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Will the pope’s visit to Congress bring a political miracle of unity?

When Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress, he'll speak from the same podium where Father Patrick Conroy, chaplain of the House of Representatives, delivers the opening prayer each morning. Father Pat joins Gwen Ifill to reflect on the pope's visit and his own role as a spiritual resource for a polarized group of lawmakers.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, tomorrow Pope Francis heads to Capitol Hill, where he will address a joint meeting of Congress. The pontiff will speak from the same podium where the House chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy, delivers the opening prayer every morning.

    Conroy is a Catholic priest and a Jesuit who has served as the chaplain for both Georgetown University and Seattle University, and most recently taught high school students, before coming to Washington, D.C.

    Gwen sat down with Father Pat, as he is affectionately known, to talk about the pope's visit to Capitol Hill and the interesting flock he tends.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Father Pat, thank you so much for joining us.

    So, here you are on Capitol Hill. The pope, the big boss, is arriving. Is that exciting?

    REV. PATRICK J. CONROY, Chaplain of the House of Representatives: Well, I imagine the pope's coming is exciting for any Catholic. His coming is exciting for me, although I'm not all that anxious about it, because I know that I'm going to get to meet him.

    And it will be the first time that I have will met a pope in my lifetime. And so it's a great blessing to me and kind of, you know, how did this happen that I actually get to greet him here at the Capitol.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    As the Catholic chaplain of the House of Representatives, the opportunity to greet Pope Francis, does it carry a special weight? Does it make you a much more popular guy than you were a couple of weeks ago?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Wouldn't that be nice?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    I don't know that it makes me more popular.

    Most of the questions that — at least around here, that came my way was when he was elected. You know, this guy's a Jesuit. What I would like to point out is, all Jesuits at some point in their training have to teach high school students. And I think it's been noticeable with Pope Francis that, when he says things, it's like people are like, for the first time say, geez, I can understand this guy. I understand what he's saying.

    And because of that, a lot of people think he's been saying a lot of new things. And, of course, what a lot of the commentators would tell, if you have been following it at all, is that he hasn't been saying a lot of new things.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But there's been different emphasis.

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    There has been that. There's no doubt about that.

    But when he talks about — for example, he talks about the economy needs to be in service to people, you know, not to stock options, not to corporation earnings, but needs to be in service to people, that is longstanding Catholic teaching.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You make an interesting point.

    Doctrinally, he's the same as any previous pope.

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    He's the pope, after all. But people are reading him differently. They're reading him as more accessible, as more concerned about social justice.

    Is that a correct reading?

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Yes.

    The perceiving part is actually true. The previous popes were also concerned about social justice. It was just that their way of communicating it was usually in more church talk and church language and reference to church documents, which most people know nothing about.

    And so, when Pope Francis talks, he's talking about the poor as he personally has known them throughout his entire ministry in Latin America.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    As a spiritual resource for a Congress which doesn't always get along…

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Always?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Always, ever get along.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Does that make your job really difficult or do you just see through it?

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Well, no, that's what the job is, I guess, you know?

    In an odd way, most of my Jesuit life has prepared me to be here. As a campus minister, I was working with student populations that were arguably plurality, if not majority Catholic. But I was working with all students. So my coming here and working with a diverse population is what I have been doing most of my ministerial life anyway. And so that hasn't been hard.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Except this community is severely polarized.

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Well, that's true.

    Here's the thing that would have been difficult. And I have found this difficult when I have slipped into it, is thinking that my ministry was to fix or heal that polarization.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's not?

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Well, certainly, one hopes that my presence and influence could do that.

    But if I were thinking that that's what my job were, I would be in therapy, deep therapy, now and maybe not even here. But when I understand or when — the way I have chosen to see this is that my job is to pray every day for a miracle, to ask God to work a miracle here.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let's put this in the context of the pope's visit.

    The pope's visit, does it provide an opportunity for that miracle, or access to that miracle, some sort of unity?

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    Pope Francis is a remarkably attractive individual. And I have had, actually, a number of non-Catholic and even non-Christian people say this to me. He makes me want to be a better person, or he makes me want to be a better Christian, or he makes me want to be a better Jew or some — so, there is something about the pope's authenticity that people seem to be responding to.

    This isn't message. This is, like, authenticity.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    A prayer for authenticity, I like that whole idea, Father Pat Conroy.

    Thank you very much for talking to us.

  • REV. PATRICK J. CONROY:

    You're welcome.

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