The Daily Declaration was granted exclusive online access to the 2020 American documentary Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, produced by Family Theater Productions, part of Holy Cross Family Ministries. Following the life of Irish-American priest Fr Peyton from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, this hour-long film emphasises the importance of family prayer and faith in God.
Patrick Joseph Peyton was born into a large subsistence farming family in the village of Attymass, County Mayo, Ireland on 9 January 1909. An unruly boy, Patrick left school at Grade 6, and tried his hand at various jobs. He dreamed of becoming a missionary priest, but as a school dropout, he was not accepted into seminary.
Patrick decided to sail for America with his brother Thomas, to earn a better living for his family. They left Ireland, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again. Before his departure, Patrick’s father knelt with him before an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in their living room, saying,
“Be faithful to Our Lord in America.”
Seamus Mulligan from the Irish Cultural Centre of New England noted:
“Faith was a significant factor in the life in Ireland. It was just as important as food or drink.”
Fr Peyton recalled:
“Every night I would hear my mother call us to pray, and then my father would lead us in the Holy Rosary. To see a man who lived totally what he believed, left an impression on me even as a little child, that nothing could erase.”
In America, Patrick’s first job was as a cathedral janitor. In that place of prayer, his longing to be a priest deepened. When a Holy Cross priest came to preach a parish mission, Patrick and Thomas met with the priest and applied to Notre Dame seminary. Patrick turned out to be an excellent student, and if the theology professor was unable to teach a class, he would assign the young seminarian in his stead.
However, in October 1938, Patrick started coughing up blood. Diagnosed with tuberculosis and bedridden for a year, he was given the choice between an invasive, risky operation, or prayer. At that point, his professor Fr Cornelius Hagerty came to visit, and said,
“I know you’ve got faith in you, Pat. You brought it with you from Ireland. Your mother gave it to you, just as her mother gave it to her… Believe.”
Young Patrick reflected on his professor’s words, and began to pray fervently. “I want to be a priest. Deliver me from this sickness.” He soon felt an improvement in his breathing and profound spiritual peace. He persuaded the doctors to take fresh X-rays; incredulous, they informed him that he would live despite all odds.
A priest from his congregation, Fr David Guffey, observed that Fr Hagerty was in effect saying,
“You have a relationship with God. It’s already there, but you have to believe in that relationship and trust in that relationship.”
Patrick was ordained on the same day as his brother Thomas in 1941, at Sacred Heart Church, Notre Dame. He was determined to spend his life giving glory to God for his miraculous healing. The globe was in the throes of World War II, and Fr Peyton realised that for world peace to occur, it had to start from the home, from families building and maintaining a relationship with Christ, the Prince of Peace. He decided to get 10 million families to pray the rosary together.
The rosary is a scriptural meditation on the principal events in the life of Jesus, starting with the Annunciation of His conception and ending with His return to Heaven. It developed from the monastic tradition of praying all 150 Psalms every week (sometimes all in one day), rooted in Jewish traditions of prayer. As laypeople were mostly illiterate and could not learn the psalms, they began to pray 150 Hail Marys in honour of the Incarnation (based on Luke 1:28 and Luke 1:42), interspersed with the Lord’s Prayer and Glory Be to the Holy Trinity. Fr Willy Raymond of the Holy Cross Congregation explains:
“The Rosary is the life of Christ through the eyes of His mother Mary, who knew Him best and loved Him the most on this earth.”
Fr Peyton went to New York and spoke to a lady from the Mutual Broadcasting System about launching a Christian radio program. The non-Christian woman told him he had to enlist the star power of Hollywood. Although Fr Peyton had no training in show business and was naturally shy, he managed to persuade several A-list actors, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, James Dean, Jack Benny, Grace Kelly, Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball and Loretta Young to promote his prayer crusades, starting on 13 May, 1945.
Sometimes people questioned the personal morality of the stars he roped in, but Fr Peyton optimistically replied that they might receive graces from the mission! Even President Harry Truman, raised a Presbyterian and later associated with the Baptists, joined him for a radio broadcast encouraging prayer for peace in the world and families. President Ronald Reagan, a staunch Presbyterian, also participated in Fr Peyton’s show.
One of the pioneers of evangelisation through mass media, Fr Peyton established Family Theater Productions in 1947, branching into film and television. His company went on to produce more than 800 radio programs and 83 TV specials, bringing Bible stories to life on the screen. George Lucas of Star Wars fame received his first film credit as an assistant cameraman in a short film on Psalm 42 produced by Fr Peyton.
Inspired by a Jewish advertising associate, Fr Peyton came to popularise the phrase: “The family that prays together stays together.” He exhorted men:
“Make your wife glad, forever, that she had a husband like you. Make your daughter and your son remember, forever, with joy, that they had a father like you. Men have the power to bring our Holy God into the home that you live in, if you will do it.”
Massive prayer rallies were held throughout America — a newsreel account of one held in Golden Gate Park describes its audience as the largest crowd ever assembled in San Francisco. These rallies spread internationally, taking Fr Peyton to far-flung places like Belgium, Spain, the Philippines, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru and Brazil. By the time of his death, he had preached his message of prayer to 28 million people around the world. His 1985 prayer crusade in Manila, with two million people, was credited with the peaceful overthrow of the tyrannical Marcos regime. As Fr Peyton was fond of saying:
“A world at prayer is a world at peace.”
Fr Peyton once remarked:
“When people ask, ‘Father, I know what you stand for, but what are you against?’ I say that I’m not against anything. I’m so busy being for things, that I don’t have time to let the things I’m against encroach on my schedule. I’m for God, for prayer, for peace, for justice, mercy, truth, love. I’m for racial harmony and a better sharing of the material riches God has disposed for us on this green planet. I’m for everything that ennobles man, and exults women, and enshrines children. The things I’m for crowd out the things I’m against. But first of all, I’m for prayer, family prayer. The world hasn’t got a prayer without yours.”
Pray is a profoundly moving film, with amazing personal testimonies of healing and family blessings, including the gift of children to a couple who struggled with infertility for many years. There is a masterful use of archival footage, allowing us to peek into the past and witness Fr Peyton speaking to the crowds, inflaming them with his sincere love of God. You can rent or buy it via the official website.
[Featured photo: Fr Patrick Peyton CSC, speaking at a rally in Barcelona, Spain in 1965.]