. Tom Horkan had an expert eye for choosing great staff, one of whom, Dr. Michael McCarron, remains as Horkan’s only successor to this day. But a great measure of the success of our state Catholic Conferences was not how they satisfied the Church they served, but the respect and esteem they gained from legislators and members of the Executive branch. To this day, we continue a practice begun by Tom Horkan of meeting with the governor once a year and we often are the recipients of gratitude for the integrity and assistance which our women and men in the FCCB in Tallahassee have and share. Tom Horkan got it all started well and he served with honor and distinction, a true Catholic layman as envisioned by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council and a cherished person in the history of the Church in Florida for over fifty years. With failing eyesight but unfailing mental acuity behind the scenes and never interfering since his retirement, he remains a fountain of wisdom to many. There are many priests, religious sisters and brothers who stand out as bright lights of the Church on the Florida peninsula, but Thomas Horkan in the modern era stands alone for his love of and service to the Church of his baptism.
Tom, I hope Mike McCarron or your daughter can read this to you today and I regret that I am unable to be at your bedside, but I will do everything I can to be present at your funeral as you have been present to me during my fifty years of service to the Church we love. May the angels lead you into paradise, dear friend. You have earned a place in eternal life with your wife so keep working for us that have not yet earned fully our entrance “ticket.”