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. Now, he said, he just wants to avoid political discussions and try to stop the arguments 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."
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."