I am the 60th chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives and have served in this office since May 2011. Over these years, I am often asked what my job is.
Principally, my job is to open the House each day with a prayer. House Rules II.5: “The Chaplain shall offer a prayer at the commencement of each day’s sitting of the House.”
There are often guest chaplains who provide this prayer, usually when a member of Congress has formally requested he or she might serve as the guest chaplain. Though I do not edit any prayer that is proposed (they are submitted ahead of time for insertion into the congressional record), I ask guests to be mindful of the religious diversity of the membership in the House.
Because I am the chaplain to all 435 members, as well as the supporting staff, Capitol police and thousands of employees at the Capitol, I do my best to offer prayers that the work being done on the Hill is all for the greater glory of God. In short, I ask for a miracle every day — a nonpartisan miracle. Should the content of my prayer ever dip into what might be considered political or policy content, the question I ask myself is whether both sides of the aisle are being challenged or encouraged.
It is never my intention to become the “news,” but on one occasion my prayer did become that. The government had just shut down on Oct. 1, 2013. A prayer not acknowledging the reality that surrounded the House seemed empty, so I offered this:
“May those who possess power here in the Capitol be mindful of those whom they represent who possess little or no power, and whose lives are made all the more difficult by a failure to work out serious differences.”
Imagine my surprise, and mild embarrassment, to hear my voice opening MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” the next morning with these very words! Not what I was after. But in retrospect, one could see what set the prayer apart from so many others: I was praying for our entire nation and gently admonishing all members of the House to attend to the suffering of their constituents.
I think as priests we often find ourselves needing to challenge those to whom we preach and for whom we pray. Personally, those times cause me to reflect on my own failures and weaknesses, so that however I couch my words, there is a hint of compassion and hope, because I am in so much need of those things myself.
Finally, though my specific ministry is uniquely “political” in context, as American priests we are pastors to and praying for Americans. The Catholic Church has flourished, in history, within the constitutional form of government we enjoy. Government does not enforce Catholic teaching — nor do we want it to! But it is important to keep in mind that government does not enjoy the moral purity of religious tenet or teaching, and unintended consequences often accompany issues and the votes around them on single issues.
While we might have the certainty of a given moral principle, conflating that with the certainty of a political issue or candidate is simplistic. We, and our fellow Catholics, must be more sophisticated than that.
Thus, let us pray, when we do so, that we be enlightened by the Holy Spirit and, that having studied the issues and politicians, ask that our admonitions and political actions might be always for God’s greater honor and glory.
Father Patrick J. Conroy, SJ, is chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.