(Photo: REUTERS/Jim Bourg)
As Christmas approaches, U.S. House Chaplain Father Patrick Conroy said there is a sharp contrast between the charitable, peaceful and hopeful nature of the season and the often painfully partisan atmosphere in the Congress.
For many, the Christmas season is a joyous time that inspires charity, hope and happiness.
"The magic and wonder and the hope of Christmas is there," Conroy described to CP.
Yet for others, economic hardship, loneliness or general sadness overshadows the season.
"It's also a sociological phenomenon that the time of the holidays when we're supposed to feel all of those [good] things, it's also a time of great angst and anxiety and pain and suffering for many people precisely because the hope and joy are lacking," Conroy said.
The latter mood, he said, best describes the atmosphere in the U.S. House of Representatives where Republican House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) selected the Oregon Jesuit to serve as its 60th House chaplain.
Although Christmas is a holiday that inspires giving and sharing, in the halls of Congress economic woes have caused anxiety and painful divides among the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats.
“The political combat that is going on right now, I understand from just about everybody, is as contentious as it’s been in decades,” said Conroy.
In a past interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he described the political bickering this way: “The Democrats just want to kill jobs and the Republicans just want to protect millionaires.”
Polls show that neither party is winning the argument with the American public.
After the supercommittee set up by the Budget Control Act to reduce the national deficit by $1.2 trillion announced its failure last week, the majority of Americans (55 percent) blamed both parties equally, according to a Gallup poll. Nearly a quarter of Americans (24 percent) blamed Republic committee members and 15 percent blamed Democratic committee members.
Congress’ approval rating has also fallen to an all-time low of between 11 and 15 percent among Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Conroy sympathizes with the representatives. The former university chaplain said that much like the students he counseled at Seattle and Georgetown Universities, Congress often has hard tasks to accomplish in the weeks and days leading up to the holidays.
"It is, I think, a tough time for men and women of Congress who are men and women just like the rest of us who have their own hopes, fears, insecurities and brokenness and are trying to do heroic things in service to their country," he said.
Part of the problem, Conroy said, is that there are few times when Republicans and Democrats socialize with each other.
Chuck Colson, prominent evangelical and former special counsel to President Richard Nixon, recalled in a January interview with The Christian Post that political foes once debated on Capitol Hill and then met for drinks afterwards. Today’s political atmosphere, compared to those times, has “gotten really bad.”
Father Conroy’s job as the 60th chaplain of the U.S. House of the Representative is, as he described it, to pray for the House as an institution and also for individuals.
Additionally, Father Conroy said that many congressmen and women no longer move their families to Washington, lessening the chance for dinner parties and other social get-togethers at the home.
He told CP that he hopes to provide a neutral person whom members can turn to.
Since he became chaplain in May, Conroy navigates the halls of the House, sitting in on floor votes, attending committee meetings (mainly those of the House Rules Committee) and working out in the congressional gym. He maintains a visible profile in the hopes that Congressional members on both sides will visit him for spiritual guidance, help and advice.
He also told Christian network CBN that he hopes that his presence around the building will impact members to try to build bridges with other members.