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Capitol chaplain says he’ll rely on prayer, avoid politics

POSTED: June 11, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press

The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy will take on a multi-denominational flock as the new chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives. His duties include an opening prayer each day and counseling legislators and staff. He is shown in his office at the U.S. Capitol.

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WASHINGTON — The Rev. Patrick Conroy says he won’t be trying to convert anyone as he gets rolling as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, which includes 39 Jews, three Buddhists and two Muslims.

But he says he’ll need "a radical reliance upon the grace of God" in his new job with such a high-powered flock, relying "not just on the breadth of my experience and the cleverness I have."

Conroy, known as Father Pat, is the first Jesuit and the second Catholic priest to take the position.

As House chaplain, Conroy will open the daily proceedings with a prayer, and he will provide pastoral counseling to House members and their staffs. Chaplains have even performed marriage and funeral ceremonies.

Conroy, 60, studied political science in college and at one point dreamed of a life in politics, even of running for the U.S. Senate. Now he said he just wants to avoid political discussions and try to stop the arguments that take place in his head.

"What I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is that whenever I do enter into political thought and political discussion, personally I get more and more upset," Conroy said in an interview in his Capitol office. "I have my political opinions and I can’t understand how anybody else would have anything different. And so often, I’d find myself arguing in my head with people that I would disagree with, and I’d get upset about it. ... I don’t think that’s good for me, and I don’t know if I need that stress anymore."

When he thought about applying for the job, he said, he considered it "a gift from God, precisely because it would be a challenge to me, and an invitation to me to let go of that stuff. ... I never really learned how to disagree with people as graciously as I would like to."

Conroy, who was ordained in 1983, is the 60th House chaplain since 1789 and only the sixth in the past 90 years. He succeeds the Rev. Daniel Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest who resigned in mid-April after 11 years and then recommended Conroy as his successor.

While some question why the House even needs a chaplain, Conroy said his job doesn’t violate the separation of church and state.

"No member of Congress is required to pray," he said. "No member of Congress is expected to pray. I’m not proselytizing. ... I’m merely here to do the job that I’ve been asked to do by the people’s House."

Conroy said his goal will be to become friends with people on both sides of the aisle and to keep them guessing about his politics.

"I hope that Republicans might think I’m a Republican and Democrats might think I’m a Democrat," he said. "No congressman needs to have the chaplain upset with him."

If Conroy does find himself disagreeing with any part of the House agenda, he said he’ll rely on something that has worked in the past: prayer.

Conroy, who has a master’s degree in philosophy from Gonzaga University in Washington state, will earn $178,000. He joked that he tripled his salary, but it will go to the Jesuits, who pay for his housing and expenses.

The House confirmed Conroy on a unanimous vote on May 25, but not before leaders raised questions regarding his membership in the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.

In March, the group was ordered to pay $166 million to more than 400 victims of sexual abuse by its priests in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and Montana.

Some of the abuse allegations came from the Colville Indian Reservation, where Conroy once worked. Conroy, who was never accused of any wrongdoing, called it a clear case of "guilt by association."

Conroy recalled working as an attorney on the reservation, representing tribal members when they sometimes were arrested or convicted on flimsy evidence. One judge in particular irked Conroy.

"I would come home once a week outraged, asking when is that bolt of lightning going to come down and strike this unjust, powerful man?" Conroy said. "I had no power to change him, it was driving me nuts, but what I could do was turn my emotional turmoil and my struggle with this abuse of power into a moment of prayer and blessing on my enemy. I don’t think it changed him, but it did change me."

Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who interviewed Conroy for the job, called the chaplain "one of the most important members of the House community."

"In many ways, the chaplain is the anchor of the House," Boehner said in a speech on the House floor.

Conroy said his obligations will be to minister to all members, which he said would be consistent with the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Our understanding is that the people of God is us, it’s the people, it’s everyone, no matter what nation, race or religion," he said. "They’re all God’s people."



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