Fr. Pat Conroy shares his journey in ministry
After 10 years of serving as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., Fr. Pat Conroy, SJ, is engaging freshmen at Gonzaga University through a campus ministry of presence.
As he lives in their midst and joins them in student dining halls, he is experiencing some of what freshmen in colleges or high schools experience as they transition from being on the top to starting all over.
As a white, male, Catholic priest who needs to listen and learn, he said he is experiencing "voicelessness."
Fr. Pat steps out of the "voicelessness" to share insights from his time as chaplain of Congress when he gives the keynote speech for the 2022 Virtual Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, which is from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 22.
Speaking on "Mobilizing for Our Future," he will tell of his hopefulness in these politically divisive times.
Growing up in Everett, Wash., Arlington, Va., and Snohomish, Wash., the son of an attorney, Fr. Pat was headed for a career as an attorney and politician. He studied political science at Claremont Men's College in the Los Angeles area.
As he began studies at Gonzaga Law School in 1972, he was drawn into the campus ministry where he discovered that "Jesuits were the kinds of priests I could imagine being," he said.
"My religious imagination expanded as did my vocation, which was there from the beginning, and I was able to nurture," he said of his decision to enter the Jesuit novitiate at a hillside monastery near Sheridan, Ore., and completing the two-year program in Portland before returning to Gonzaga University to study philosophy with Jesuit seminarians as a "scholastic."
After he completed a master's degree, his superiors sent him to St. Louis Law School. On graduating in 1979, he was assigned to be a lawyer with the Colville Confederated Tribes until 1980, when he went to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. He earned a master of divinity degree in 1983 and a master of sacred theology in missiology in 1984.
For the next five years, Fr. Pat was pastor for four tribes on the Spokane and Colville Confederated reservations.
With Jesuit education in philosophy and theology and education in political science and law, he felt culturally challenged. In the tribal communities, he felt voiceless.
"Interests and concerns of the people on the reservation were not consonant with my thinking about national, world and political affairs," he said. "In a different culture, I experienced what immigrants and poor people experience: having my voice silenced.
"It was formative for me as a white, American, male, Jesuit to experience how the Lord hears the cry of the poor. It gave me Ignatian insight: how could I maximize my interests and talents, doing a ministry I was not capable of doing in a lifegiving way," Fr. Pat said.
Much as he wanted to live among the poor, he saw it might not be his gift.
"I realized I was gifted to work with freshmen," said Fr. Pat, who served from 1990 to 2003 with college students at the Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
"There, I served some of richest, brightest, most privileged young people in the U.S.," he said, "challenging them to see their privilege as a gift, so they would not be snobs."
He identified with them transitioning from being a big fish in high school to a nobody starting college, as he did when he went to Claremont as a "hotshot" student with his ambitions, but "not God's ambitions."
Mid-year the Oregon provincial leader sent him to Portland, where the Jesuit high school needed a superior to teach theology to freshmen. He was 50 and a Jesuit for 30 years. Fr. Pat found a similar angst as eighth graders transitioned into ninth grade.
The provincial one day asked how he was doing. Fr. Pat expressed his frustration dealing with adolescent angst. The provincial had a request for a Jesuit priest to serve as chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives and thought Fr. Pat, who had studied law and had lived in Washington, D.C., would be good in that ministry.
"I like to think I got the job that was consonant with my gifts and experience by holy obedience," he said, soon aware the chaplain was not ministry as a pastor building a community, but a ministry of presence.
Fr. Pat realized that he would serve 435 people from different cultures and faiths from all over the U.S. and from two different political philosophies.
"My role would be to encourage them to be true to themselves, rather than challenge their political opinions," he said. "Once I figured I would never weigh in on issues, it was easy.
"I might think, 'Oh, my God, this must pass," or 'that can't pass,' but I could not betray those thoughts," he said. "I gravitated to a ministry of befriending members of Congress and encouraging them to be better human beings.
"I did that in a toxic environment arising from unhealthy human living conditions, because constituents demanded that representatives' families live in their districts, not with them in Washington, D.C.," he said, asking, "How could men and women in Congress do their best job if they were separated from their families?
"When I aspired to Congress, representatives lived with their families in Washington, D.C.," he said. "Their wives and children were friends with each other. They had personal relationships with political opponents, which humanized them so they could respect each other."
Now Fr. Pat said his ministry is to educate American voters that it is abusive to demand that members of Congress be separated from their families while doing difficult work.
"My ministry there was to remind representatives of their humanity and of the humanity of other members," he said, noting that recent rhetoric and COVID led to a tribalism and people in cocoons as if to protect themselves.
"The world, nation and communities do not need more conflict. They need peace, reconciliation, healing and hope," Fr. Pat said. "We need to approach our representatives not as warriors on issues, but as bringers of peace and healing."
He does not give in to the despair, disagreement and hate of these times.
"I am hopeful we can each bring reconciliation to our lives and world. I am hopeful because young people elected to Congress bring a different philosophy of government. They are not interested in past political approaches. That can be hopeful or fraught with the worst, but what I see is hopeful," Fr. Pat said.
"Most Americans in their 30s and younger do not buy into theoretical, binary divisions of gay-straight, black-brown-white, man-woman," he said. "That makes me hopeful."
Similarly, most young religious people—whether Baptist or Catholic—do not understand why some churches have a problem with LGBTQ people. Their peers came out, and they know them as gifted people, he said.
"I'm hopeful that young people see the church's exclusion as irrelevant and don't show up," he said. "COVID means fewer go to church. Healthy churches accept people who are different and attract people who want to come rather than coming out of obligation. Students tell us what the church needs to hear."
At Gonzaga, Fr. Pat is thankful that students see no obligation to be in community with him just because he is a priest. He lives in a freshman dorm. His door is always open. He is the only campus minister on campus after 4:30 p.m., when the day begins for students.
His contacts with students mean that as this year's freshmen become sophomores, juniors and seniors, more will know and feel comfortable with him because he hangs out with them.
While he preached only twice this fall at the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass, he started a 10 p.m. Sunday Mass in the dorm and drew 45 because it's convenient and directed at them.
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