The Oregon Jesuit priest nominated to become the next chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives never sought the post — or even dreamed of it.
"One does not aspire to become the chaplain to a chamber of Congress," said Father Patrick Conroy, a theology teacher, campus ministry assistant and coach at Jesuit High School in Portland.
Father Conroy, 60, long served as a pastor to Native Peoples in the Pacific Northwest.
If confirmed as expected by the 435-member House, the guitar-playing priest will be sworn in as the 60th chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 25.
The current chaplain, Father Daniel Coughlin of Chicago, told House Speaker John Boehner last fall he wanted to retire after a decade. Boehner recalled the Jesuits he knew while in college at Xavier University in Cincinnati and decided he wanted a Jesuit to serve as the next pastor and confidant to House members and staff. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat consulted in the selection process, also knows and trusts Jesuits via the University of San Francisco and having sent her son to Georgetown.
Father Coughlin contacted the U.S. Jesuit office in Washington, which in turn sent out notice to Jesuit provincials around the country. Each provincial put a man forward, including Father Pat Lee in Oregon, who asked Father Conroy, a trained lawyer who had been a campus minister at Georgtown for a decade. After a round of interviews, including a 30-minute session May 4 with Boehner and Pelosi, the plain-talking Father Conroy was offered the nomination.
If confirmed by the House, he would be the first Jesuit, and only the second Catholic priest, to serve in the position. He will be chaplain to all in the orbit of the House, not just the Catholics and not even just the Christians.
In addition to personal pastoral care for lawmakers and staff and their families, the House chaplain opens each session of Congress with prayer to ask God's blessing on the nation and the work of the chamber. The chaplain schedules guests and arranges funerals for the House and its staff. In the past, chaplains have also performed marriages for House members.
“His dedication to God’s work, commitment to serving others, and experience working with people of faith from all traditions will make him an asset to the House community," Boehner said in a press release. Pelosi called Father Conroy "thoughtful and committed," and lauded his work with young people.
Father Conroy was unnerved when his provincial approached him last fall about the possibility. But as time passed, the excitement and glamor turned to a feeling of peace, which Father Conroy says is a classic sign in Jesuit spirituality that a decision was right.
"My thought was, if it happens, glory be to God. And if it doesn't happen, glory be to God," Father Conroy says.
Jesuit spirituality, based on the 16th-century writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, centers on making good decisions. That could fit well in the business of the House of Representatives, Father Conroy says.
"I would hope I'd be able to remind everyone what they're about," he explains. "They are not about winning something so someone else loses, but winning so everyone wins. They are there to serve, not to gain glory."
He imagines most of his work will happen in one-on-one conversations. He aims to help House members and staff discern which urges are coming from God and which are coming from them.
"You need to know the difference," the priest says.
The House chaplain earns $167,800 a year, according to the Congressional Research Service. As a member of a religious community, Father Coughlin does not keep his salary, but turns it into a common fund for Jesuit life and ministry.
At Jesuit High since 2004, he has served as superior of the Jesuit community, teacher of freshman and sophomore theology, assistant coach of the junior varsity softball team, campus ministry assistant, member of the school's board of trustees, chaplain to athletic teams and director of freshman retreats — where he is known for his guitar-playing around the campfire.
"Father Conroy has been significantly involved in the daily life of Jesuit, and his legacy at our school will be enduring," says John Gladstone, president of the Southwest Portland school.
"He is a man of the world and a spiritual man," says Greg Allen, chair of the religion department at Jesuit. "He challenges kids to show up, to be present. He tells them that they matter, that their presence at retreats and liturgy matters and, in a sense, he tells them to show up in the world."
Father Conroy entered the Jesuits in 1973 and was ordained in 1983, having earned a law degree and several theology degrees during formation. From 1984 to 1989, he served as pastor of a mission in Inchelium, Wash., serving the people of the Colville Indian Reservation. From 1986 to 1989, he also served as pastor at the Spokane Indian Reservation.
American lawmakers have had a chaplain since 1774, when the Continental Congress chose an Episcopalian priest to open its legislative sessions with prayer. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the role of chaplains in Congress.
Father Coughlin was chosen in 2000 as the first Catholic chaplain after an imbroglio that included charges of anti-Catholicism. But the controversy faded and Father Coughlin told Catholic News Service in 2005 that his work on Capitol Hill was the "balance of contemplation and action, prayer and reflection, words and listening" he had longed for his whole life.