A Jesuit chaplain shepherds Congress’ divided flock
IMAGE: CNS photo/Rhina Guidos
By Rhina Guidos
WASHINGTON (CNS) — In his youth, Jesuit Father Patrick J. Conroy pictured himself as a lawyer and a senator, working in the deep recesses of Washington’s U.S. Capitol building. In a way, he’s doing just that but not in the way he imagined.
“I’m not in the Senate, I’m in the House,” he said inside the Capitol, where his law degree from St. Louis University is perched on the wall of his spacious office, along with a lifetime of memories that include a photo of him blessing Pope Francis during his visit to Congress, and one of him next to the Dalai Lama, as well as souvenirs from the American Indian reservation in Washington state where he once offered his legal services. Photos with students from his 10-year campus ministry stint at Georgetown University also are sprinkled throughout.
While the dreams of his youth, becoming a lawyer and working at the Capitol, have been fulfilled, he didn’t initially expect them to come true while wearing an all-black outfit and a Roman collar. In the halls of Congress, just as in the halls of high schools and other places where the Jesuit has worked, he’s known as Father Pat and he entered, not as a congressman or senator, but as the 60th chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives May 25, 2011.
How did he get there?
“There’s a few answers to that question,” said Father Conroy, who loves to tell a story.
“The religious answer that I give ‘ it was an answer to prayer,” he said.
“Something political would come on the radio, I would turn into an angry, argumentative ‘ I’d be screaming at the radio and get totally upset, totally upset,” he repeated for emphasis. “And after a while, I’m by myself, I’d say ‘I have no serenity in the area of politics ‘ I can’t do anything about it but I’m all upset about it, and that’s not helping me and that’s not helping politics any.’ So, I started to pray for serenity, and well, I end up in the one job in the United States where I absolutely have to abstain from politics.”
The other, and more simple, explanation is that the House speaker at that time, John Boehner, was looking for a chaplain and wanted a Jesuit for the spot. Father Daniel Coughlin, the first Catholic to occupy the position, was looking to retire from the post in 2010 and Boehner had been in talks with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Catholic, about finding a Jesuit they could both support.
Father Conroy was then working with ninth-graders in Portland, Oregon, yelling at the news on his car radio, as he frequently did, when a Jesuit superior asked to meet with him. He told him about Speaker Boehner’s request.
“The Jesuits didn’t come looking for this job, for this position, but it was a natural,” he told Catholic News Service. “It’s in our DNA, and sure, if having a Jesuit would be of assistance to the men and women of Congress and the work that they’re doing, by all means.”
Jesuits, he explained, were once spiritual directors and sometimes advisers to princes and kings in Europe, so it’s not an unusual role.
“Our modus operandi is to want to be engaged in the world and engaged in a way that we can influence the most good for the most people,” he said.
With his background as a lawyer and having lived in Washington during previous posts, Father Conroy, who also holds several degrees in theology, seemed like a natural fit.
As the House chaplain, he is responsible for offering a prayer at the beginning of each day when Congress is in session. The nondenominational prayer in the House chamber is broadcast live on HouseLive.gov and on C-Span. It’s also archived in the Congressional Record and is part of the official rules of the House to get the day started.
When the weather is nice and he gets to work early, he said, he sometimes goes to the balcony of the U.S. Capitol for morning prayer. While overlooking the monuments and iconic buildings that line the National Mall along Pennsylvania Avenue, he occasionally asks: “Why am I here?”
“Well, I’m here to pray for the president and I’m here to pray for the members of Congress, the leaders, and so I do a litany that I pray for and ask God to bless them,” and that means leaving personal political views out of it, he said.
“Most of the people that are acquaintances or friends with me here (at the Capitol) are people that I wouldn’t be friends with otherwise, or I wouldn’t hang around with otherwise, or I would only know politically and be inclined not to like, or not to take an interest in,” he said, but because of the unique nature of his job, “I realize that those relationships are more important than my engaging in a political argument or discussion that I was accustomed to doing with my radio.”
Instead, he listens to the concerns of his unusual spiritual flock and in some cases, he helps politicians discern.
“I think it’s why the chaplain’s office is important, there’s that person in this place, who can actually be honest and actually be human, not political, because everything else here is political, everything,” he told CNS.
And that can get ugly.
“It’s not attractive to watch law being made, debated, being argued about and all that stuff, it’s just not attractive,” he said.
Sometimes, as was the case during the heated debate that took place in early May, after the House voted to repeal and replace chunks of the Affordable Care Act, he tries to inject humor.
When the Democrats started singing, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” to Republicans who voted to repeal the health care act (implying they would lose their next election), he told those who were angry at the Democrats’ singing: “Oh, c’mon ‘ they’re singing to you!” as he was passing by.
“A guy laughed,” he remembered. “They’re people, too, and I try to either be neutral or make light of stuff.”
He still has opinions about politics but he’s laser-focused on his role to help all members of Congress without paying attention to political stripes.
“I can think anything I want,” he said. “But I can’t say it. Some people say, ‘You’re there, why don’t you say prophetic things?’ If I did, a week from now, there would be a different person here and nothing would have changed.”
At 66, he now realizes that he didn’t give up any dreams when he joined the Society of Jesus in 1973.
“It’s fascinating to me that God remembered my bucket list,” he said. “I mean, I’m not in the Senate, I’m in the House, but, you know, when I joined the Jesuits, I thought, well, that’s the end of that,” meaning giving up politics and law school.
“There’s only one thing left that I’d really like to do,” he said, “to be in a feature-length motion picture. I was a drama guy.”
When reminded that there’s still time, he answered: “Oh, I know. Well, heck, I’m on TV, I’m on C-Span.”
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