By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. – Father Pat Conroy, S.J., the first Jesuit chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, returned to alma mater Gonzaga this month and delivered a captivating public lecture about his experiences. In an interview before returning to the nation’s capital, he remembered the Gonzaga spiritual retreat that transformed his life.
Fr. Conroy discussed his House chaplaincy Oct. 10 in a lecture at Cataldo Hall – the spot where his 39-year Jesuit vocation was sparked by a student retreat. In the interview, Fr. Conroy recalled the 1972-73 academic year when he was a fiercely strong-willed, longhaired, first-year Gonzaga School of Law student with a big red beard who planned to become a U.S. senator – until the Search retreat changed everything.
At the Search, students were asked to take out a sheet of paper, and write a commitment to God. Conroy wrote, “God, if you tell me what you want me to do with my life, I’ll do it.” He crumpled up the paper, and threw it in the fireplace, as directed, thinking nothing would come of it. “God doesn’t talk to people like me,” he recalled. A long-distance runner at that time, he embarked on an 11-mile run five days after the retreat. Strangely, thoughts of the priesthood filled his mind. Conroy never thought of things while running. After the run, he took a shower, sat down, and said to himself, “Wow, that was really odd.”
Then he went to dinner at Cataldo, and sat with two friends who had encouraged him to do the Search. One friend asked him if he had made a commitment to God.
“At that moment, that run was God’s answer to my promise,” he said. “Now I tell you that story and you think, ‘Well you could have interpreted that differently.’ Anybody could, but not me though, not me. I got the answer. That changed my life. That changed my life. I mean, I was going to be a lawyer and a politician.” Click the video below to watch excerpts from an interview with Fr. Conroy in which he discusses his House chaplaincy position and the Search retreat.
Fr. Conroy’s priestly service includes six years working with Native Americans on various reservations, a one-year stint as a lobbyist for the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C. He served nearly 14 years in University Ministry work, directing freshman retreat programs at Georgetown University (four years) and Seattle University (three years) and Georgetown again (six and one-half years). Before being sworn in as the 60th chaplain of the House last year, he spent eight years as a teacher, coach and adviser at Jesuit High School near Portland, Ore.
Fr. Conroy said none of his experiences has been transformational as was his call to vocation, which happened at Gonzaga.
A woman living on an Indian reservation once told him that his prayers healed her of a very serious disease. Fr. Conroy said he was happy she did not get better before his eyes or he might have thought he, not God, healed the woman, which he said would have made his work impossible.
“Then, I might start thinking, ‘Boy, I’ve got something here,’” Fr. Conroy said, emphasizing that his ministry works only because “it’s not about me” but God acting through him. This is especially true with his work as House chaplain, he said.
“This ministry is not about me. It’s not about my cleverness and it’s not about my background or what I know about the law or what I know about politics,” he said. After all, Fr. Conroy was asked by his provincial to apply for the House chaplaincy.
“The great blessing to me is this is a ministry that came to me. I didn’t go out and get this,” he said. “That’s very comforting for this Jesuit after 39 years of being a Jesuit that I really am missioned to do this.”