A serendipitous blessing

As a youth, the Rev. Patrick Conroy dreamed of making it to Congress one day. But not as the House chaplain — as a senator.

“My plan was to go to law school … practice law in Washington state, possibly run for office someday,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “You know, as a young kid daydreaming.”

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Conroy finally made it to Capitol Hill last month, but in a way he hadn’t foreseen as a child. In May he was sworn in as the House’s 60th chaplain, bringing together his life’s calling and long-running interests in politics, law and philosophy. 

While the new position presents Conroy — who has worked on American Indian reservations, at colleges and in one high school — with its unique challenges, it will also force him to face a longstanding love-hate relationship. Politics continues to “enrage” him, he said. 

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Here’s God saying to me, “Here’s your out. Let go of the politics, just be there for people,” ’ ” Conroy said.

Conroy didn’t always know he wanted to be a priest. Born in 1950 and raised in Snohomish, Wash., he attended Claremont McKenna College in California, where he honed his quick wit and people skills in improvisational theater classes with fellow student Robin Williams.

During one improv class, students were asked to share what they would do with their lives. Conroy said he wanted to be “a good Catholic priest.”

 “That shocked me as much as it shocked everybody else,” he said. “That was something I did not think was a possibility for me — not that I hadn’t thought about it.”

The devout Catholic had reasons for hesitating: one, that he had not yet met a single priest that he wanted to be like; and two, that he liked girls too much.

“I didn’t think I was called to celibacy,” he said, laughing.

During a religious retreat in his first year of law school at Washington state’s Gonzaga University, he was asked to make a written commitment to God.

“If you show me what you want me to do with my life, I will do it,” he wrote on a piece of paper, though admittedly skeptical.

Five days later Conroy, also a long-distance runner, went out for an 11-mile jog when his thoughts kept returning to the priesthood. It was then that Conroy went through what he calls an “authentic experience” in which he recognized his life’s true calling.

“At that moment, I decided to join the Jesuits,” he said.

Conroy switched gears, receiving a master’s degree in philosophy from Gonzaga, but later finished his law degree at St. Louis University.

After working as a lawyer for the Colville Indian Tribe in north-central Washington for a year, he began four years of theology training and was ordained in 1983.

He returned to Indian reservations in Washington state, this time as a priest. But after five years, he felt it was time for a change.

“It wasn’t my culture, and a very significant part of who I was: highly educated, interested in politics, interested in the law, interested in philosophy,” he said. “There was nobody with whom I could share that. And even my interest in rock ‘n’ roll; they’re country-western!”

He then bounced from coast to coast, first as a Washington, D.C.-based social justice lobbyist for the Jesuit Social Ministries, then as a chaplain at Georgetown and Seattle universities and later a theology teacher at Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore.

“I was on all cylinders, I was living out the giftedness that God had given me,” Conroy said.

Jesuit High School President John Gladstone recalled his time spent working with the “unique” reverend fondly.

“I wasn’t here a week before I heard kids talking about Rev. Conroy,” he said of the priest, who also coached softball and participated in musical performances. “He has that ability to reach kids and to tell a story. … He’s helped to make us a better school.”

Little did Conroy know that, just as he was starting to desire a new opportunity after six years of teaching, such a big one would fall in his lap.

Father Daniel Coughlin had decided to retire after more than a decade as House chaplain. In early January, Coughlin contacted the Jesuit conference to ask who might be available. For Conroy, the timing was providential.

“It’s not even something I went after,” he said. “It’s another thing that’s come to me.”

Conroy would first face a brief political controversy. After fellow Catholics House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) co-nominated him, Pelosi criticized Boehner for not thoroughly vetting Conroy’s background.

At question was what Pelosi’s office called “new information” regarding Conroy’s work for the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic religious order that had recently reached a $166 million settlement dealing with 400 claims of child sexual abuse.

Boehner’s office dismissed Pelosi’s concerns, and her office later said there was no evidence of any connection between Conroy and the abuse allegations, which occurred before his time with the order. Saying she was satisfied with Conroy’s answers to additional questions, Pelosi reiterated her support for him.

Having yet to speak with Pelosi, Conroy said, “I imagine what happened is [Pelosi] felt blindsided,” adding that church officials have addressed the issue. 

“When somebody asked [Pelosi] about that, I think it caught her off guard,” he said. “And so she was like, ‘He set me up, maybe, or not, or why was he hiding that?’ Which I wasn’t; it just wasn’t about me.”

Pelosi’s office declined to comment further on the matter.

Conroy said his new and prominent role is a bit surreal.

“It will take awhile, I think, for people to feel comfortable with me,” he said. “But it’s the pace of the place; people don’t have time. If they want to come in here, sit down and really get to know [me], there might be some. But for the most part, people are busy.”

Interacting with people of all faiths and beliefs is something he hopes to achieve in his new role. Conroy smiled as he recounted a recent meeting in which Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), one of Congress’s two Muslim lawmakers, greeted him with a big bear-hug.

Meanwhile, Conroy is appreciative of yet another in a long line of exciting and challenging opportunities in his life. Now there is only one dream the Jesuit priest has yet to fulfill.

“I want to be in a feature film,” he said, laughing. “I think it’s going to happen.”

Congressional prayer room offers sacred space

The House chaplain might be new, but the Congressional Prayer Room remains an unchanging aspect of spiritual life on Capitol Hill. 

Commonly referred to as “The Chapel,” it opened in 1955 following a Joint Resolution of Congress. It’s a place for lawmakers wishing to pray, study and reflect privately or communally, according to literature provided by the Office of the Chaplain.

The chapel is used exclusively for private prayer. Other religiously affiliated groups in Congress find their homes elsewhere in the Capitol Complex. 

The Congressional Prayer Room came into existence when then-House Speaker Joseph Martin (R-Mass.) initially offered to convert the small chamber next to his office into a sacred space, according to the chaplain’s website. An interfaith committee of the House and Senate chaplains, a Jewish representative and a Catholic representative served as advisers in decorating the room, whose design aims to “give [no] offense to members of any church,” the website says.

The Congressional Prayer Room features two benches and several chairs for worshippers, an American flag and an ornate stained-glass window depicting George Washington in prayer along with the names of all the states. On an altar in front of the window, a Bible typically sits open to Psalm 23, a passage describing God as a shepherd.

According to the website, the Congressional Prayer Room is intended for the exclusive use of members of Congress, “as befitting a place of prayer.” It is not open to visitors or tours through the Capitol.

Becki Steinberg