Chaplain provides counsel, guidance

House Chaplain the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy’s reach extends well beyond the opening prayer at the start of each session of Congress. 

As Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) put it while welcoming Conroy to the lower chamber in May 2011, the chaplain is in many ways the “anchor” of the House, and Conroy’s Capitol Hill office is open not only to members of Congress but also to their staff and congressional employees to provide guidance and personal counsel. 

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As the 60th House chaplain, and a student of politics, Conroy is only the second Roman Catholic and the first Jesuit to serve in the position. He spoke to The Hill about his ministry, the relationship advice he dispenses to his flock and what he has learned over the last two years.

The Hill: How have you reached out to the new members of Congress? What do you do to welcome staff and members of all different faiths and regions?

The Rev. Conroy: I was in university ministry for 13 years and I would get a hold of the facebook of incoming freshmen every year, and by the time they’d arrive I’d learned everybody’s name, everybody’s first name ... and I did the same when I was moved to high school ministry. When I arrived, I had the yearbook from the year before and I knew every student’s name. Well, that’s one little thing that I have here. I can greet, and do greet, every member by name, which for a lot of them that’s not happening here or they’re new and they don’t expect to be — they understand it takes a while — but at least I can greet them and welcome them and congratulate them.

The Hill: You received some attention during the “fiscal cliff” debate when you mentioned “compromise” in your opening prayer. How do you balance differing political opinions with the nonpartisan and open nature of your role here?

Conroy: My prayer that day was that a compromise would be found that probably everyone would feel they had to give something up, so that there wouldn’t be a political victory. It wasn’t about a partisan victory or a partisan advantage, but that all sides would have to compromise somehow to a solution. I felt that was an important prayer, because I’m not expecting anyone to do anything because I said it. I’m asking God to give the grace that something greater than any of the parts would come out of this, so that it’s calling for something greater than maybe any one person brings. 

My prayer every single day is along those lines: It’s like, “God, give these people the grace to work together to do what’s best for our country.” That’s kind of my prayer every day, so maybe, maybe because the word “compromise” was in there that triggered the political juices, but it certainly wasn’t intentional on my part.

The Hill: What services do you offer in terms of relationship and marriage guidance to House members and staff?

Conroy: There is no menu of services provided, so I’m learning myself. [If] there were somebody who had a family situation or who were interested in getting married, or a baptism ... if they work here, then certainly they should feel free to contact me. 

The only wedding that I’ve done was for a staffer for a congressman. The congressman was from way out West. She’s a staffer for him and her fiancé works for a law firm in the city, and they met while they were students at Georgetown years ago, so it wasn’t like there was a home place, so it makes sense to have the wedding here. 

I had to get permission from the Commonwealth of Virginia to do a Justice of the Peace kind of wedding. So I did that as the chaplain of the House, not as a Catholic priest.

I was asked by a congressman to do his wedding here in the Capitol in the Congressional Prayer Room, but it was trumped by my mother’s 90th birthday, and he understood right away.  

The Hill: What advice did you offer to the staffer whose wedding you officiated? 

Conroy: My message that day, which wasn’t very long at all — because it was a civil ceremony — was that this couple is making their vows to one another, but also to us as a community, and asking that we also now recognize that they are a couple and that that’s what we expect from them, but that’s also what we hope for, and that we’re here to say ‘amen’ to that. 

The Hill: Do you have any specific relationship advice for House members, who lead very public lives?

Conroy: I haven’t had a lot of members talk to me about that, and I think that that speaks to the natural dynamic of people feeling comfortable enough to talk. ... So that the longer that I am here, I’m thinking the greater trust or confidence that any member would have that they could come and talk to me and maybe get some wisdom back. Now, what I would say to any member of Congress [is] that you’re a human being first, and if you’re denying your own humanity by you name it, that that is a bad way to do this. That is a bad way to be a congressperson.

The Hill: Now that you’re coming up on two years as chaplain, what have you found to be the most valuable and fulfilling part of your work here?

Conroy: I’ve [had] a number of members tell me that it’s important that there’s a chaplain. They appreciate that there’s somebody, like the chaplain, that’s there and isn’t political or isn’t a player in what all the energy is around here, but there’s somebody that represents, somehow, something that’s greater than all of this. ...

For me personally, there are some members of Congress that they’re not necessarily the most well-known and most famous or the most outspoken even, but [they’re] truly heroic people and truly servants of the Constitution, the House of Representatives and the people they serve.

I feel fortunate that my own prejudices get disabused by the humanity of the people I get to meet. ... For most Americans these are the icons, they’re bigger than life, and they are, but I get to meet them as people that become my friends. I don’t mean friends in the sense that we hang out, but I mean I can have friendly conversations and learn about their family and learn about other things and talk about whatever we talk about, and that’s great.



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