WASHINGTON — The early-morning sun is rising over Capitol Hill as Jesuit Father Patrick Conroy walks up the marble steps of the Capitol building.
He passes through a hall of marble statues on his way to his office underneath the famed Capitol Rotunda. He then makes his way to the House of Representatives chamber, where, as the new chaplain, he will offer a short prayer to open the day’s legislative business.
“This is one of those things where you almost can’t believe it’s happening,” Father Conroy said during a recent interview.
Father Conroy, 60, was still meeting lawmakers and their staff members and learning when and where the various congressional prayer meetings are held.
“I have a one-minute prayer to open the legislative session, and, after that, I’m done. Right now, I don’t know anybody,” said Father Conroy, who was confirmed as the House of Representatives’ chaplain on May 25. But as he meets more people and becomes familiar with the landscape, Father Conroy expects his daily schedule to increasingly become hectic.
Father Conroy, a native of Washington state, is only the second Catholic priest, and the first Jesuit, to serve the House. He was nominated after the House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Catholic who graduated from Jesuit-run Xavier University, said he wanted a Jesuit to replace Father Daniel Coughlin, who served for 10 years and was the House’s first Catholic chaplain.
Just minutes before the House confirmed Father Conroy’s nomination by unanimous voice vote, Boehner said Father Coughlin had recommended Father Conroy, whom he believed would be a “worthy successor.”
“It’s clear this loyal servant of the faithful is uniquely suited to serve as chaplain of the people’s House,” Boehner said, adding that the chaplain is one of the most important members of Congress.
“In many ways, the chaplain is the anchor of the House,” the Republican speaker said.
Since 1789, a chaplain has been elected at the beginning of each Congress to minister to the House. The U.S. Senate has also had a chaplain since it first convened in April 1789.
A Little History
In addition to opening proceedings with prayer, the chaplain provides pastoral counseling to congressional members and staff, as well as coordinates memorial services, presides over prayer breakfasts and leads other ceremonies.
The chaplain’s tenure in the House tends to run more than 10 years. In the last 60 years, only four other chaplains have served the House.
“As the House has grown, so has the role of the chaplain, who members, officers and staff look to for advice and counsel,” Boehner said.
“The chaplain also sees to the well-being of this institution, which serves people of all faiths, and a nation that has always put its trust in God.”
Father Conroy, who celebrated the 28th anniversary of his ordination on June 11, was serving as chaplain for Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore., when he learned in November from Father Patrick Lee, the provincial of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, that he was being considered for the position.
“I see this as not about me, but more about as much as the Society of Jesus,” said Father Conroy, who in April interviewed with aides for Boehner and the House democratic minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Three weeks later, Father Conroy interviewed directly with Boehner and Pelosi.
“I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel that I had to ‘make or break’ this. This was really something I was doing by the grace of God. If I got the position, great. If I didn’t, great. I never felt anxious or nervous.”
There was a short-lived controversy that accompanied Father Conroy’s nomination — when Pelosi raised questions in May after she learned that the Jesuits’ Oregon Province had agreed in March to a $166.1 million bankruptcy settlement involving 500 active claims of physical and sexual abuse in five states.
The nomination upset some victims’ groups who were angry that a priest from the Oregon province would be nominated for the chaplaincy. Father Lee, the Oregon provincial, said in a statement that Father Conroy was “an excellent priest worthy of the nomination made by Speaker Boehner” and added that he “has never been the subject of an allegation of child abuse.”
Pelosi gave Father Conroy her full support after obtaining more information and deciding that there were no obstacles to his confirmation, according to published reports. Those reports also indicated that Father Conroy had blown the whistle on at least one abuse case at a prior position.
His pastoral touch, combined with an educational background in political science and two stints as the chaplain for Georgetown University during the 1990s, also helped equip Father Conroy for his current assignment.
“Capitol Hill is like the Major League version of the minor leagues I experienced at Georgetown University,” he said.
“At Georgetown, you have very bright, focused, aggressive students who are planning to make a big difference in the world. So, now, I’m on the Hill, and it’s adults working at the same helter-skelter pace. The stakes are a little bit higher. There are a lot of highly motivated people who want to make a big difference in the world, but it can be overwhelming, with little opportunity to step back and take time for the soul and spirit.”
Helping the lawmakers reflect on their responsibilities and to remember their humanity is one of the chaplain’s key roles.
“I think the chaplain’s job is not to preach, proselytize, but to help the men and women on the Hill, the staffers as well, remember who they are and that by the grace of God they are here and have a responsibility to serve,” Father Conroy said.
“I try to bring a human face to them.”
He has seen some signs of the partisanship and political polarization that has marked Congress in recent years. Father Conroy believes that has happened because lawmakers from both parties, and their families, do not socialize together as often and instead travel to their districts on the weekends.
“The human face has been lost on the other side of the aisle, so the only exchange is that between political opponents,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to go after an opponent if you don’t know them as a person. That’s just human nature.”
Bipartisanship was in order, however, at Father Conroy’s confirmation ceremony. Speaker Boehner and Pelosi and his predecessor introduced him to the chamber. Father Conroy was then instructed to stand in the well of the House, where Boehner led him in reciting the chaplain’s oath. Several of the new chaplain’s friends watched the proceedings from the House galley.
“It was one of those things were you can’t believe it’s happening,” Father Conroy said. “It had an Alice in Wonderland quality to it. It was all very solemn and very impressive, and I was thinking, What the heck am I doing here?”
Seeds of a Vocation
It was a journey that began as early as high school, when Father Conroy first suspected his priestly vocation. He was raised Catholic by his parents, who were married at St. Peter’s Church in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the congressional staff’s office building.
“I always considered being a Catholic priest to be about the best thing a person could do with their life,” Father Conroy said.
However, he struggled to discern his vocation, even as he attended Claremont Men’s College in California. That changed shortly after a college retreat, where he had asked God to show him his life’s calling.
Father Conroy said he had been thinking about the priesthood when a friend asked him about the retreat. He discerned that ordinary question as God’s way of telling him to pursue the priesthood.
Father Conroy went on to serve as pastor of several missions and parishes in Washington state. During the 1990s, he served as chaplain of Seattle University in between his stints at Georgetown. He was enjoying his experience as a high-school chaplain when this new opportunity arrived.
“This is very different from teaching high-school freshmen,” said Father Conroy, who still enjoys playing the guitar and attending sports games.
Father Conroy said he often hums a song as he travels to his job from the Jesuits’ Washington community house, located four blocks northeast of Dupont Circle.
“So far, everybody has been gracious,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting to know all the members of the House — and getting to know them as people, not their political positions.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.