Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

Congressional Chaplains Try to Instill Civility in a Quarrelsome Flock

The New York Times recently featured the work of the two men in the unique position of Congressional Chaplain, and how, among many things, they are working to foster civility between the parties. Jesuit Father Patrick Conroy, who was sworn in the post this past fall, says he looks to the Society’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, for guidance in his job, who taught the importance of recognizing “godliness in the other.”

Jesuit Father Patrick J. Conroy invited all the members of the House of Representatives and their families to the holiday reception he was hosting last month as the chamber’s chaplain. He put out hot cider, cookies and a not-quite-functional chocolate fountain, and for the benefit of the children he picked up his folk guitar to perform “The House at Pooh Corner.”

Amid the well-organized cheer, though, Fr. Conroy noticed one subtly disquieting scene. It was apparent that two of his guests, representatives from opposite sides of the partisan aisle, and both sent to Washington to do the nation’s business, had never even spoken directly to each other before.

Nearly five months before that Christmas party, the chaplain of the Senate, the Rev. Dr. Barry C. Black, offered the opening prayer for a rare Sunday session. The Senate was deadlocked along partisan lines on a measure to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. The imminent prospect of a default on government bonds or a downgrade of the federal credit rating had not been enough to overcome the fierce dispute between Democrats and Republicans.

“Save us, O God,” Dr. Black pleaded in his prayer, “for the waters are coming in upon us. We are weak from the struggle. Tempted to throw in the towel. But quitting is not an option.”

In these two episodes, one private and the other very public, one can grasp the unusual and supple roles being played by the House and Senate chaplains. At a time when Congress is stunningly unpopular, with approval ratings in various recent polls around 12 percent, Father Conroy and Dr. Black serve as pastors to what must be one of the most reviled congregations in the country.

That harsh reality puts these clergymen in the position of trying to nurture civility within this fractious flock and trying to explain to a skeptical public that all is not as dire and broken as much of the citizenry plainly believes. They encounter senators and representatives not through speeches and sound bites but as participants in prayer breakfasts and Bible studies, or in casual moments in the Capitol’s cloakroom or restaurant or gym.

Very different paths brought the ministers to their respective roles. Dr. Black, 63, a Seventh-day Adventist, spent 27 years as a Navy chaplain, rising to the rank of rear admiral, before being appointed to the Senate position in 2003. He is the first African-American to be a Congressional chaplain. Father Conroy, 61, a Roman Catholic from the Jesuit order, had devoted much of his career to college chaplaincy and social-justice work. Named to his House post last May, he is even newer to the job than the chamber’s 87 first-term members.

“I’m dealing with a Crock-Pot,” Dr. Black put it, referring to the Senate’s reputation for deliberation. “He’s got a microwave.”

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Jesuits Join With Other Religious Leaders to Protect Programs for Poor During the Debt Crisis Debate

Late last night, President Obama and the leaders of Congress hammered out a down-to-the-wire deal to raise the federal debt limit, finally breaking a partisan impasse that had driven the nation to the brink of a government default.The deal could clear Congress as soon as tonight — only 24 hours before Treasury officials said they would begin running short of cash to pay the nation’s bills.

Jesuit Father Thomas Smolich, president of the Jesuit Conference of the United States, recently added his signature to an ecumenical and interfaith “Circle of Protection” Statement urging the Federal Government to protect programs for the poor. The statement was signed by more than 50 leaders of Christian denominations, organizations and religious orders across the country and marked the strongest and most unified Christian voice in the budget debate. In it, these leaders asked Congress and President Obama to remember that the most vulnerable who are served by government programs should not bear the brunt of the budget-cutting burden.

The Jesuits continue to urge people to reach out to their elected officials today to reiterate that Congress should give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult economic times.