Last week the Rev. Patrick Conroy spoke to Gonzaga University students about his role as the 60th chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Conroy, who graduated from Gonzaga with a master’s degree in philosophy in 1977, is the first Jesuit priest to serve as House chaplain. He was appointed in 2011.
Before traveling back to the capital, he sat with SpokaneFAVS to discuss his ministry.
The answers to the Q&A below have been edited for length.
Besides praying at the opening of every House session, what else is included in your job description?
The answer to that is that there isn’t an overall job description. What’s described in the brochure is that I provide an opening prayer each legislative day as well as offer prayers at national and capital celebrations, and am available to members and their staff and capital police and people who work at the capital for spiritual support and counseling. That’s a functional description but not a job description.
The House of Representatives is made of both Christians and non-Christians. How have you approached that?
I believe the holy spirit inspired the American experiment in the sense that you had men coming together in 1785 to begin to form a government whose business, where they came from, was always begun with a prayer. So New Englanders, who were almost all Anglicans, came to do government business with Presbyterians who had always done business as Presbyterians. It’s like they were looking across table thinking, “I’ve never prayed with your kind before.” They never prayed as community together because they were different religions and now they’re looking around at one another saying, "We need to begin with a prayer." History, as I’ve read it, is that Samuel Adams recommended an Anglican minister he’d heard pray, say the opening prayer. He gave an interreligious prayer that all these men from different religious traditions could say amen to. That was perhaps the first time in history where men and women could be politically united without having to be religiously united.
It is possible for us to prayer together. It’s possible to form a union without having a religion to bind us; it doesn’t have to be part of cement that makes that work. We are nation that God is intimately involved in, like he is in all the world, so I am quite comfortable believing God is much bigger than us. I’m willing to trust that God is present and that my ministry is to bear witness to that presence of God to everybody, not just Christians, but everybody in Congress and everybody in U.S. I believe God is in everything and my way of praying needs to be mindful of that rather than proclaiming a denominational description of the way things ought to be.
It’s election time and I imagine there’s a lot of tension in the House. What are representative’s hearts heavy with?
For the most part most people who have made it to the House of Representatives know what they believe. They know what their politics are and have long been able to articulate that from within their own religious commitments. But I’ve got friends that have talked about those things and use me as their sounding board.
These are important things, but who is this about? Is it intense because it’s about me or you? Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, we each have one vote. I don’t think anybody is changing anybody’s mind. Sooner or later we have to realize that what will be will be and it’s a question of what do you do with that? Go on being frustrated, angry or judgmental? However the election comes out, we have to go forward together.
What is your prayer for members of the House?
My formal prayer is that the members of the House would be gifted with wisdom, charity, understanding and the desire to do whatever is best for the nation. It’s pretty generic, but I mean it and so far I think the members who hear my prayers and know how I pray can say amen to that. My prayer really is a prayer to God, or the universe if you’re not a believer, that there would be a wisdom that would descend for the common good.
Not everyone, like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) for instance, was thrilled with your appointment to the House. Do you think your role as a Catholic priest is to help heal some of the wounds inflicted by the Catholic Church?
The only way people are healed is by having a personal experience that heals or changes the position they are in. The people who have been victimized, or love people who have been victimized, have every reason to be protective and vigilant.
I think every religious denomination could have their own share in this because religious organizations are made of human beings and human beings have done awful things in our histories. I understand these Catholic priests did these awful, awful things, but I’m not that Catholic priest. I’m aware that when I dress like this and walk down the street or walk across the capital, someone may look at me and get a chill up their spine because of a bad experience they’ve had with someone dressed like me. In being the persecuted one I’m joining any number of people who suffer similar judgment by virtue of who they are — people of color, gays or lesbians, whatever it is, they suffer that everyday as well and they can’t do anything about that and they’ve done nothing other than be who they are to suffer that kind of thing. Now, I do not feel like I suffer persecution, I’m not that arrogant, but it’s uncomfortable to be the trigger to that firestorm. I represent something they’re rightfully upset about.
How has serving as chaplain to the House of Representatives impacted your own faith?
If anything, given how highly visible and public my position is, it’s given me the focus that this is so much greater than me. And so, the egocentric giftedness that I bring to office diminishes everyday. This isn’t about my cleverness, it’s not about my skills, it’s not about my intelligence. In a very real sense the things I pray for are so much beyond my ability to do anything about. The intention of the people with whom I work are so much about the history of the world, doing things and engaging in things that will affect the history of the world, I have to shrink back from that. In terms of my own spiritual life, my own sense of what it’s like to be a priest or chaplain, I really am an insignificant part of the work that God is doing; the work God has to do, not me. I’m asking God to do the heavy lifting, that’s what I do and as long as I remember that I think I’ll be doing pretty well. When start to think that my cleverness or the content of my prayers are what makes a difference in anything, then it’s time to go.