With the way things have gone recently in Congress, looking to the heavens for some help and guidance might seem like a very good idea. In fact, that’s what Pat Conroy, S.J., M.Div. ’83 is there to do.
It was the first of October, 2013. Days of fruitless negotiations and partisan bickering had passed, and Congress had failed. The government was shut down. Now, after hours of speeches during which lawmakers blamed the other side for the fiscal crisis, it was Fr. Pat Conroy’s turn to offer the first words in the House chamber since the shutdown had begun.
“This is a painful day for many across our land, and the sense of disappointment deepens,” Conroy said in his opening prayer. “May those who possess power here in the Capitol be mindful of those whom they represent who possess little or no power, and whose lives are made all the more difficult by a failure to work out serious differences.”
Conroy is the chaplain for the House of Representatives. His tenure on Capitol Hill comes at a perilous time for Congress. Approval ratings have hit record lows, partisanship an all-time high. The recent government shutdown and debt-ceiling fight have further eroded the body’s reputation.
It’s Conroy’s job to find some kind of middle ground, an often precarious perch he seeks through his opening prayers. The House chaplain says he doesn’t avoid the politically thorny issues of the day but instead tries to find a prayer that can appeal to all lawmakers.
It’s a difficult balance. And during times of governmental crisis like the shutdown, lawmakers and the broader public look to Conroy and his prayers. One senior Washington Post writer led his column on the first day of the shutdown by quoting Conroy’s prayer; that prayer was also shown at the top of the MSNBC show Morning Joe.
Conroy says he tries to emphasize the Jesuit ideals of showing conscience and compassion for the powerless. He hopes that the words will resonate with everyone, no matter their political beliefs.
“The members of this people’s House and all elected to represent our nation might work together humbly, recognizing the best in each other’s hopes ...”
“The last thing I want to do is for my prayers to identify as political,” he says. “I want to make sure my prayers can be heard by everybody as it sounds to them, and not that one side would feel challenged and the other side vindicated in some way.”
His prayers also act as one of the few voices of compromise heard on the House chamber. In the days leading up to the shutdown, Conroy said that “as people look for causes and solutions, the temptation is great to seek ideological position … We ask that You might send Your Spirit of peace and reconciliation, that instead of ascendancy over opponents, the members of this people’s House and all elected to represent our nation might work together humbly, recognizing the best in each other’s hopes to bring to resolution the current impasse over the economy.”
Ministering to 435 college freshmen
To Fr. Conroy, members of the U.S. Congress are a lot like college freshmen. Working from his office in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol reminds him of his old stomping grounds a few miles away at Georgetown University. “I’m like the campus minister,” Conroy says.
It’s a position he held for a decade at Georgetown and three years at Seattle University. Now, though, instead of introducing himself as “Father Pat” to college students, he is building relationships with high-profile members of Congress. While powerful committee chairmen and wide-eyed frosh might not seem to have much in common at first glance, the similarities between the U.S. House and a bustling university campus are striking from Conroy’s point of view.
In both instances, everyone is always intensely busy, he says, and people won’t make time for the campus—or Capitol—chaplain unless the chaplain makes himself available.
“When I was on a college campus, I worked my ass off to get freshmen to leave campus and go on the retreat. They’re all too busy to do that, until they did it,” Conroy says. “And they realized, too, I wasn’t whatever their stereotype of the Church and a priest would be. They take that chance, and they realize, ‘Oh, God, this is the best thing I ever did for my health.’”
Congressmen are the same way, he says. “They know there’s stuff available. But they’ll go because they’ve seen me enough that they might trust me: ‘OK, I’ll come to something else because I kind of like Father Pat.’”
“The Jesuits sent me.”
Conroy, a graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, is the first Jesuit and only the second Catholic priest to hold the position of U.S. House chaplain. Now 63 years old, Conroy is easy enough to spot in the halls of the Capitol. Dressed in a white clerical collar and black suit, he moves at a pace decidedly less harried than that of the representatives and staffers in starched white shirts and red and blue ties racing to the next meeting. He is a jovial presence in the august Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor, where he smiles and greets members taking a minute to chat with him during votes.
Church, state, and chaplains in the chambers
Congressional chaplains date back to the days of the Continental Congress in 1774, when Jacob Duché, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was elected to the position, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report on the chaplaincy. The first House chaplain, a Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia, was elected in 1789.
The Senate also has its own chaplain, who gets an august third-floor office in the Capitol overlooking the National Mall. While the House chaplain is elected to a two-year term like the lawmakers, the Senate chaplain has no set time period.
The congressional chaplain position has seen its share of controversy. In the 1850s, petitions to abolish both congressional and military chaplains complained that they were a violation of the separation between church and state. Later that decade, both the House and Senate stopped electing chaplains and used local clergy.
Critics also complained in the 19th century that the chaplain was overly political; frequent transitions and votes on the House floor with multiple candidates were not uncommon. Since the dawn of the 20th century, however, the position has been extremely stable: There have been only seven House chaplains since 1895.
What about the constitutionality question? At least three court cases affirmed legislative chaplains. The latest was a Supreme Court decision in 1983, Marsh v. Chambers, whereby the high court found that the custom “is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
Conroy is a dynamic and deliberate speaker with a rhythmic drawl that rises and falls with the arc of his stories. And he is working in what might be considered his dream job after he was appointed House chaplain in 2011 by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. That’s because the Jesuit priest had set his sights on becoming a U.S. senator when he was a boy.
Raised in Everett, Wash., Conroy knew the names of his state’s U.S. senators from a young age: Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson, two lions of the Senate who served nearly 70 years combined in the upper house. Conroy earned his undergraduate degree from Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College), planning to get a law degree and become a politician. That all changed during his first week of law school at Gonzaga University, when he had a fateful meeting with a Jesuit priest while standing in line at the student dorm cafeteria.
“I walked in and got in line behind a red-headed guy with a full red beard—this is 1972, so that’s not odd,” Conroy says. “He turns around and he says, ‘Hi, I’m Father Pat Carroll.’” The priest then asked if Conroy was a law student—something Carroll knew because he’d memorized the names of all the new students. It was a trick that Conroy later used himself as a campus minister.
“He and other Jesuits at Gonzaga just expanded my religious imagination,” Conroy says. “I’ve always been Catholic, and I never had issues with that, but I never allowed that I could be a priest because I had stereotypical categories for priests. And this guy didn’t fit that. And there were others who didn’t fit that.”
A year later, Conroy entered the Jesuit order and then earned a master’s in philosophy from Gonzaga. He still went on to get a law degree at St. Louis University, followed by a master’s in divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in 1983. That year he was also ordained a priest.
Conroy practiced law for Native American tribes in Oregon for several years in the 1980s before transitioning to campus ministry at Georgetown, Seattle University, and most recent Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore.
“The Jesuits sent me back to law school, and ultimately the Jesuits sent me here,” Conroy says. “And so now I’m here not because of my ego, and not because I campaigned, and not because I inexorably climbed to get to this place where I wanted to be as a young man. It was actually by following God’s call in my life that I ended up here.”
When he was teaching high school and coaching JV girls’ softball, Conroy didn’t imagine where his calling would take him next. But coaching has offered some perspective on his current post; high school girls, he notes, are much better losers than politicians.
What does the chaplain do?
The official job description for the U.S. House chaplain is surprisingly simple.
“I could sit in here all day long every day and go up and give a one-minute prayer and I’d be doing the job,” Conroy says from his office, just steps from the front entrance to the Capitol. “But I would never see anybody.” Conroy, of course, does much more than that in his day-to-day role as the House chaplain. He describes the essence of his job as “lurking with intent,” which means he goes where the people are: to votes on the floor, committee meetings, or events hosted by lawmakers.
He has to find the lawmakers because they simply won’t make time for him otherwise. Most members of congress follow minute-by-minute schedules packed with hearings, votes, fundraising, and constituent meetings. Plus, lawmakers are only in the Capitol three to four days each week, they work in Washington.
Conroy’s job has taken him to all sides of the Capitol, whether it was giving a prayer at a chairperson’s portrait unveiling or serving as a judge in a cooking competition—which he did as a last-minute replacement when comedian-turned-senator Al Franken, D-Minn., held a “hot dish” cook-off competition for the Minnesota congressional offices.
That year the competition ended in a tie: The two winning “hot dishes,” which is Minnesota’s version of casserole, came from Franken—with “Mom’s Mahnomin Madness,” featuring mushroom soup and wild rice—and freshman Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack, who had scored one of the biggest Tea Party upset wins in 2010 and, in the cook-off, earned another victory with his egg-and-sausage-and-cheese-laden “Minnesota Wild Strata.”
He even had the buttoned-up congressmen getting down and singing along to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
After the new batch of freshman lawmakers arrived in the Capitol in January 2013, Conroy made it a point to reach out to them, just as he would college freshmen. He also introduced them to their fellow lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, something that doesn’t happen so much around Washington these days.
“More and more I’m getting asked to do those kinds of things, by members who I don’t think would give a thought if there wasn’t the personal connection,” Conroy says. “That’s my understanding of what it means to be the chaplain. It’s really to be a companion to very busy people who have tremendous responsibilities in a rather dehumanizing environment.”
I am (next to) Legend
The position comes with some perks. Conroy’s parking spot for his Prius is one of the closest to the Capitol itself. And he got a front-row seat to President Obama’s second inauguration, sitting on the same level as the president on the Capitol steps, albeit 40 yards away.
He was also at the presidential lunch that took place after the inauguration in Statuary Hall, full of former presidents, congressional leaders, and other famous faces. Among them Conroy spotted former President Bill Clinton, a Georgetown alumnus.
“I hadn’t met Bill Clinton, so I wanted to introduce myself as chaplain of the House, and also as chaplain of Georgetown for 10 years,” Conroy tells it. “He says to me something along the lines of, ‘Would you consider that this is a raise?’ That was a pretty good Hoya statement.”
Conroy also caught the attention of his former students at Jesuit High School during the inauguration lunch, because one of the television networks aired a shot of him standing next to singer-songwriter John Legend. Being seen with the classiest R&B singer going carried some weight.
“The kids are like ‘Oh, my God, Father Pat and John Legend!’” Conroy says. “There it was, all over Facebook. Because all the kids out West who I taught were watching … so it was kind of cool.”
A political firestorm
Conroy’s arrival in Washington wasn’t exactly quiet. But then, neither was the nomination of his immediate predecessor—Fr. Daniel Coughlin, the first Catholic to serve as House chaplain. Coughlin was named to the position in March 2000 by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., but only after a major political and religious fight over the chaplaincy.
According to the Washington Post, Hastert had initially selected a Presbyterian minister for the role, but the House speaker faced accusations of bias from Democrats for not selecting a Catholic priest who had received support from a bipartisan task force. The issue even became embroiled in the 2000 presidential campaign, because George W. Bush was facing criticism for visiting Bob Jones University, which has promoted anti-Catholic teachings.
Four months after naming the Presbyterian minister, Hastert instead appointed Coughlin to the role. On the day Coughlin was sworn in, Hastert gave a blistering speech on the House floor accusing Democrats of “an unseemly political game” for alleging he held an anti-Catholic bias.
“Asked afterward if he was aware he was walking into a lions’ den, Coughlin quipped: ‘My name is Daniel,’” the Post wrote that day.
Conroy, too, felt the sting of a political firestorm when he was nominated to succeed Coughlin in 2011. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., let it be known that she was reconsidering her support for Conroy after “new information” came to light about settlements that the Oregon Province of Jesuits had paid out for sexual abuse lawsuits.
While Conroy is a member of the province, he had no connection to any abuse claims or payouts; he even blew the whistle after one accusation against another priest. But his membership prompted abuse victims’ groups to lobby against his nomination. The controversy received coverage in national media outlets like Fox News and congressional newspapers Roll Call and The Hill.
But the alleged scandal died out as quickly as it had blossomed. Conroy followed up with Pelosi’s office—explaining that he had mentioned the legal settlements in his interviews, and that he had no connection to them. Less than 24 hours after Pelosi had said she was reconsidering his nomination, she announced that she would support it.
Conroy looks back now with a bemused attitude toward being the subject of a “Washington scandal.”
“It wasn’t personally about me,” he says. “So while the storm was raging, it was a little like, ‘This is not comfortable’—but also it wasn’t personal, either.”
“I Want It That Way”
Fr. Conroy’s Washington office is full of pictures and memorabilia revealing the wide swath of people he’s known from all walks of life and across the United States. One photo shows Conroy with comedian and actor Robin Williams—the two were in an improv comedy group together when they were undergraduates at Claremont, long before Williams was a household name.
A prayer in the House
Spoken Nov. 18, 2013
Loving and gracious God, we give You thanks for giving us another day.
Help us this day to draw closer to You, so that with Your Spirit, and aware of Your presence among us, we may all face the tasks of this day. Bless the Members of the people’s House. Help them to think clearly, speak confidently, and act courageously in the belief that all noble service is based upon patience, truth, and love.
May they be great enough to be humble and good enough to keep their faith, always regarding public office as a sacred trust. Give them the courage and the wisdom to fail not their fellow citizens nor You.
May all that is done this day be for Your greater honor and glory.
Conroy has a wedding photo of Geoff Tracy, who owns a popular restaurant in downtown Washington and is married to NBC television anchor Norah O’Donnell. Conroy was Tracy’s next-door neighbor in the dorms at Georgetown when Tracy was a student.
Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was also a student of Conroy’s at Georgetown, and he wrote the younger Biden a letter of recommendation to help him enter the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Then there’s the guitar: an acoustic-electric and pick at the ready. They’ve come in handy in Conroy’s role as House chaplain. He went to the House Republican retreat last year with guitar and amplifier in tow for a sing-along with the congressmen.
The priest led the lawmakers through classics like “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Build Me Up Buttercup,” and “500 Miles.” He says he even had the buttoned-up congressmen getting down and singing along to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”
“Everybody groaned when I started,” he says. “By the end of the song they were all standing up and doing the video moves.”
The former campus minister is making the most of his job in the Capitol, even if he isn’t there as a senator. He says it comes close enough that he can cross off “senator” from the bucket list he made when he was young. The other items on the list—lawyer, rock ’n’ roll star, movie star, athletic champion—he’s also fulfilled in one form or another, like being in the improv troupe with a future movie star or playing in a Jesuit rock band at Gonzaga, where he honed his craft covering songs like Three Dog Night’s “Celebrate” and The Beatles’ “When I’m 64.” He hits that mark next year. Conroy says he does not know how long he will remain the chaplain, but he doesn’t see himself leaving anytime soon.
“My predecessor didn’t say much to me, but one of the things he did say was to call everybody by their first name. I do that,” Conroy says. “But he said our real job is just to listen to people—fortunately we work with people who like nothing better than to talk,” he adds, and laughs.
Perhaps, though, it’s too often talking at and not with, as the saying goes—and as the government shutdown shows. In any case, as long as Conroy stays, it’s clear that he has his work cut out for him in the House. The day after the government shutdown began, in Conroy’s prayer he acknowledged the failure of the body he is representing: “Pardon us as we have missed the mark to this point,” he said, before turning a phrase about the responsibilities of those assembled: “And yet, we pray that we will be faithful messengers of Your word and steadfast stewards of all Your gifts.”