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Chaplain for the U.S. House shares his story: The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, S.J. talks politics, Jesuit values with JCU community

November 1st, 2012

As the election season draws to a climax, Congress has taken a six-week recess until after the polls are closed. While most members of Congress are using this time to campaign for their seats, one member of the House of Representatives has been using this time to visit Jesuit colleges around the country.

The Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, S.J. is the chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, and came to John Carroll University last Thursday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m. His discussion focused primarily on how he became the official congressional chaplain.

“To me, [it’s] an odd story: I was teaching high school freshmen for the last eight years, and I was the assistant coach of the JV-2 girls softball team – those are my credentials. I basically tell my story… How [is] a softball-coaching high school teacher the 60th chaplain of the United States House of Representatives? My answer to that is, by being obedient to my Jesuit superiors,” said Conroy.

Conroy’s message on Thursday was particularly relevant because of his experience as a university resident minister at Georgetown and Seattle universities.

“When I was a chaplain with college students, [in] most of my preaching, as opposed to my daily conversations, I would try to challenge the complacency or the behavior of college students,” he said.

Between 2003 and May 25, 2011, when he was sworn in as House chaplain, he taught freshman theology and coached the JV softball team. As the chaplain for the House, he has enjoyed engaging in the political system that America has to offer.

“The chaplain is there for the […] human realities and the human challenges, the human pains and sorrows, and the human joys, and all those kinds of things, so that these men and women who are called away from their homes in service of our country … the chaplain is there to ease that service,” he explained. “I’m becoming an advocate for the American way, for the American form of government and the institution of the House of Representatives – the glorious reality that we have this participative democracy where, oddly enough, there’s an understanding that the state’s responsibility is not theological. This is not a theocracy; and yet, it guarantees faith.”

He said it was his experience in college that helped him discern his vocation in the Society of Jesus. As a professional lawyer, he explained, he would have never had the opportunity to work with the Colville Confederated Tribes, an American Indian tribe of the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington.

But as a Jesuit brother, he was able to use his legal skills to help represent the tribe in local courts. He also “represented Salvadoran refugees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ immigration office,” according to the House of Representatives website.

Although he never anticipated becoming the chaplain for the House of Representatives, it is a position he has truly enjoyed, especially during this election season.

“When I chose to enter the Society of Jesus, I was leaving behind a career in law and the U.S. Senate,” he said. “And now I’m in the House of Representatives … That’s why this is so bizarre for me – If I were not a Jesuit [and] had gone to the United States Senate, I would not have started out on an Indian reservation. And teaching high school would not have happened. I think it’s a fascinating story … And I have to say for me, that as a way of life and a choice of life really paid off.”

However, Conroy did note the challenge of working in such a hotbed of political action. The hardest part for him so far has been dealing with how much misrepresentation occurs on the floor of the House.

He said it’s very difficult to watch some of the politicians, of both parties, get up to the podium and misrepresent their opponents’ views for their own gain.

“It’s not like they’re telling straight lies – it’s this kind of thing: Mitt Romney has said, ‘Don’t worry about the poor, I don’t care about the poor, because they have a safety net.’ But a Democrat will say, ‘Mitt Romney says he doesn’t care about the poor.’ Yeah, but there’s a reason he says that. And you might disagree with that reason, but don’t say, ‘He [doesn’t] care about the poor.’ And for Republicans, don’t say that if you’re a small-business man, Barack Obama doesn’t think you’ve worked hard, because he didn’t say that – it came out of his mouth within the context of, ‘You didn’t build the infrastructure,’ but they’ll [Congress members] get up on the floor and tell that half of a statement in public. And that’s not honest; that’s not true,” said Conroy. “But this is political drama, and everyday, it’s like, ‘Will you stop?’”

“I hope that I would never get to the point where when people are doing that it just washes right off me; I don’t want to become inured to lying,” he continued.

For students, he believes that discerning what God intends for everyone is the most important part of the formative years of college.

He said, “Come to know who you are, who God has gifted you to be and is calling you to be. I believe, and it is Jesuit spirituality, that it is God’s will for you that you be happy. And I don’t mean frivolous at all; I mean that the total maximization of who you are as a person, what your hopes, your desires, your talents all come together in such a way that you’re living a fulfilling life and, not selfishly, but in service to others, whatever that means [for you]. Your gifts and your talents are not just for yourself; we hope you’ll become men and women for others. My belief, and our belief as Jesuits, is that you will be happy; you will be fulfilled. If you set out to live a selfish life, you won’t be [happy].”

He leaves students at JCU with an old Jesuit tagline. He said, “When I give the prayer [in the House], my closing tagline everyday is, ‘May everything that is done be for your greater honor and glory. Amen.’”