Congressional Chaplain Discusses Faith and Politics

by Alex Wasilkoff

 

A crowd of students gathered in Cushing Hall’s auditorium on March 20 to hear from Fr. Pat Conroy, S.J, the chaplain to the US House of Representatives. Fr. Conroy joked with the students before the start of the talk, asking where everyone was from. This Jesuit had connections in almost every part of the country—a theme explored in the rest of the lecture.

Fr. Conroy began the talk with a few bold statements, saying: “I’m kind of a big deal” and “People know who I am.” He named some of the many important people he has met through his ministry including Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Joe Biden, and Timothy Cardinal Dolan. His next PowerPoint slide featured newspapers with him on the front page. Photos of Fr. Conroy leading members of the House in prayer after the attack on the congressional baseball game in 2017 featured prominently in many publications. His other main moment in the media came in 2018 when Speaker Paul Ryan asked him to resign. Fr. Conroy resigned as asked, but a couple of weeks later rescinded his resignation because it was not the Speaker’s role to appoint the chaplain.

 

Next, Fr. Conroy explained some of his responsibilities as chaplain. One of his main duties is to open the House in prayer every day that it is in session. His usual prayer opens, “We give You thanks for giving us another day.” In an aside, he explained how this was taken by some news outlets as a jab at Speaker Ryan after he was reinstated. He cautioned the audience to read news carefully and be wary of such misrepresentations. In addition, his responsibilities include ministering to whatever spiritual needs the congressmen and congresswomen have.

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As a priest working in the US Capitol, Fr. Conroy had some remarks for the BC audience about Church-State relations. His role is often cited as a violation of separation of Church and State, but he reminded the audience that the same men who wrote the First Amendment also wrote the rule mandating a congressional chaplain. Fr. Conroy oversees many visiting clerics who can lead the opening prayer, but he was once involved in a lawsuit because he denied the request of Dan Baker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, to lead a humanistic invocation after making the argument that it was not a prayer. Fr. Conroy won the case.

 

After providing his duties and frame of reference, Fr. Conroy explained his background. He had not explored a vocation to the priesthood before college, intending rather to go to law school and then into politics.

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He said, “The priests I knew growing up were polite, holy, respectable men.”

 

Priesthood had never seemed like an option for him until he met Jesuits while at Gonzaga University. After interacting with them he realized he did not have to stop being himself to be a priest. Following a powerful experience on a retreat lead by Jesuits, he resolved to leave law school and join the Society of Jesus.

 

While he had expected to leave the realm of law completely behind, his superiors sent him to obtain his J.D. prior to theological studies. Fr. Conroy underscored the role of obedience in his life as a Jesuit. He had thought that he wanted to teach in a Jesuit high school, but he instead obeyed his superior. He spent several years ministering to and being a legal advocate for the residents of the Colville and Spokane Indian Reservations. Fr. Conroy said that these first years of his ministry involved lots of difficult work, but he now recognizes the providential role they played in forming him to be a better priest.

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After spending 13 years in college ministry at Georgetown and Seattle Universities, Fr. Conroy’s superior sent him to Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon. He recalled what a surprise this change in assignment was, joking “It certainly wasn’t a career move.” But Fr. Conroy once again emphasized the importance of obedience. Fr. Conroy taught and coached at the school for four years, and then during his yearly conversation with his superior, he was encouraged to apply for the recently-opened position of Chaplain to the House. He was shocked. This had not been part of his plan; however, trusting his superior, he applied for and received the position.

 

Fr. Conroy concluded, “I got this position due to obedience and a trust in my vows.”

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